Finding “energy and imagination” to end poverty

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LTSP Professor Katie Day reflects on the complex and deepening predicament of poverty 50 years after U.S. President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in America. Dr. Day is the seminary’s Charles A. Scheiren Professor, Church and Society, and Director of the Metropolitan/Urban Concentration. Her recent book, Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street, explores the formative and multifaceted role of religious congregations within the urban environment of Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia.)

Prof. Katie Day at St. Michael's on the AvenueAfter years of public leaders’ avoiding the “p” word, who would have predicted that poverty would become a hot topic of public discourse? Everyone from President Obama to the Republican leadership is currently focusing on the increasing economic disparity in our country. Truly, the rich are getting richer (thanks to the rising stock market) and the poor are getting leftfarther behind (due to underfunded public schools and growing college tuitions that leave young people unprepared for the trickle of new jobs available and the stagnant wages that keep people in poverty even when they do find employment). (at left: Prof. Katie Day at St. Michael's Lutheran Church, one of the congregations she studied for her book Faith on the Avenue: Religion on a City Street)

Faith-based advocates have felt like lone voices in the wilderness for years, trying to get policy makers to focus on the reality of poverty in the U.S., as well as around the globe. The Occupy Movement, on the streets of New York City and elsewhere and viewed by most of us on our TV screens, seemed to have captured the public’s attention two years ago, but then their voices were silenced as quickly as they had burst into view.

It is always difficult to identify the “spark” that reframes a lingering social problem that the public has learned to tolerate into a social problem that is no longer tolerable. It is even harder to predict what spark will actually ignite public passion. Such a spark seems to have been struck by a new Pope who walks in the shoes of Peter and the simple robe of Francis. As it turns out, Pope Francis is a surprisingly faithful and effective public theologian. He has grabbed the public imagination and tapped into our shared, deeper values of compassion and justice. He is quoted by President Obama and Republican leader Paul Ryan. His words are gratefully received not only by so many disaffected Roman Catholics but also throughout the wider church and beyond. One website offers free bumper stickers with the message: “This Pope gives me Hope.”

The challenge for the rest of us in recalling the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty is to sustain this interest and translate the fickle public attention into policies that will address the systemic causes and perpetrators of poverty — policies that will increase wages, create jobs that can support families, strengthen public and secondary education, expand access to healthy food, and make sure everyone has access to health care. These matters are all interrelated of course, and the temptation is to be overwhelmed by the complexity of poverty. But, as I tell my students, “Just jump in anywhere. Pick an issue and stick with it.”

Poverty is a human creation, not a divine intention. We are called to work to bring all of God’s children into a place of justice — poverty can be deconstructed. The so-called War on Poverty was derailed when President Johnson needed to redirect resources to another War. The power of dominance proved more important than the power of justice and compassion. This is the hard work of advocacy — to stay focused on Gospel values.

When we say, “Remember the poor,” we seem to connote that “they” are not “us.” However, we are an intricate, interdependent body — when one part hurts, we all suffer.

My prayer and commitment for 2014 is that we will find renewed “energy, intelligence, imagination, and love” to end poverty.

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