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No Federal Funds – What Now?

Yesterday a staff member from the United States Catholic Conference was almost in tears as she lamented the tremendous loss of welfare funds to Catholic agencies and to the poor because of the new anti-immigration
bill which eliminates assistance to legal immigrants not yet citizens.

“What are we going to do?” she cried. “Where are we going to find hope?”

The U. S. Bishops insisted that the U. S. government help those who are vulnerable, but the U. S. government has said no, absolutely not–and President Clinton signed the denial into law, following the lead of the governor of California.

Similar questions arise even when federal funds abound. Even though a number of agencies which serve the homeless in Houston have together received 52 million dollars in the past three years in government grants
for the homeless, there is nowhere to send homeless women and children. The telephone at Casa Juan Diego rings and rings with many requests for housing, many from U.S. citizens who are in the street or on the edge of being so or living in their cars with their children.

When we are overwhelmed with requests for services, we have this paranoid feeling that the United Way has hired another person to give out our phone number. They call this networking and information and referral.

What are we going to do?

Faced with the challenge of these questions, we recalled the visit of Houston’s most prominent newscaster, Ron Stone to Casa Juan Diego not too long ago. “What is it with you Catholics?” he asked, “You have Casa Juan Diego, Sister Kathy Foster at Casa de Esperanza and others who provide tremendous services to the poor without public monies. How do you do it?”

To the depressed staff person of the USCC we explained what we did when faced with the onslaught of refugees in 1980. Refugees from the wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and immigrants from other countries poured into Houston. They were homeless and desperate. City councilmen, pastors, social workers, and parishioners of St. Theresa (where we succeeded Sr. Catherine Swilley as social service ministers after we returned from El Salvador) begged us to do something to help these new immigrants and refugees.

We had no funds, but we had experience.

We had fallen in love while working with the poor–so our love began and flourished in the midst of service to others. So there were no excuses for not responding (or so we thought).

We responded at first like all married couples do!

We blamed our lack of taking the bull by the horns to serve refugees on the children. “The children! The children! How can you do that to the children?”–as if parents serving the poor is harmful to their children.

We, however, risked “doing harm” to the children and started.

Fortunately, Louise was able to get a job at Houston Public Library as a bilingual children’s librarian to support our family. Mark could work without salary to begin a Catholic Worker house of hospitality for refugees and we would have money to help. (Later, when our children were older, Louise was able to leave her job to join Mark full-time at the Worker.)

We even thought about both of us working so that we could save money and one day really help the poor (Ahem!). It is strange that more and more women and men can give their lives–almost every waking moment–to serve the corporate structure without criticism, but if one suggests one of the spouses use this energy to serve the poor, it is automatically harmful to the children.

The ugliest building in Houston was the first home of Casa Juan Diego for immigrants and refugees. The local pastor who blessed the new Catholic Worker house remarked to us that we would need at least $50,000 to start. We chuckled. We didn’t have a penny.

This building that we were renting burned in 1982 right after the liturgy. The priest said–Go and live the faith,” but we looked up and fire and smoke were coming through the ceiling–not tongues of fire!

As we recounted, from the humble beginning on Washington Avenue we have been able to develop a major alternative immigration and hospitality service. Over 30,000 immigrants and refugees have passed through the doors of Casa Juan Diego, and not one dollar has been taken from the public trough.

The same with regards to medicine and medical and dental services to thousands, working with volunteer physicians and dentists.

The same with millions of meals to those who live on the margin of survival, plus services of many kinds.

Our listener was amazed that two ordinary lay people could develop alternative systems or structures without major funding of millions of dollars.

Of course, we had our usual secret, we didn’t pay anyone. We adopted the voluntary poverty of Dorothy Day.

Catholics are blessed with the preferential option for the poor. This is their strength. They are called to be on the cutting edge of service and risk for the poor–never counting the cost. The preferential option for the poor has empowered lay people who have so little power. But they have the Gospel, which is very powerful.

Personalism v. Professionalism

Being fortified with the preferential option for the poor, Christians are better equipped against falling into the trap of thinking that somehow or other you need a special agency or highly trained social service people with master’s degrees to know how to work with the poor. They should be especially able to avoid thinking that enormous grants from the government are necessary to begin to serve the poor. They should be able to see through the problem of very limited services after the expenditure of millions of dollars, of which only a tiny fraction ever reach those in need because of bureaucracy and salaries for social workers.

Agency structure and bureaucracy tend to inhibit creativity and innovative responses to the problems of poverty.

Having well-educated social workers and social service professionals can be an asset in serving the vulnerable and in avoiding traps in serving the poor, but it is not really necessary for salvation.

It is professional to serve the poor in the best possible way with respect for their dignity as human beings. Responding directly to their needs without a lot of fanfare, questions, interviews and words not only saves time, but also eliminates the danger of developing a messiah complex on the part of the worker.

