Poverty

To Whom Do They Answer?

Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com
Beds in a homeless shelter, Nathan Kresge / Shutterstock.com

During this Holy Week, Christians around the world turn inward to reflect on the mystery and miracle of the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Those two surpassing events are more than good enough to occupy the mind and heart of every believer. 

But they are not all that Jesus did in these eventful days. As any student of the scriptures will know, Jesus did not go quietly to the cross. Three days before his execution, he stormed the temple and challenged the seat of theocratic power in Jerusalem, condemning the pharisaic elite who "preach, but do not practice" and "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the people's shoulders." (Matt. 23:3-4) He accused as hypocrites leaders who make token offerings yet "have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness … Inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence." (Matt. 23:23,25)

In his final teaching before the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday began, Jesus embraced those who are oppressed and cautioned his disciples that acts of love and mercy are the measure of a heart touched by grace. "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me … Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." (Matt. 25:35-40)

In honor of the occasion, Congress will close its doors and lawmakers will head home to be with their constituents for the Easter recess. If inside reports are to be trusted, they will leave Washington "armed with excuses" that explain away the latest fiscal fiasco, and the people will have little to say in reply. I pray it isn't so. 

Transcript: Pope Francis' Inaugural Mass Homily

MattiaATH / Shutterstock.com
MattiaATH / Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: Pope Francis delivered the following homily at his inaugural Mass on Tuesday, emphasizing the need to protect the poor and the environment. 

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I thank the Lord that I can celebrate this Holy Mass for the inauguration of my Petrine ministry on the solemnity of Saint Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary and the patron of the universal Church. It is a significant coincidence, and it is also the name-day of my venerable predecessor: we are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude.

I offer a warm greeting to my brother cardinals and bishops, the priests, deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful. I thank the representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence. My cordial greetings go to the Heads of State and Government, the members of the official Delegations from many countries throughout the world, and the Diplomatic Corps.

In the Gospel we heard that "Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife" (Mt 1:24). These words already point to the mission which God entrusts to Joseph: he is to be the custos, the protector. The protector of whom? Of Mary and Jesus; but this protection is then extended to the Church, as Blessed John Paul II pointed out: "Just as Saint Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ’s upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, of which the Virgin Mary is the exemplar and model" (Redemptoris Custos, 1).

How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand. From the time of his betrothal to Mary until the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, he is there at every moment with loving care. As the spouse of Mary, he is at her side in good times and bad, on the journey to Bethlehem for the census and in the anxious and joyful hours when she gave birth; amid the drama of the flight into Egypt and during the frantic search for their child in the Temple; and later in the day-to-day life of the home of Nazareth, in the workshop where he taught his trade to Jesus.

A Relentless Faith

ON SEPT. 23, 2003, Steven Kim was arrested and later escorted into a detention center in northeastern China with bound hands and heavy chains on his feet. His crime? Helping undocumented migrants—North Korean refugees—in China.

After decades of famine, mismanagement of resources, and a severe state-controlled system, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea—more commonly known as North Korea—has evolved into one of the most secretive and isolated countries in the world. About 2 million people have died since the 1990s, and still the country cannot feed its people without foreign aid. This shortage of food has driven thousands of North Koreans to migrate illegally to China by crossing the Tumen River in search of food and respite from the totalitarian regime.

Before his imprisonment, Kim—a Korean-American businessman from Long Island, N.Y.—lived in China and operated a furniture business. As a non-denominational Christian, Kim became a member of an unregistered house church in Shenzhen, which operated outside the Chinese government's control. After meeting Tae Nam, a North Korean man, and hearing his desperate story firsthand at his house church, Kim was instantly drawn into the underground railroad of supporters of North Korean refugees.

AFTER SEVEN MONTHS at a detention center, Kim was sentenced to five years in prison, under Article 318 of the Chinese criminal code, for helping undocumented North Korean migrants and harboring them in his home.

"No one expected a long sentence for the first offense. That was the longest sentence ever given. I was so upset. I lost all my strength in my legs and almost collapsed in court. After two hours I recovered," Kim told Sojourners, describing the moment in court when the sentence was issued by the Chinese judge. "I realized I'll be in prison for five years. I have to make another plan. I thought I was going home [to America] and it could be very easy. But God had a different plan."

