Why the preferential option for the poor is not optional?

IN FEBRUARY 1977, ANOTHER CONSERVATIVE PRIEST WAS NAMED ARCHBISHOP in a small Latin American country. A modest and good man, he was mostly inclined toward books and theological study. Little of significance was expected of him.

Within a few months, his responsibility for a war-torn country full of poor Catholics changed him. In his conversion, Archbishop Oscar Romero recognized the tragedy and devastation of the poverty of his native El Salvador. He saw with new eyes children dying of chronic diarrhea and villages devastated by malnutrition, joblessness, and hopelessness.

And his skilled mind enabled him to quickly identify the true causes -- the political and economic causes that were the ruin of many of his fellow Salvadorans. He would spend his remaining three years in the service of the poor. In some ways, it is just another story about a saint.

In another way, something dramatic and divine occurred here that reveals what it means to be Catholic, what it means to be neighbor, and what it means to be human. We can be tugged by the despair and desperation of others away from our books and comfort to places and positions unfamiliar and difficult. We might even spend -- literally spend our lives in the service of that tug.

Last March, parts of the state of Kentucky where I live received the heaviest rainfall ever recorded for that area in a 24-hour period. Creeks and rivers swelled, flooding and destroying many towns and cities. Many people were killed.

But as staggering as the devastation and loss were, as remarkable were the stories of self-sacrifice and courage of neighbors who saved one another from harm's way. Particularly poignant were the stories of those who actually lost their lives as they tried to save others swept away by the rushing water.

Three elderly women tell the story of their rescue by a high-school boy who swam back and forth to their flooded apartment and carried each of them to safety on his back, and then left them in search of others. A week later, his body was discovered downstream.

Like the story of Romero's life, there is something extraordinary and even holy about this story. We have an inner prod that draws us to the care of others in peril; so strong is that prod that we may even risk much to obey its meaning.

We are, we believe, made in the image of God. But what does that mean? I think it means that we are made in the image of a God whose call to Moses was motivated by the suffering and despair of a group of slaves.

We are made in the image of a God who, in the person of Jesus, noticed and responded to the desperation of the sick, the poor, the stranger, the broken. In other words, we are made with a predisposition to care about one another's lives. And that predisposition intensifies around suffering.

The power of a phrase
In1979, the Latin American bishops met in Puebla, Mexico to address the affairs and direction of the Catholic Church in Latin America and issued a statement that included the following: "From the heart of Latin America, a cry rises to the heavens ever louder and more imperative. It is the cry of a people who suffer."

The most popular and powerful effect of the document issued from that meeting has been the impact of a simple, five-word phrase. The bishops titled one of the key sections of their document  "The Preferential Option for the Poor," and it is that single phrase that has so provoked the larger church's social imagination.

Indeed, when the U.S. Catholic bishops issued their pastoral on the economy only seven years later in 1986, they referred to the preferential option for the poor as a touchstone for their writing, applying it to the situation in the U.S.

More recently, in their 1994 document on the social mission of the parish, titled "Communities of Salt and Light," the U.S. bishops again refer to the phrase. They state boldly and unambiguously: "Our parish communities are measured by how they serve 'the least of these' in our parish and beyond its boundaries the hungry, the homeless, the sick, those in prison, the stranger."

It is difficult to find a book written in the last 15 years addressing the topic of Catholic (or Christian) response to poverty that does not mention or elaborate on the phrase. Even Pope John Paul II has adopted his own version of the phrase when he talks about a "preferential love of the poor."

Why such immediate and widespread attention to this relatively recent and simple phrase? There are three reasons.

First, when the Latin American bishops met in Puebla for their General Conference in 1979 and, before that, in Medellín, Colombia in1968, the predominant experience of the church there was poverty. As the bishops wrote in the earlier document from Medellín, "[We] cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tremendous social injustice existent in Latin America, which keeps the majority of our people in dismal poverty, which in many cases becomes inhuman wretchedness."

Are you serving
the poor or . . .

In this country, ministers aided by parish members have rallied across lines of race, class, and region to bring food and clothing to needy "sister" parishes and to suffering communities near and far. Even 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old children try to help.

I think of a Protestant Sunday School teacher in a Boston suburb who enlisted sixth- and seventh-graders to carry food packages, collect clothing, and become summer hosts to children living under great duress in an urban ghetto. The minister told me something about what they were doing and why.

