Commentary

Among the poor is where we encounter God

“The heart of a Christian, who believes and feels, cannot pass by the hardships and deprivations of the poor without helping them.” Saint Luigi Guanella 

 

Which groups in our society would be considered the most defenseless? Most of us would answer this question with one word: children. Indeed, children, born and unborn, are the most vulnerable among us. Rarely do we read or hear vitriol attacking children. They are almost always off-limits when it comes to harsh rhetoric. 

 

It would stand to follow, then, that children would be among the most valued and protected as well. But that’s clearly not the case. What’s one crucial way we fail our children? 

 

Many lack access to food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, as of September 2015, 42 million Americans were food insecure. The term “food insecure” means that these people lack consistent access to food. Of these 42 million, 13 million are children. In a country with such abundance, it is sinful that so many should suffer from a lack of food. 

 

Those of us in the South should be particularly alarmed. According to Feeding America, a non-profit organization, the South is disproportionately represented when it comes to food insecurity. And rural southern counties are where the greatest food insecurity exists. According to this source, rural counties in the South have the highest average of food insecurity, 16.1 percent of households, compared to 11.8 percent in the Northeast (the lowest). 

 

What about government assistance? Feeding America reports that 26 percent of our food insecure households earn too much money to qualify for SNAP, federal food assistance. Of those households, 20 percent include children. These families must rely on food banks and other charitable organizations to muster whatever assistance they can manage. 

 

When it comes to federal food assistance, many Americans favor making it more difficult for food insecure households to participate. These Americans seem to believe that their taxes are being misspent. However, it is documented that food assistance fraud is less than 1.5 percent of overall expenditures (from “The Very Short History of Food Stamp Fraud in America” by Emelyn Rude, March 2017, Time magazine). 

 

Some advocate cuts to federal food assistance believing that people rely too heavily on government “handouts.” They argue that receiving support takes away an incentive for Americans to work despite the fact that many of these families are working and still cannot provide enough food with their income. As for those who are unemployed? Does lacking food provide incentive? More likely it would lead to a depletion of energy, poor health, and despair. How compassionate is a country that tries to motivate people by allowing them to go hungry? 

 

According to a survey recently published by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 1,686 Americans were asked this question: “Which is generally more often to blame if a person is poor: lack of effort on their own part, or difficult circumstances beyond their control?” 

 

Most astonishing and disturbing in the survey results: Christians are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as a result of a lack of effort on the part of the poor.

 

When broken down by denomination, the survey revealed that 50 percent of Catholics blamed lack of effort, while 45 percent blamed circumstances.

 

Sadly, this viewpoint – that the poor are somehow deserving of their fate — reflects a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. Time and again, Jesus warns us that our salvation depends upon the way we treat the poorest among us. He identifies himself with the poor, and he calls the poor blessed. 

 

It doesn’t take a thorough knowledge of the New Testament to find parable after parable (the story of Lazarus and the rich man, the story of the poor widow and her meager offering, the story of the Good Samaritan come immediately to mind) and Scripture passage after Scripture passage (Matthew 25 most prominently) admonishing us on how we are to treat one another and, in particular, how we should treat the poorest among us.

 

When announcing his public ministry, Jesus unrolled an ancient scroll and read in the synagogue from the Prophet Isaiah: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

As Christians, we have accepted the call to follow in Christ’s footsteps and do the same. 

 

Based on the results of the survey, in addition to reflecting on Christ’s life and the Word of God, clearly, Catholics need to become better versed in Catholic social teaching. We are, in fact, called to solidarity with the poor, never to place ourselves in judgment of them. 

 

We believe that among the poor is where we encounter our Lord. 

 

Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at maryhoodhart@gmail.com.

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