January 31, 2014

The faces of poverty: Gospel mandate calls Catholics to serve our brothers and sisters in need

Andrew Costello, second from left, leads a prayer on the night of Feb. 21 as members of Operation Leftover take to the streets of downtown Indianapolis to provide food, clothing and conversation with people who are homeless. The group of young adult Catholics dedicated to helping the homeless is based at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. Costello prays with a man who is homeless, left, and two other members of the group, Michael Gramke, second from right, and Kellye Cramsey. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Andrew Costello, second from left, leads a prayer on the night of Feb. 21, 2013, as members of Operation Leftover take to the streets of downtown Indianapolis to provide food, clothing and conversation with people who are homeless. The group of young adult Catholics dedicated to helping the homeless is based at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. Costello prays with a man who is homeless, left, and two other members of the group, Michael Gramke, second from right, and Kellye Cramsey. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By David Siler (Special to The Criterion)

For several years, the U.S. bishops have designated January as Poverty Awareness Month. As Catholics, we are invited to become even more aware of the magnitude of poverty in our country and, more importantly, the issues faced by individuals and families in poverty.

In this special package, we hope to expand our understanding of the problems, dispel some of the myths about people in poverty and increase our compassion for those who are suffering—all with the goal of leading us to provide help, grounded in faith, to people in need.

(Related poverty stories: Common myths and stereotypes | Government programs | A pastoral to address Hoosiers)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty” declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union speech, giving us an added opportunity to take a step back and ask ourselves: “What is the current state of poverty? What is working? What is not working?”

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has been spending a great deal of his ministry as pontiff directing our attention to the needy and most vulnerable among us. He is inviting us back to the most basic call of the Gospel—to serve.

During a meeting with the Missionaries of Charity at a homeless shelter in the Vatican called Dona di Maria, Pope Francis said, “You tell us that to love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly concrete: It means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters, the face of Jesus.”

From compassion to transformation

Poverty can be defined as the exhausting, unending, time-consuming struggle of juggling and hoping to make ends meet with no end in sight.

It is the daily stress of having to choose between paying the rent, the electric bill, medicines or food.

It is the constant, daily worry about whether the car will break down or someone will get sick or your child will need a new pair of shoes.

How is poverty defined in Indiana? It is defined here the same as every state. In 2013, the federal government classified a family of four as “poor” if its gross income is less than $23,550; for a family of three, $19,530; for a family of two, $15,510; and for an individual, $11,490.

It is likely that almost half of us growing up in Indiana will be poor for at least a brief period by the time we reach age 65. For those who have or will never experience poverty, it is nearly impossible to understand the sheer helplessness, hopelessness and sometimes terror that accompanies a time of poverty.

To those blessed to escape the ravages of poverty, Pope Francis would tell us, “Poverty is learned with the humble, the poor, the sick and all those who are on the existential peripheries of life. Theoretical poverty is of no use to us. Poverty is learned by touching the flesh of the poor Christ, in the humble, the poor, the sick, in children.” (“Address of Pope Francis to the Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superiors General,” May 8, 2013.)

For those with no personal experience with poverty, it is often common to have very false notions about why people are poor or why they don’t just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

The prejudices faced by the poor—especially the chronically poor—are many and certainly do not serve to breed compassion or understanding nor do they help make things better for individuals or communities. Compassion, born of our relationship with Jesus Christ, is what is needed for transformation.

The faces of poverty

Sharon is a 36-year-old mother of three children: Aubrey, 7; Jason, 5; and Bella, 19 months.

Sharon, who has a slight learning disability and only made it through eighth grade, grew up in an extremely poor family in the inner city of Gary, Ind.

She married Stan when she was 29 after becoming pregnant with Aubrey. Stan worked as a supplier to a local steel mill. Although Sharon never worked outside the home, they were able to make ends meet. About two years ago, Stan developed lung cancer that was not detected until it was very advanced. He died six months after he was diagnosed.

With only an eighth-grade education and some learning challenges, Sharon has not been able to find any meaningful employment.

She has applied for and received some federal benefits, but she lost the house they owned and is now living in a subsidized apartment in a very violent area of town. Sharon’s parents died several years ago, and she only has one sister who lives in Kentucky and has had a lifetime battle with drugs and alcohol.

How might Christ ask us to intervene in the life of Sharon and her three children?

Another person’s challenge

Cooper never knew his father. His mom, acknowledging that she had made a huge mistake, moved as far away as she could after Cooper was born, knowing that his father would not be a positive influence on his life. Since Cooper and his mom left Arizona 27 years ago to be closer to family in rural Indiana, to his knowledge, his father has never attempted to contact him.

Cooper has struggled with drugs since the age of 13. He has been arrested seven times, and is currently serving time in a state prison after robbing a liquor store. He is taking high school courses in prison and hopes to earn his GED. Cooper will likely get out of prison within the next 18 months, but he has no idea how he will survive. His family has essentially disowned him, and he has never worked an honest day in his life.

Cooper acknowledges that his anger over never having a father and his anger toward his mother for moving so far away contributed to his drug use and the crimes that he committed in an effort to support his habit. He wants another chance, but does not know how he will make it.

How might Christ challenge us to respond to Cooper? †

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