Nearly thirty years ago I was appointed pastor of St Leo Church in North Fairmount, in a part of Cincinnati which had changed from a white middle-class community in the 1950s to a predominately low-income, black neighborhood in the 1960s.
When I told an acquaintance about my new assignment he responded with, “What did you do to get sent there?” He knew the poverty there was obvious, with housing in disrepair and litter on the streets.
A few years before I arrived a dynamic woman named Lois Broerman, intent on addressing these issues, had already initiated a “preferential option for the poor.” She established the North Fairmount Community Center in the parish’s former school building, providing a senior citizen program, child care, Headstart, and GED (high school equivalency) classes. On other sites she and the Center’s board opened a thrift shop/food co-op and a laundromat.
In addition the organizers applied for government and foundation grants, with which they bought existing housing, repaired it, and then sold it at minimum cost to low-income residents who had been renting.
One of the guiding principles for bringing new life and hope to the area was to seek the active involvement of the local population. Sometimes well-meaning people come into a poor neighborhood to help but they fail to engage in the process the people with the need.
It was a bit of wisdom I learned early on: “When you try to do it for them, you may end up doing it to them.”
My seven years in that parish brought me a number of insights: 1) not all the poor are poor through their own fault; 2) poverty can undermine a person’s self-image; 3) the welfare system is sometimes part of the problem; 4) housing, even public housing, is not always well-maintained; and 5) in some cases the poor pay more for groceries in their neighborhood than their middle-class counterparts in the suburbs.
One of the major conflicts for me at that time was making a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. It was easy to help those truly in need, but I questioned over and over whether to give assistance or food to those whom I judged unworthy of it.
I knew from experience that some who came for a bag of groceries would take the food to the local bar and sell it to one of the patrons to get money for drinks. Was I helping or enabling?
What brought all these memories back to mind is my reading of the life, ministry and philosophy of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the co-founders of the Catholic Worker movement and their houses of hospitality.
Maurin and Day did not simply help the poor; they chose to live lives of voluntary poverty themselves.
They lived in the poor neighborhood, ate the same food they gave to the hungry, wore the used-clothing they provided for those who had a need, and took in strangers who had no housing, no care-givers, no future.
Both Day and Maurin determined to live the Gospel, to see Jesus in everyone, to follow the Works of Mercy as outlined in the New Testament, especially in Matthew 25 (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and so on).
Day was often criticized for giving assistance to those who were “poor through their own fault” –the alcoholics, the drug-abusers, the lazy.
Her openness to assisting even the “undeserving” was based on Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, where he wrote, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (cf 5:3).
Poverty, she realized, was not just about money; poverty of spirit is about brokenness. The alcoholic, the depressed person, the prostitute, the unwed pregnant girl, and even the lazy, are among the poor in spirit.
Maurin and Day were social activists, sometimes describing themselves as “anarchists” because they wanted not only to help the poor but to change the system which made them or kept them poor.
Maurin used to put his insights in simple, poetic-like statements, sometimes described as “Easy Essays.” He was critical of both the welfare state and the expectation that the federal government is responsible for solving the problem of poverty.
One of his Easy Essays begins with:
People go to Washington
asking the government
to solve their economic problems,
while the Federal government
was never intended
to solve men’s economic problems.
Thomas Jefferson says that
the less government there is
the better it is.
If the less government there is
the better it is,
then the best kind of government
Not only should people help people on a personal and individual level, but the poor must be shown ways of caring for themselves, of changing their dependence on others.
Day constantly urged the readers of The Catholic Worker newspaper, the visitors to the houses of hospitality, and the audiences before whom she spoke to remember the Works of Mercy and to see Jesus in all people, even in the refuse of society.
My experience at St Leo’s in North Fairmount led me to interpret Matthew’s “poor in spirit” as encompassing both those who are broke and those who are broken. I wrote about that distinction in St Anthony Messenger back in 1988.
And yet I have not personally resolved in my own mind how or whether to apply the distinction between “helping” and “enabling.” Perhaps my continued reading of Dorothy Day’s writings will bring some resolution.
It’s the “helping vs. enabling” that continues to trouble me.