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Catholic laity and religious on poverty: an account of how the preferential option for the poor manifests itself in the lives of some Catholics.

THERE IS NO DEBATE ABOUT the fact that poverty in the US is a huge issue. According to the US Census update in 2004, there are 33.5 million impoverished people in America. The Urban Institute estimates that in 2000 there were 3.5 million homeless people (1.35 million of them children). Anecdotal evidence suggests those numbers have increased.

There are two ways of dealing with poverty, both of them essential. One way is direct service, providing food, shelter, clothing, etc. The other way is systemic change--appealing to the hearts and minds of people, including policymakers, to change the systems causing the poverty in this country and beyond.

Catholic social teaching makes much of the call for a preferential option for the poor. This call reflects the requirement on Catholics to seek out and help the poor, to work with them to improve their situations and to be constantly mindful of how our actions and decisions affect the less fortunate in our communities. So what have lay Catholics and religious orders done about poverty? From the start Catholics have been centrally involved in both direct service and systemic change.

One of the better known Catholic antipoverty efforts is the Catholic Worker Movement. Founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day (a convert to Catholicism) with Peter Maurin, it remains committed to "nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken." As part of Day's calling, she opened her doors to those who were impoverished and without homes. Inspired by the Beatitudes, she and her friends offered direct service in the form of housing, food and clothing, and campaigned vociferously against the violence of war.

Catholic Workers continue to provide the direct services needed to keep people alive. Yet, they also do systemic change work. Today, there are more than 185 Catholic Worker houses throughout the US, and in almost every major city and rural area these houses have opened their doors to our homeless brothers and sisters as well as provided a commitment to nonviolent resistance against systems that oppress people.

Nowadays, outside of the Catholic Worker Movement, it is often hard to tell specifically what lay Catholics are doing against poverty, because so much of the work is ecumenical.

On a national level, changes in the church have created some useful opportunities to help the poor. For example, as the number of nuns dwindles, some orders find that they no longer need the large convents of the past. In a number of cases, sisters have renovated their former convents to provide transitional housing for homeless people. Transitional housing provides supportive services while people are trying to find steady employment and housing of their own. Some religious sisters have moved out of teaching or providing health care and found second careers in offering services for the impoverished.

In Chicago, where I live, Catholics are involved in soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters. We do not do it on our own, but join with people of many faith traditions. That in and of itself is a witness to a way to help those impoverished by our society. Many soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters are supported by churches of every denomination, including Catholic but also Jewish, Protestant, Muslim and others. Every major religion calls on its adherents to remember those marginalized and left out of the systems we live in.

There are many other local examples, small and large, that give a snapshot of the work that Catholics are involved in.

During the early 1980s, in the Uptown district of Chicago, on an incredibly cold and snowy winter day, people woke to find the frozen body of a homeless man on the sidewalk. A shocked community came together and founded a shelter program in the basement of local churches. They initiated a campaign to change zoning laws so that people without shelter could temporarily stay in these locations without requiring major construction work (something they could not afford). Each church would take a night to open their doors, suburban Catholic churches provide food for the shelters and lay Catholics volunteer to ensure the program continues.

Elsewhere, Sr. Rose Marie Lorentzen, a Sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary living in Aurora, III., founded PADS--Public Action to Deliver Shelter as another means to end homelessness. As a part of its mission, PADS not only provides shelter, it also provides information about the existence of homelessness in the area and strives for positive legislative and policy changes to try to end the need for shelter pads. However, as the numbers grew, Sr. Rose Marie knew that PADS, while good, could not provide all the services needed in the Aurora area and asked then-Mayor David Pierce for help. The mayor offered her the use of a derelict former incinerator. Local opposition grew and Sr. Rose Marie was under pressure from other bureaus within the state threatening to withdraw funding if she opened the shelter. Sr. Rose Marie fought the bureaucracy and Hesed House opened in 1985. (Hesed is a Hebrew word referring to "God's unconditional and everlasting love that seeks justice on behalf of the least of God's people.")

While working at Hesed, Sr. Rose Marie worked to pass "Charlie's Act" to allow homeless children to be bussed to the school they were in before becoming homeless. (This was based on the "Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act" which was the first--and remains the only--major federal legislative response to homelessness.) Research shows that homeless children fare better if they have some stability in their school even if they do not have permanent shelter. To this day, more than 20 years later, Hesed House is helping to provide transitional housing, shelter, clothing, food and much-needed social services for the most impoverished in this area.

Other religious sisters have begun transitional shelters and other social services throughout the country. Throughout the United States and beyond, Sisters are providing shelter for women and children. The Institute for Women Today in Chicago addresses issues of domestic violence as well as homelessness and hunger among women and children.

The 8th Day Center for Justice, a coalition of 40 congregations of Roman Catholic religious women and men is celebrating 30 years of faith-based systemic change work. What began as a group of five staff from five different congregations has grown as the need for systemic change has grown over the years.

Driven by our faith and the call for a preferential option for the poor, 8th Day has worked with many coalitions to address basic human needs. We see this as a human right comparable to any other addressed by the United Nations.

The very first issue that the 8th Day Center for Justice addressed in 1975 was hunger. The food stamp program was almost impossible to access due to bureaucracy. Recognizing this, 8th Day started a program called Food Justice, which provided a hotline for those people who needed food stamps but couldn't beat the bureaucracy. In the meantime, Food Justice gave out information on direct service operations such as food pantries and soup kitchens in local areas. Food Justice spun off as its own nonprofit organization and continued until 1998 when the Illinois Hunger Coalition took over the responsibilities on a larger level.

The 8th Day Center did not stop there. We worked for increases in welfare assistance including food stamps and funding for affordable housing and homeless prevention as part of the Public Welfare Coalition, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness, Homeless on the Move for Equality and Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. From the beginning of its existence, 8th Day did not work alone, seeking out coalitions working on similar issues to help organize people to alleviate poverty.

We all know that whatever gains we make can be eroded overnight. Hurricane Katrina showed that dramatically. Yet, that will not stop Catholics who take Catholic social teaching seriously. No matter what the gains or losses, we are called to stand with those who are impoverished and marginalized by society. Catholics continue to provide the direct services needed for basic needs as well as challenging those systems that allow for poverty. It is our legacy, our present and our future.

SR. DOROTHY PAGOSA is a Sister of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis. She works in the Social Justice Programs at the Eighth Day Center for Justice in Chicago, concentrating on human rights and domestic poverty issues.
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Author:Pagosa, Dorothy
Publication:Conscience
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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