Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday. We gather with family and friends to give thanks for the many gifts we Americans enjoy. In communities across the country generous people will share dinner with those who have not shared in those gifts. For religious communities, the Sunday before Thanksgiving is an especially good day to stand in solidarity with poor people. Poor people matter and there are far too many of them. For Christians, care for the poor is inseparable from faith in Jesus. Last week, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, newly elected president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, joined Pope Francis in his “option for the poor.”” He said that he wanted, on behalf of the whole church, to speak for the “voiceless and vulnerable.”
The prophetic voice of the church is needed because, honestly, most of us don’t think about poor people much because we don’t see them. A half century ago political writer Michael Harrington touched the national conscience and sparked a “war on poverty” when he wrote of “the other America.” That was an America of poor families in urban ghettos and rural hollows, dimly glimpsed as people went by on commuter trains or new highways. A quarter century later a quiet, scholarly priest, Oscar Romero, Archbishop in war-torn El Salvador, raised the ante. He was martyred as he stood with ‒ and for ‒ those he called not “the poor” but “those who have been made poor.” Made poor, we might ask, by whom?
That is a tough question. Why are poor people poor, and what, if anything, do we have to do with that?
Some say the answer is character: poor people have only, or mostly, themselves to blame. If they would marry, work hard, and play by the rules, the poor would not be poor, or at least not “really poor.” Others say it’s not character but conditions: poverty comes about because of inadequate housing, racial and gender discrimination, poorly performing schools and, most important, not enough jobs. Fix those things and fewer people will be poor.
While the argument goes on, hugely expensive “safety nets” barely survive and the democratic goal of “liberty and justice for all” fades into memory, no longer an aspiration that shapes the lives of people, whether they are poor or not.
But, wait ‒ outrage about poverty is coming back. New mayors in New York and Boston are putting inequality at the top of their agenda. Urban school initiatives build on the long delayed promise of equality of opportunity. Soup kitchens and food banks testify to growing human needs, but also to popular desire to be with ‒ as well as for ‒ the poor. Then there is Pope Francis whose presence on the world stage has reminded all of us – even those Catholic Bishops last week ‒ that they have always tried to be on the side of the poor.
And they have.
Years ago, millions of Catholic families of European origin went from poverty to prosperity with the help of unions, politics, public and parochial schools, and the church. Today, millions of Latinos and new immigrants are trying hard to do the same and the church is helping.
When Presidents Kennedy and Johnson waged their short-lived war on poverty in the 1960s, the bishops enlisted. The church participated in government-sponsored anti-poverty programs and launched its own war on poverty, the Campaign for Human Development (CHD). Catholic Charities was already the nation’s largest network of social services but CHD was different.
Funds collected in parishes provided resources for grass-roots, popularly controlled cooperatives, community organizations and economic development projects. In recent years CHD (now CCHD, the word Catholic added), despite attacks for alleged collaboration with people who disagree with the church on certain social issues, has continued to back remarkably successful bottom-up, self-help projects.
It is fitting that the annual CCHD collection takes place on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. That’s next Sunday. The bishops might take the occasion to remind Catholics, and everyone else, of the need for us to stand with the poor. Now is a good time because record numbers of people live in poverty (1 out of 6), or on the edge of it (1 out of 3), and society is being defined by a well documented ‘scandal of glaring inequalities’ in wealth and opportunity. The bishops might ask everybody to remember the promise we Americans make to one another to take care of each other. We are, and hope to be, one people, so poverty hurts all of us.
They might also remind Christians of the “option for the poor,” made by Jesus. Jesus made that option because it is true: we human persons are made to be with and for one another. Salvation, arrival in the beloved community of the Kingdom of God, requires our individual effort but it is intended for all of us, together. The truth of that promise is what the Christian faith adds to the American faith: one day, despite evidence to the contrary, there really will be “liberty and justice for all.” And, amazingly, it’s up to all of us – including our faith communities ‒ to make that happen, as best we can, now.