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Connecting the Dots

OVER THE PAST few years, we have seen tangible proof that creation is terribly off balance. Global warming is causing droughts and heat waves around the world and is making hurricanes more powerful. In my hometown of New York City, we have experienced the effects of severe weather: Hurricane Irene in 2011 and, most recently, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was an eye-opening demonstration that climate change is a poverty issue, a race issue, and an immigration issue.

Though neighborhoods of all socioeconomic statuses were affected by Sandy, poorer communities are taking longer to recover. Many of them were without electricity, heat, and water longer than were more affluent communities. For instance, residents of Red Hook's public housing projects in Brooklyn were without power and water for two weeks after the storm. My cousin Dabriah Alston, a Red Hook resident, told me that the city ignored residents' repeated requests for information about when the heat would come back on: "The bottom line is, they don't care about us. Projects are filled with poor folk, and as we all know, the poor are seldom a priority."

Hurricane Sandy shone an uncomfortable light on racial and economic disparity in New York City. As someone who was born and raised in Brooklyn, I am very familiar with Red Hook's history of poverty, and the neglect by local government. For example, only when the community near the housing projects began to gentrify did the city start to repair the nearby subway station.

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Why We Can't Wait

Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners
Martin Luther King, Jr., statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Sandi Villarreal / Sojourners

It’s been 50 years since several significant events of the civil rights movement of the 1960s occurred, yet our society is still plagued with systemic racism. It’s been almost 150 years since we abolished slavery in this country, yet many are still enslaved daily by the oppression of discrimination and poverty. While significant strides in equality and justice have taken place, new systems of injustices have been instated and threaten the integrity of our much-stated rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I am most presently thinking of the system of the “New Jim Crow,” something author and advocate Michelle Alexander has awakened society to with the recent publication of her book with that title. The New Jim Crowrefers to the web of injustices related to mass incarceration and the stripping of basic rights of returning citizens reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws of our nation’s history. Today, returning citizens face “legalized discrimination” from employers and landlords, making it extremely difficult for them to get a job or a place to live. Additionally, in many states they are not allowed to sit on a jury or express their right to vote, meaning their voices are stifled.

On Scripture: When People You Don’t Much Like Receive God’s Love

Waiting in line, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com
Waiting in line, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com

Our distaste for people who cut in line remains unchanged as we grow up. Whether someone gets to the front of the lunch line or the airport security check before us in an unfair way, our annoyance is raised. People who steal our parking spots during the Christmas season are the recipients of our worst thoughts. We might — just might — yell a string of expletives and death threats at anyone who has wronged us on the road or in a parking lot.

It’s not just about being orderly and following the rules. Instead, we rue the flouting of justice and fairness. I have been waiting patiently in line; what gives you the right to deem yourself better than me?

Yet if we’re honest, we will quickly realize that such outrageous reactions to outrageous behavior are no better than the line cutter or parking space thief. Moreover, our sense of injustice is quite attuned to moments of personal grievance even as we neglect how our actions may harm others. If anything, these moments of rage reveal much more about us than those we think have aggrieved us.

The Sequester: Pocket Change?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) leaves after a caucus meeting at the Capitol in February. Alex Wong/Getty Images

“I believe the sequester is a pittance.”

Those were conservative Sen. Rand Paul’s words in an opinion piece this week about the sequester – severe and arbitrary cuts to the federal budget that Congress did nothing to stop. We could give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he hasn’t seen the numbers:

  • The nutrition program for women with children — WIC — will have to turn away 600,000 to 775,000 women, many of whom have young children.
  • The 3.8 million currently unemployed workers will have their support cut by 11 percent.
  • 100,000 low-income families will lose their housing vouchers.
  • 125,000 individuals and families are now at risk of homelessness.

That doesn’t sound like a “pittance” to me.

