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Posted March 1, 2009

Who are the poor?
Advocates use many means to put a face on poverty

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- At St. Joseph Husband of Mary Parish in Las Vegas, Society of St. Vincent de Paul volunteer Carolyn Leontos can always count on parishioners to come through with big donations in times of need, even more so during this time of economic crisis.

"People are very generous. People are willing to give," Leontos told a small group during a workshop at the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering Feb. 22-25 in Washington. It's not unusual for her parish to collect $10,000 to $12,000 during a weekend just for the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, she said.

But ask parishioners to engage in understanding why aid from the Vincentian society is needed in the first place and Leontos finds the engagement stops.

"How do you help people realize the fact it's just doing the soup kitchen or putting money in the basket? How do we get them to go that extra step so they are understanding (poverty) and making that connection (about why people are poor)?" she asked the four others in her group.

Leontos' question is the challenge facing social justice advocates across the country.

Catholics have a long history of performing the corporal works of mercy on behalf of poor people. Food pantries, meal programs, shelters for the homeless, health care, schools and so much more have grown out of the long tradition of Catholic social teaching for centuries.

Beyond that, the poor remain largely invisible, their needs a second thought as people go about life and day-to-day struggles.

Putting a face on the poor and promoting steps that Catholics can take to ease poverty was a prominent theme throughout the social ministry gathering, held blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Speakers, workshops and strategy sessions looked at ways to bring the lives of real people to the vast majority of the American public, Catholics included.

The economic crisis is posing greater challenges for advocates as the number of poor rises, especially as families are faced with joblessness, home foreclosures and the loss of health care benefits.

At the same time, many social ministers acknowledged that the crisis is presenting new opportunities for raising the profile of people living on the margins, allowing advocates to showcase Catholic principles on economic life and human dignity.

While no definitive conclusions were reached, what became evident as the four-day gathering wound down Feb. 25 was that people in social ministry should do what they can, pushing the envelope when necessary and taking advantage of every aspect of parish life to inform the Catholic mainstream about who the poor really are.

Angela Glover Blackwell, chief executive officer of PolicyLink, an Oakland, Calif.-based research institute that advances economic and social equality, set the tone for the gathering in addressing how to engage people from different backgrounds to work together to build a more equitable society.

"The economic crisis forces us to think about poverty not because we ought to, but because it's something we have to do to compete in the global economy," she said in calling for funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- popularly known as the economic stimulus bill -- to be used to the benefit of poor people as well as other parts of the economy.

"We need to think about everybody," she said.

In Catholic language that means promoting human life and dignity for everyone, as John Carr, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, repeatedly reminded the gathering.

Nationwide, advocates use no one program to put a face on the poor. What works largely depends on lay leadership in a parish, the openness of the pastor to explore poverty as a social issue and the willingness of parishioners to move beyond the important, but limited, act of charitable giving and volunteering, advocates said.

Rather, what matters, several advocates noted, is that awareness of poverty becomes integrated into parish life, especially as the economic crisis continues and concern about the world's poorest people sinks further down the list of life's priorities.

Patrick Ness, public policy manager in the Office for Social Justice in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, oversees one of the most active advocacy programs in the country. His office has adopted a community organizing model encompassing a broad base of parishes. He said the effort is helping parishioners understand that social ministry is an integral part of parish life.

"It has to be about values, the stories and the experiences," Ness said. "We used values-based messaging."

Ness' work focuses on helping people find their voice and ground it in Catholic social teaching. In that way, they can become better advocates when they approach state legislators, he said.

Current efforts revolve around the budget proposed by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and ensuring that programs aiding poor, unemployed, homeless and elderly people are not considered expendable. Part of the effort involves the people feeling the brunt of the economic recession telling stories about their lives to government officials.

"We're out having conversations on the governor's budget proposal to parishes and to Catholic Charities staff and getting feedback and painting a picture of what is reality and as prophetic people what do we stand for," Ness explained.

"(We're) putting the challenge out there (that), if we don't stand in the gap between what is reality and what we call for, likely no one will. We're asking people to be courageous and to use their privilege, their place to stand in that gap," he said.