A Vincentian Response to Baltimore
By Jack Murphy, Atlanta, National Voice of the Poor Chair
Three weeks ago, I flew to Baltimore for a meeting. After landing, I received a text from our host that Baltimore was in a state of emergency and we would have to move our meeting to the Offices of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
It wasn’t until returning home that I realized just how explosive the situation was. But I don’t believe Baltimore, or Ferguson are isolated situations. I think that many US cities are just one incident away from similar explosions.
Like many, I’ve read about the growing wealth gap and the difficulty many citizens in many cities have moving from one socioeconomic class to another. This is not a small, nor merely statistical, problem. Drive through the poor areas of many cities and it is easy to see neglect. Roads with potholes and boarded up stores are the symptoms. The real problems are much deeper.
We have communities that are excluded from opportunity – jobs have been lost and services drying up each day -a nd it is easy to see why people may have given up hope that their voice will ever be heard. We’ve moved from communities with an opportunity ladder to those filled with poverty quicksand. Unfortunately, one incident can be all it takes to mobilize those forgotten voices in our communities—to give the disenfranchised a reason to take to the streets in an effort to be heard.
This situation is not new to our times:
“For if the question which today disturbs the world around us is neither an individual question nor a question of political forms, but a social question; if it is the struggle of those who have nothing with those who have too much; if it is the violent shock of opulence and of poverty which makes the soil tremble under our tread-our duty as Christians is to interpose ourselves between these irreconcilable enemies, and to bring about that the one may despoil themselves … that equality may operate as much as is possible among men; that voluntary community may replace taxes and forced loans; that charity may do that which alas justice knows not how to do. It is a happy thing, then, to be placed by Providence on a neutral ground … to act as mediator.” (Letters of Frederic Ozanam, Ainslie Coates, trans. New York: Benziger, 1886, pp173).
Just like those days, people are so frustrated by their inability to thrive that many feel their only alternative is to take to the streets. Unfortunately, the violence and destruction by some distracts from the message of the many. “I’m working but I still can’t provide for my family.” “I’m not the same color as those in power and I feel I pay the price at every turn of the law enforcement wheel.” “I made some mistakes when I was younger and now can’t get back on solid footing after serving time in prison.”
Vincentians hear those messages every time we encounter need. We see the effects of this widening gap between the haves and the have less. How do we insert ourselves between these camps? And why should we be concerned about people in blighted areas when we have so much need in our own parish conference?
“The Eucharist reminds us that our commitment as Catholics to work for peace and justice in the world is not born of some ideology or political platform; rather, it is born of a person, Jesus Christ. Therefore, our “solidarity” with the world of pain is a call to a commitment expressed in allegiance not to lofty propositions but to concrete persons in whom we are to see the face of Christ – this solidarity is lived out through the practice of what the Catechism calls the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
God takes the side of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized – through the works of mercy, the saints show us that we too can and must take their side as well.” (Homily by Thomas Wenski, Archbishop of Miami, Feb. 7, 2015 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, D.C.)
There are certainly times when adding our voice to the process can be helpful. Speaking with a federal legislator about the benefits of SNAP (aka food stamps) can bring a convincing perspective. Our economic status (aka ability to contribute to campaigns) often gets the attention of a Congress in a different way. Of course bringing the stories, as well as someone impacted by poverty, to the conversation still brings the ultimate power to the conversation.
The work we do in our ministry, much like public benefit programs, makes a huge difference in the lives of individuals and families. But they can only go so far in changing communities. For that, we need a different approach.
It’s not a question of just getting more money for public assistance or redistributing the wealth or telling poor people to stay together as a family. Our primary contribution to heal this situation is our spiritual ministry, drawn from our founders who said that we must remember there are Christians in both camps and our job is to get the two camps together.
Bringing hope to alienated communities may seem like a stretch. But it is the same exercise as the direct service we bring to every home we visit. It starts with prayer and the belief that we can help. It then moves to listening and exploring options.
Rather than doing this only with individuals or families, community change must include wider audiences. Instead of visiting in pairs, we go as parishes. Not to bring sandwiches or bottled water, but to listen with our ears and our hearts—to truly insert ourselves between the two camps. If you want to make a difference in a community, bring your parish to a listening session with a group that doesn’t look like your parish. If you are a suburban conference, visit an urban conference to get to know each other, to walk in each other’s shoes. If your conference is in a blighted area, visit a rural conference to compare notes. If your Council doesn’t have a conference in an area of civic neglect, then start one.
These are difficult challenges to address. Please don’t get me wrong—disenfranchisement certainly will not be solved by holding hands and singing Kumbaya (although that’s a start). Reinstalling ladders of opportunity will only begin by real engagement and empathy building.
The “haves” must discover that all of the “have not’s” are not cheats and lazy. The “have not’s” must realize that the “haves” are not all greedy, uncaring people. The only way to do that in any lasting way is to treat the problem in a slightly larger way than our current model…bring hope to one zip code at a time.
Let me end with two quotes by ordinary people who did extraordinary things in their communities:
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi
“Let us complain less of our times and more of ourselves. Let us not be discouraged, let us be better.” Blessed Frederic Ozanam (Baunard, Correspondence, p.304)