Luke 15:11-32, Migration, and our Prodigal Public

Father and son, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com
Father and son, Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

The human community exists in perpetual motion; migration is a constant feature of our local and global reality. According to the International Organization for Migration, the total of international migrants increased from an estimated 150 million in 2000 to about 214 million in 2010, and the number of internal migrants (those who move within the borders of a given country) is about 750 million. These relocations are often related to the harsh consequences of war, environmental destruction, and economic downturn. As a result, those engaged in migration often do so for the sake of safety and opportunity, yet these potential rewards are sought in spite of deep personal and financial risk.

While the rates appear to be on the rise, the phenomenon as a whole is by no means exclusive to the present. The New Testament passage often known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” includes some of the harsh realities that are often associated with migration. One can examine this well-known parable through the lenses of migration, and in doing so, we are given insights in how to more faithfully extend hospitality to such strangers.  

As Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32) reminds us, the youngest of two sons asked for an early inheritance from his father, received it, and then traveled to a “distant country” where he “… squandered his property in dissolute living.” As the term “dissolute” typically intends to describe degenerate and/or sinful behavior, we often conclude that the youngest son was deeply immersed in immorality, thus we find it difficult to feel sympathy when he later falls into the depths of poverty. We tend to perceive the prodigal son as someone who got what he deserved, for as the parable seems to illustrate, not only did he waste the inheritance received from his father, but he did so through sinful choices that brought deep dishonor to his family.

Changing Poverty Into Opportunity: A Moral Cause To Bring Us Together

Aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com
Aerial view of Pennsylvania Avenue, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

I know I am not the only one who is sick and tired of Washington’s manufactured crises around budget and deficit debates. Brinksmanship has replaced statesmanship in trying to find a sound path to fiscal responsibility. It is time to make the right moral choices that will defend the most vulnerable and pursue an opportunity agenda to reduce the highest poverty rate in 50 years.

Ideological debates over the role of government are the real battle in the nation’s capital — more than the debt crisis. Political calculations about the next election are more important to many of our political leaders than the common good of the country.

It’s just time to move on from the partisan politics that has polarized and paralyzed us for so long — by committing ourselves to moral issues that could and should bring us together. The first will be comprehensive immigration reform, which will change the lives of 12 million people in this country, lift many out of poverty, and help the economy at the same time. This is a clear example of how the faith community has changed, and now come together to become a political game changer in Washington, D.C., at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on both sides of the aisle.

And it’s time to make another moral commitment in the midst of our growing economic recovery — to include poor families and change poverty into opportunity. Fighting poverty must not be a partisan issue. When we look at both the causes and the solutions, this battle should bring both liberals and conservatives together. Overcoming poverty, by creating opportunity, happens because of three very basic things that most of us can agree on: family, education, and work. All three are crucial and necessary in moving people out of poverty and into opportunity.

Let’s break it down.

Poor, Small, Broken — Beautiful

Boys hands hugging globe in classroom / Getty Images
Boys hands hugging globe in classroom / Getty Images

I received a galimoto for Christmas. In case you didn't know, a galimoto is a toy vehicle created out of sticks, cornstalks, wire or anything children can take into their hands and make into a thing with wheels. Mine is a bicycle made of wire. There is a wire child in colorful cloth on the bicycle seat, a rider whose legs pedal as the wheels move. It is beautiful in its simplicity, astonishing in its complexity. It came from the hands of a child in Kenya. I love it.

I brought my galimoto to school and introduced it to my third-grade students. They held it in their hands, marveled at its design, and pushed it around the classroom. "A kid made this?" Matthew asked. "Amazing!"

We looked at a globe and located South Carolina and Kenya. We flew with our fingers from Greenville across the Atlantic Ocean across Africa to Nairobi. We wondered what it would be like to live there. What would the weather be like? What foods would we eat? What kind of house would we live in? What clothes would we wear? What would our school be like? What would our parents do? What would we play with? "I know what we would play with," said Syleana with a smile. "A galimoto!"

We took a picture walk through the book Galimoto written by Karen Lynn Williams and illustrated by Catherine Stock. "What do you notice when you look at the cover of the book?" I asked. 

"It looks like the little boy is poor," answered Zaniya. 

"Why do you think he's poor?" I continued. 

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