For the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking at what the Church calls the preferential option for the poor. First
we saw what Scripture says about why we should care for the poor. Then
we looked at some Church documents, and finally, last week
we looked at it from an ethical point of view.
Some of you may not know that for many years, before World Youth Day 2002, I worked at Covenant House
in Toronto. Covenant House is the largest youth shelter in Canada. I worked with our non-resident clients – all of them were street-involved youth. Down the street from Toronto’s Covenant House is the Yonge Street Mission
. They are a Christian organization that works with the same population. Since 1896 they have been helping move young people from a state of just surviving to a state of thriving, with the hopes of ending chronic poverty.
For the longest time, the Executive Director of the Yonge Street Mission was Rick Tobias. I once attended a weekend workshop with him. Here’s what I learned:
We have to have three values if we are going to effectively address the poverty question. These three values are grace, gratitude, and generosity.
Everything begins with grace. Grace is the only antidote against the possible notion that some people are worth more than others. When we have the value of grace, we see each person as a gift. We see their giftedness. Therefore, we see them as valuable human beings, based solely on the fact that they are created in the image of God and have been gifted or graced. Grace embraces. (To learn more about grace, click here
Grace leads us to gratitude. Gratitude is a spiritual posture. It is a deep awareness of what we’ve received and having an appropriate response. Gratitude is appreciation. We are not just grateful for the gift but also for the giver. And every good thing and everything good gift comes from God. (“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17) The prophet Isaiah says that all that we have done, the Lord has already done for us (Isaiah 26:12). The only way to have wealth is to have what God has given us or to take it from somebody else. Real gratitude comes from the realization that every good thing we have comes from God. If we think that we deserve what we have, we will never be grateful.
Generosity comes out of the knowledge that every good gift comes from God. Our wealth is not ours; it’s ours to steward. St. Paul tells the Ephesians to work so as to have something to give away (Ephesians 4:28). The prophet Ezekiel writes that the first sin of Sodom was that she did not help the poor. This led them to arrogance and excess (Ezekiel 16:49). If gratitude is inhaling (we receive from God), generosity is exhaling. We need to breathe out! God has entrusted to us so that we can pass it on. And we must not just give – but give with quality.
Compassion is not the highest response to poverty – grace is. But compassion is a good and biblical way to engage the poor. In his Gospel, Matthew says that Jesus has compassion for the multitudes for they were like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). The multitudes were despairing. Jesus looks out on them and has compassion on them. He does not have mercy on them. Jesus responds because he has compassion. His compassion comes from a place of grace – he sees each person as a gift and then looks at them with compassion. And he responds by feeding them, healing them, and/or teaching them. We too must respond to the poor and needy with compassion.
According to Rick Tobias, Scripture tells us that the poor have rights. He organised them as nine:
- The poor have the right that we, as the people of God would stay open to God in the poor.
- The poor have the right to expect that the Church knows what the Bible says about poverty.
- The poor have a right to equality: Equality has to do with fairness. We don’t all have the same wealth, but we all share the same status before God. We all have the right of access to God.
- The poor have a right to have their basic needs met: Food, clothing, shelter, medical care, toys for kids, and other things that we take for granted.
- The poor have a right to work: This is not “privilege to work,” but a right to work. In the Old Testament, the poor have a right to the second harvest (Deuteronomy 24:19-20). It’s not charity, they get it themselves.
- The poor have a right to safety: They have a right to peace (shalom), to welfare, and to well-being. They have a right to the things that make a body well. They have a right to be protected from oppression and victimization.
- The poor have a right to justice: The poor have a right to an advocate. We have the responsibility to become those advocates.
- The poor have a right to inclusion: This is a natural outpouring of grace. We need to see the poor as family, as ours. They need to be included in our celebrations. They have a right to find their place in our churches.
I would add that the poor have the right to freedom. This is probably the one thing that we take for granted, yet in my own work at Covenant House I quickly learned that freedom is one of the first things that go when you are poor. Poor people don’t have the freedom to choose where they want to live; they don’t have the freedom to eat whatever food they want; they don’t have the freedom to go wherever they want, whenever they want. They don’t even have the freedom to choose the services they want because so often agencies put restrictions or conditions on the services that are available.
If I learned anything from my time at Covenant House or from Rick Tobias, it's that the poor need to be seen as gifts, and we can only do that if we have the gift of grace.
Come back next week
for some final thoughts.
Every week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: email@example.com