Beyond Church Walls: Reflections on Faith in Action

By April Joy Damian 2-27-2009

Growing up Catholic in San Francisco, I was fortunate to be raised with a passion for social justice rooted in my faith. Contrary to the present-day association of Christianity with political and social conservatism, I view my faith as radical. One of my former Ethnic Studies professors called Jesus a revolutionary; Jesus challenged the status quo as he ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, touched and healed lepers and the sick on the Sabbath, and showed a genuine love and favor for the marginalized of society. My commitment to address the issues facing marginalized groups of today's society, whether that be the educationally disadvantaged or the medically underserved, is rooted in scripture's teaching of "serving the least of these."

After graduating from college, I moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as a Truman Fellow and Program Analyst with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Veteran Health Administration. Before moving to the east coast, I defined Washington as the center of policy and power. However, as I became better acquainted with the city, I soon realized that minutes away from all the government buildings, embassies, and lobbyists are communities burdened with high rates of illiteracy and unemployment. Hence, in reality, there are two D.C.s. The country continues to face the dilemma of an increasing gap between the haves and have-nots, even within the nation's capital.

Nevertheless, as I stated in my graduation speech, the knowledge and understanding of social divisions must be matched with practical solutions on the ground. In addition to working in downtown D.C., I decided to volunteer as a GED science instructor at Academy of Hope. The program gives volunteer instructors complete autonomy over the curriculum. Given that all of my students were working class people of color, I decided to approach the class from a public health perspective. For example, I tied the respiratory system with the health disparities of smoking, lung cancer, and asthma in the African-American population. I modeled the class after Paulo Freire's pedagogy of education, which Freire describes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This allowed my students to take ownership of their education by not only understanding the physiological consequences of smoking, but how to address this health issue within their own families and communities. The experience of facilitating the learning of students ranging in both age (23 to 67) and in country of origin (Ethiopia, Haiti) and observing them teach each other was challenging, moving, and humbling, all at the same time.

I am coming to The Mobilization to End Poverty because I recognize how poverty serves as a barrier to basic human rights, including quality education and health care. I am currently in the process of applying to medical school, and hope to improve the health conditions of the urban underserved through research and policy advocacy.

After living in the Bay Area and in Washington, D.C., I have witnessed how poverty has served as a root cause for inequalities in health care access and health outcomes. For example, the greater prevalence of liquor stores over groceries with fresh produce in low-income neighborhoods contributes to the disproportionate rates of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity among the poor.

I am excited to be meeting with other people of faith who share my interest in the intersection of poverty and health care (a workshop topic at The Mobilization) and drawing solutions for addressing these challenges from a moral standpoint. I am also looking forward to seeing Jeffrey Sachs, as his work has inspired me to continue to look at poverty and health beyond the domestic level. The United States not only has a responsibility to tend to the basic needs of its citizens, and thus to lead by example -- as world leader, it also has a responsibility to use its position of power to support policies and interventions that effectively reduce extreme global poverty, thereby uplifting the human spirit worldwide.

April Joy Damian is a Community Leaders Scholarship recipient for The Mobilization to End Poverty. She is a layleader at St. Patrick Catholic Church in San Francisco.

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