"It is selfish, I knowwe are the obvious beneficiaries of all this. Our children escape their suburban cocoon and learn how the world goes for others who are not as lucky as they are.

"I have to forget that though; I have to assume that we are put here by the good Lord to reach out to othersthat is our mission, as it was His. I tell our youngsters and their parents that what we are doing, this voluntary activity, is an expression of our Christianity. This is who a Christian is: someone who doesn't sit back and say, I go to church on Sundays, so I'm a Christian, but someone who remembers how Jesus lived and tries hard to follow that lead."

From A Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism, by Robert Coles (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

"Dismal poverty" and "inhuman wretchedness" were filling the pews. Either the church would have to address these realities or cease to be credible. The preferential option for the poor portrays a serious, open-eyed, determined posture toward the problem of poverty.

Second, the bishops at Puebla and Medellín were having to negotiate not only the fact of widespread deprivation and desperation but a local church history of disinterest and even disdain for the poor. In her momentous book Cry of the People (Viking Penguin, 1991), Penny Lernoux chronicles the legacy of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

The church, Lernoux wrote, "encouraged a deep strain of cynicism among the upper classes, who learned that they might do anything, including slaughter innocent peasants, as long as they went to Mass, contributed land and money to the church's aggrandizement, and baptized their children. These were the 'good Christians' honored by the Latin American Bishops."

In this context the bishops were put in the unenviable position of having to assume the role of prophet. They needed to speak a word that not only expressed a commitment by church leadership to the poor but also opened the eyes of those blind to their suffering and encouraged broader commitment to the poor among church membership.

The bishops did their job well. The transformation of the Latin American church in the last 25 years borders on the miraculous. And the adaptation of the preferential option for the poor by other conferences of bishops, the pope, theologians, and other Christian and non-Christian traditions is testimony to the provocative power of the phrase.

The third reason the phrase has received such attention is its theological and biblical soundness. As Latin Americans and their pastors looked to the Bible for answers to landlessness and oppression, the Exodus story came alive with its account of a people being liberated from slavery and brought to a land they could call their own, to a place where justice could reign. As peasants encountered the words of the prophets, they heard of a God whose care seemed particularly committed to those in anguish. In other words, God cared about them and cared about a solution to their problems.

As campesina widows, whose husbands had been tortured and killed by government forces, gathered to study Jesus' words about the reign of God, Jesus' own actions, and even his cause of death, they encountered a man poor like themselves, a man who yearned for reconciliation between privilege and poverty, a man whose commitment to the dignity of all and the liberation of the poor was of such passion and importance that he was willing to die for those convictions.

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann has observed, "Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible's revolutionary themes promise exodus, resurrection and spirit come alive."

Six things you can do
But, you may wonder, what might a preferential option for the poor mean in our own lives? I assume most readers are of relative privilege. Father Jon Sobrino writes that there are two classes of people in the world: rich and poor. The rich do not worry about whether they will eat tomorrow. The poor do. So we must accept that most of us are rich. Given our privileged status, how do we make a preferential option for the poor? Here I will try to be as practical as possible.

If you grew up like me, it's likely that you really just don't care much about poverty. Or, at least, you don't care enough to do much more than wish it didn't exist.

So here's my confession: I am the son of a rich couple. My youth was spent in contemplation of tennis and water skiing. I spent $700 my first semester in college just on dates. I once had 30 pairs of shoes. I am, at times, utterly disinterested in matters even remotely connected with the poor. So, if you are half the scoundrel I am, consider these possibilities drawn straight from my own tarnished past.

1. It is important to be directly connected to the poor. I didn't care a thing about the world's poor until I cared about one poor person. And I only came to care about one poor person because I put myself in a place where that could happen. In my case, it happened at a day shelter for the homeless. Tom and I played cards, drank coffee (I hate coffee), and just talked (I love to talk).

After a month or so, I stopped being scared of Tom and started to like him. And, despite my 30 pairs of shoes, Tom seemed to like me. I actually gave him hesitantly, I admit some of my shoes. I swear that's true. And, more important, I heard Tom's story. I heard the story of his cruel, broken life, and it changed me some.

I have had other such encounters since then, with the poor of Central America and with the rural poor in this country. All these experiences changed me as well. But the point is that we need at least to give ourselves an opportunity to care about somebody who's poor, somebody we probably wouldn't spend time with in the normal course of our day.