Spending a lot of time listening to long stories of why people are poor is dangerous. The poor who are good storytellers get everything. The poor storytellers often suffer.

It is true that providing hospitality is challenging, if not murderous. You cannot imagine the problems that can arise when people are with you twenty-four hours a day. Some have said that one must be a masochist to provide good humane hospitality. It is so bad that a major women’s center openly proclaims that they are going to focus on counseling instead of hospitality. We understand!

You cannot be on the cutting edge of services to the poor if your priority is orderliness and order. Ironically, creativity should come from experienced workers and those in leadership roles who tend to inhibit it.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin resisted the social work of their day as they saw it as a system to impose the values of the social worker on the poor person. Instead of professionalism, they embraced personalism.

The imposition of values by social workers has not entirely changed in our day. We still have people telling the poor what they need to do to be like them.

A Confession

We must confess that we succumbed some years ago (before the HCW) to the temptation to get graduate degrees to better serve the poor–or was it to get a better job with a much higher salary? Or was it for the sake of our children? Of course!

We benefited from our university experience (Louise, University of California at Berkeley; Mark, University of Chicago). We learned a lot about the secular world and secularism, being at two of the best secularist universities in the country. We have been there and done that! The primary focus among students was how much money and status they could amass upon graduation. There was no sense of vocation of service to the world, but only to professionalism.

Most education at these universities begin with denigrating faith or, at best, ignoring it an seeing it as unimportant. Educators speak of the world of knowledge and tolerance and that there is a level playing field
in which all can participate. The only problem is that the secularists call the plays and only their values are admissible.

Our very first lesson on coming from a Catholic background was at the University of Chicago. We found classmates in graduate school suffering from a lot of guilt. We thought, of course, that they must have gone to Catholic schools, where the guilt machine got them. That was what Catholic liberals were saying at the time.

To our surprise, we discovered that none of them were Catholic.

Our Disappointment

With our sheepskins under our arms we went to the job market and were fortunate enough to find good programs.

We were going to change the world–or so we thought.

Our expectations were probably too high in the area of thinking that all these highly educated people with advanced degrees in social work, psychology and psychiatry would provide an ambience of profound cultural depth and stimulating intellectual activity.

Disappointment came soon as what we found was not an intellectual and cultural oasis, but a desert.

Like the Jews in Babylon, we longed for our religious ghetto, where the most profound questions were in our minds and hearts and discussions and actions, and for church people who had such great intellectual and cultural depth, not only in the Spirit, but in the practical wisdom of how to do things, and who didn’t count the cost.

These experiences helped our Catholic inferiority complex that some of us had, thinking that somehow secular education is better or that the real truth is with these prominent universities or that graduate training is absolutely necessary to serve the poor.

But what about the Institutional Church?

However, very unfortunately, we had been touched by our secular education and by the worldly spirit of the times. That and the liberation of the sixties impacted us.

We found ourselves denigrating the institutional church and assisting at Mass in people’s living rooms–fancy living rooms at that–with a loaf of whole wheat bread as essential, of course. Fortunately, the ’60’s liberal culture could not erase our deeply seeded faith, which was moving us towards involvement with Spanish speaking people.

With good-paying jobs and having sold everything, we could well afford to take the risk of going to Latin America to learn more about the culture, the language, and the faith of the people. A priest from El Salvador had invited us to work in the poor neighborhood where he was located. We loaded our two children, ages six and eight, a few earthly belongings, two small violins and 200 children’s books into our old Chevy and headed for El Salvador. We had just finished studying beginning, intermediate and advanced courses in Spanish all at the same time for one semester.

Needless to say, in El Salvador we found no home liturgies nor comfortable sofas, only makeshift chapels along railroad tracks where the priest washed the feet of poor women and where military police waited outside to harass us for being with the poor.

We found the institutional Church–but the institutional Church redefined. It was all over the place working with the poor, celebrating the liturgy, preparing people for first communion, teaching catechism, sharing with adults in small groups, fighting against slave wages and being killed for standing with the poor–even at leadership roles at the highest level.

Our experience in El Salvador brought us to our knees. We said little about this because kneeling theology was so unpopular at the time. A prominent Franciscan encouraged us when he finally went public with this idea.

The Central American experience deepened our faith and prepared us for a greater commitment. We were ready to put into practice the preferential option for the poor and Matthew 25 and the stories of the rich young man and Dives and Lazarus haunted us.

However, implementing the preferential option for the poor is not easy. We discovered that it was a very difficult process unless we took seriously the call to follow the Nazarene.

Giving up all and following Jesus can be very stressful and the enneagram is just not going to do it! A revolution is needed, not a diagram.

