Two weeks ago, I was walking from my cozy warm apartment in the Northeast part of Washington, D.C. to Union Station to meet up with a friend for dinner. It was 18*F (-7*C) outside and the wind was just starting to pick up. There were forecasts of snow in the next few days. I was bundled up with a wool sweater, socks, jacket, scarf, and gloves. About ten minutes into my walk, I started to regret my decision to walk and wondered if I should’ve called a cab. As I approached Union Station, I could see the Capitol building lit up in the distance. It was there that I saw 8 people lying on the streets completely covered with layers and layers of clothing and blankets. I immediately forgot my own brief and temporary plight. It was a stark and chilling reminder of the great poverty that still exists not only in other countries, but right here in the United States in our capital city.
Each January, the Church in the United States recognizes Poverty Awareness Month and takes up Pope Francis' challenge “to live in solidarity with the poor.” Last year, Pope Francis called for the observance of the very first World Day of the Poor. This call was not just for faithful Catholics, but for people of all nationalities, creeds, and socioeconomic backgrounds. As he said in his message for the first World Day of the Poor, “Love has no alibi. Whenever we set out to love as Jesus loved, we have to take the Lord as our example; especially when it comes to loving the poor.” The church and world responded with countless acts of charity and kindness to the poor.
Poverty is a massive issue with far too many heartbreaking statistics for us to consider it on only one day each year. It is a concern that needs constant attention and awareness that we can cultivate on a daily basis. Poverty does not simply come in the form of homelessness, but can manifest itself in many different ways. It can be manifested in our neighbor who has to choose between buying prescriptions or groceries, or in the child who cannot focus on school because they have not eaten the proper food they need. It can be manifested in the single mother who cannot afford childcare while she works.
Each of us can work towards helping to alleviate poverty. Here at The Catholic University of America, we run a large number of different programs throughout the year that highlight various forms of poverty and ways to help. Twice a year we have massive service days during which we send nearly 900 students to help local organizations that serve the poor. Every week we have twenty opportunities for students to serve the poor across seven different service sites. Some of these include going to soup kitchens or after-school centers and volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity. One of the most highly attended opportunities is a recurring homeless food run in which students take food and supplies to areas of D.C. with large homeless populations. The students do not simply pass out food, but sit and talk with the homeless. They get to know poverty on the most human level possible. They offer their resources, time, and love to those in need.
These types of efforts enable us not only to give the poor material goods and the gift of our time, but also help us personally grow. Walking in solidarity with our brothers and sisters and encountering them leaves us transformed. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them…” Throughout the year, I encourage you to consider participating in or making your own outreach to help those in need—and to bring a friend. Let us allow ourselves to be evangelized by the poor, live in solidarity with them, and work to alleviate their suffering. As St. Vincent Pallotti, the patron of the Catholic Apostolate Center, reminds us, “Remember that the Christian life is one of action; not of speech and daydreams. Let there be few words and many deeds, and let them be done well.”
Questions for Reflection: What are some concrete ways you can help alleviate poverty? Has a personal encounter with the poverty of another ever impacted your spiritual life?