So, spend some time with an abandoned old person at a nursing home or serve and eat lunch with the guest of a soup kitchen. Become a big brother or big sister to a child growing up in inner-city poverty or in a rural shack with only one parent. That's step one.

2. Ask questions and search for answers. After the first step, our face-to-face contact may stimulate an appetite for some kind of information or education. As I continued to visit the soup kitchen, I started to ask myself, "Why are half the men here Vietnam vets?" (I still don't know the full answer to that.) I wanted to know why a great many of the visitors to the soup kitchen were mentally ill, and I wanted to know what opportunities were available to them.

These are simply the questions that come to us when we care about somebody else. And perhaps they stimulate associated questions about poverty: Why are some people unable to escape the projects? Why are the people of El Salvador unable to feed themselves? Why do Third World countries export food when their own people are dying of hunger?

Sometimes I just read Sports Illustrated, but now I also read Sojourners and the National Catholic Reporter and Bread for the World newsletters. I occasionally get depressed reading this stuff. But I can't stop reading them. It would be like abandoning my heart at this point.

For some good ideas about things you can read, connect with your diocesan parish social ministry office for materials. Or just talk to the people who are already veterans of this stuff. They'll be your biggest help.

Also, keep an eye open for lectures or workshops offered in your diocese that pertain to matters of human suffering. I know it doesn't sound like a fun use of a free evening, but God is full of surprises.

3. Start to advocate. It is very important that we become advocates for the healing of the political and economic relationships and policies that are broken. We can spend all the time we want at soup kitchens, but unless something changes, the one thing that we will probably notice is that there are more and more people showing up every day.

We need to ask ourselves, "So what's going on that makes the soup kitchen such a popular place these days? How are we going to fix it?How can I help? And how can nonprofit groups, businesses, the church, and the government help?"

It is possible that our faith and our love will move us into political participation and political responsibility. Might not religious education and Confirmation classes and the RCIA want to prepare blossoming Catholics for such a task? And for us old Catholics who have not been trained for such, we might simply have to breathe deep and just do it.

Then you could volunteer to be on the board of a nonprofit organization or to work with your diocesan Catholic Charities or Campaign for Human Development. I wish I had some flashier, more enticing advice. But let me offer this story.

Bread for the World, a great Christian organization that lobbies in Washington on hunger and poverty issues (and which you can join), estimates that for every letter written on behalf of anti-hunger legislation, a life is saved! One letter written; one life saved. Have I something better to do? Even my most dearly held lethargy and apathy have limits.

4. Work with the poor as they help themselves.This is what we might call solidarity work. It's a mixture of the first three, and it involves working side by side with the poor as they negotiate the solutions to their own poverty.

I have been involved for years with soup-kitchen work and giving talks and writing letters; it's only recently that I've become acquainted with this work. It is exciting and downright inspiring to work with the poor as they consider and strategize and organize for their recovery from neglect and voicelessness. I have been connected with both an urban and a rural version of this work. For a lead, you might call your local diocesan Campaign for Human Development office. But do steps one, two, or three before tackling this.

5. Watch your money. I suppose you might be familiar with the story of Harry Wu, the Chinese Catholic who returned to his native country under the threat of death to document the forced child-labor camps producing, of all things, stuffed toys. Well, besides reading up on labor-rights abuses, trying to educate congregations, and possibly writing letters to the Chinese government, it strikes me that we're not going to want to buy products made by young slaves. Even if they're cheaper.

Do I think not buying a teddy bear made in China will change the world?Yes. I do not want to be part of a market demand that reduces children to such a state. I can support companies that care for their employees and can petition my government to pressure the Chinese government into a more responsible posture toward such abuse. In the meantime, my children watch and learn something valuable. Yes, it does change the world.

A mature, well-considered dedication to the poor also will probably result in a simpler life, with less things and less preoccupation with money and possessions. It's tougher to care too much about another pair of shoes when you've met people who have none. And there is something freeing about having less stuff. Saint Francis called the simple life "a lady," which I guess meant he liked it.

6. Give money. Remember to give a good bit of your money away. The early Christian definition of so-called disposable income is that it is the rightful possession of the poor. Like all things, the key is just to get started. Decide that you are going to give away 5 percent of your income, or 1 percent, or .001 percent. Then do it, and periodically and prayerfully consider if this is still suitable or needs to be adjusted.

Let me suggest that you earmark some money for local causes, some for international causes, and some for person-to-person support. Some may question this last suggestion, but I think it's important to know people well enough to trust them with regular assistance and well enough for them to trust you. In the words of Saint Vincent de Paul, "The poor will forgive your gifts of food only by feeling your love."

If possible, do all these things with a friend or with family. It is great to have someone else who is having the same experience to talk with. My most stubbornly held dream is that one day entire parishes will evolve to the point where every member will be formed and encouraged in the tradition of a preferential love for the poor. I'd like to be at their liturgies.

Remember that at the heart of the preferential option for the poor is a faith that love, generosity, compassion, and justice are the values dearest to God's heart and our own hearts. Remember, too, that our faith tradition tells us that we discover our lives only as we give them away.

A preferential option for the poor simply reminds us who we are: a people who, when we are honest and awake, would do anything to end one another's suffering.

What is a preferential option for the poor?

While theologians may differ on some aspects of the meaning of the phrase, it is safe to highlight a few critical characteristics of the preferential option for the poor.

1. It is scriptural. The option for the poor is reflected in -- you could even say advocated by God in scripture. While that may startle us at first, the preferential option for the poor is, in fact, a responsible, reasonable way to describe Yahweh's activity in the Bible.

It is a valid description of the call of Moses and the liberation of the Hebrew people from Egypt in the book of Exodus, and of the Old Testament prophets and their particular concern for the care of widows, orphans, and foreigners. Most important, it is a description of the ministry of Jesus, whose care and teaching demonstrated a dedication to the weak and neglected.

One caution: God does not love poor people more than rich people. But the love of God gets focused in a particular way on those who suffer. This is not unfamiliar to us; imagine the love of parents when one of their children is seriously sick. They dedicate themselves to the recovery of the sick child with special care, all the while not loving any less their healthy children.

So it is with God. God's preferential love for the poor is motivated by their pain and God's intention that all live lives of dignity and abundance.

2. It has a goal. A preferential option for the poor does not assent to the position that poverty is inevitable or acceptable. The meaningfulness of love is that it makes a difference. Love that pours itself out for the poor ultimately desires the end of the suffering as well as an end to the cause of the suffering.

Consequently, God's arena of care and healing includes not only family, neighborhood, prayer, and sacrament, but politics and economics.

Indeed, both Moses' covenant and Jesus's notion of the Reign of God address realities that merge the ideas of faith and politics. The ministry of Moses, motivated by God's love for the Hebrew slaves but obstructedby the designs of the pharaoh, was necessarily political and revolutionary. For much of the poor, "a land of milk and honey" can only be understood in the light of faith and of politics.

Certainly, some forms of human brokenness and suffering are not matters of politics: for example, the suffering caused by tornadoes or old age. But and this is critical poverty almost always is. The majority of the poor are poor because of political and economic forces out of their control.

3. It is multifaceted. This doesn't mean that a preferential option for the poor can be expressed only in political and economic activism. I think a healthy, integrated care for the poor expresses itself in myriad ways, including many familiar though precious expressions of charity: donations, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and so on. However, a holy determination to ease or eliminate poverty will ultimately evolve into the recognition of and engagement with the political and economic forces at play.

4. It is a response to sin. Donal Dorr's book, Option for the Poor (Orbis, 1992), written only four years after the 1979 Puebla General Conference, analyzes the history of Catholic social teaching as it concerns itself specifically with the idea of a preferential option for the poor. Historically, he observes, the church has been deliberate and persistent in its statement of care for the poor and its call of conversion and responsibility to the rich. However, the church has not been nearly as helpful in counseling the poor when faced with an unrepentant oppressor, a pharaoh.

Political and economic decisions as Moses, the prophets, and Jesus recognized often pay homage to the preference of self-interest of the powerful at the expense of the well-being of others. Pork-barrel politics is a familiar example.

A preferential option for the poor calls us to stand on the side of those whose lives have been diminished by neglect or scarcity. This means we stand, not as enemies of anyone, but as allies of the poor and as adversaries of the decisions and realities that rob them of life.

5. It is based on faith. While a preferential option for the poor may express itself in political and economic as well as civic and charitable ways, it is ultimately a matter of faith. "Preferential option for the poor" names the size of our heart and the energy of our care. It names our willingness to suffer and sacrifice and endure hardship on behalf of our sisters and brothers.

What can holiness mean in our faith tradition except that we become people whose love grows and grows to include the care of all? And what would our love mean if it did not seek out and care for the most wounded among us?


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