Dorothy Day reminded us, “The greatest challenge of the day is: How to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers and sisters with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now, I have begun.'” (Loaves and Fishes)

The Catholic Moment?

It would be a mistake to suggest that the option for the poor is a new development with the Catholic Worker movement, in contemporary religious orders or in the post-Vatican II Church. The emphasis on living out the heart of the Gospel in the washing of the feet, in receiving and caring for the poor as our Lord himself, was a reality in the life and teachings of the early Church, the incredible example of St. Francis and others in the Middle Ages, later with St. Vincent de Paul and Frederic Ozanam, Frances Cabrini and the religious orders who have worked among the poor over the centuries. Could you imagine thse saints applying for federal funds or having fancy offices or participating in grantsmanship?

The Catholic Worker in Christchurch, New Zealand, in their newsletter, The Common Good, featured the reflection of Polanco who wrote in 1547 under the guidance of St. Ignatius, which tells us so much about Jesus’ love for the poor: “So great are the poor in the sight of God, that it was especially for them that Jesus Christ was sent into the world. Our Lord so preferred the poor to the rich, that he chose the entire college of his apostles from among the poor, to live and associate with them.”

But there is a new definition of the preferential option for the poor today affirmed in the historic Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism also reminds us that “the Eucharist commits us to the poor” (No. 1397). Perhaps this really is the Catholic moment (as someone has suggested, but in a little different dimension), as other Catholic
moments have emerged in history. It is a moment of opportunity, rich with possibilities to implement the Gospel.

It is a moment in history that could lead one to despair. A few corporation executives and shareholders (many Catholic among them) are amassing enormous wealth while workers of the world, many of whom are children, work long hours at slave wages. It is a moment in which the best values and traditions and the very lives of people in Third World countries are being destroyed through enticement into the global economy, which benefits the few. It is a time of wars and rumors of wars and arms sales for profit to encourage them. It is a time of crises in cities like Houston, where families are living in the streets, in their cars and there is no help for them. (As we write this, we just hung up from another desperate call.)

It is a time when the emphasis is again on a master race–when anyone who might be disabled, imperfect, depressed or old and sick can be killed with the blessing of society either before or after birth. Today immigrants, who contribute so much and receive nothing in return from the taxes they pay, are denigrated–but thank God, not by the Church.

But Catholicism offers us Christian hope–even in our time–a hope based not on a shallow natural optimism, but rather a profound supernatural optimism, the theological virtue of hope in God.

In a recent article in The Chesterton Review, comparing Hans Urs von Balthasar and G.K. Chesterton, John Saward spells out the difference in Chesterton’s words:

“False optimism tries to prove that man fits into the world: this is the only life man has, and so he has to make the best of it.” “Bycontrast,” says Chesterton, “Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit into the world. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even inacquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and mysoul sang for joy, like a bird in Spring.”

It is not for some vaguely defined happiness that Christians hope (knowing that this world in which we live, even though the reign of God has already begun, could not possibly be the best of all possible worlds) but for “eternal happiness with Our Lady and the angels and saints in the vision of the Triune God.”

This gift of hope and the consequent one of good humor, qualities to be found in all the great saints, can bring a whole new perspective to responding to the crises of our age. Together with rich joy and a supernatural sense of humor made possible by grace and charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Christian hope dispels despair and keeps one working and praying year after year in something like the Catholic Worker or wherever one’s commitment may be. The hope and strength of Catholics is increased by encounters with the Lord in the liturgy and the sacraments and the life of the Church. Romano Guardini said it so well in his book, Meditations before Mass: “It is very important to experience the pass-over of the sacred moment emerging from eternity (in the Mass–the Eucharist). It catches us up into itself, and while it lasts we are different from what we are at all other times. Then it dismisses us, and we fall back into the transitoriness of day-to-day existence. But if we have vitally participated in it, we take with us the seed of that holy eternity which comes from the Resurrection, and our life in the transitory world is changed.” This is quite different from a “pie in the sky when you die” approach. Here the Church, imperfect as it is on a human level, brings us the presence of Jesus, Son of God, and helps us along the way of discipleship.

Saward reminds us in his article that “The saints love the Church–the historical, visible Roman Catholic, not just some ideal Church–because, for all the blemishes of her earthly form, she is the beloved Bride of Christ, teaching His truth and communicating His grace. The shortcomings of the clergy do not depress them; it simply drives them to more fervent prayer and penance. They strike their own, not their brothers’ breasts.”

Some on the extreme right and the extreme left (more recently more on the left) within the Church seem to lack this Christian hope, deteriorating into negative pessimism. Saward tells us how “Balthasar contrasts the saints’ cheerful love of the Church with the criticisms leveled against her by the moaners, savage satirists, grumblers, carping critics, full of bitter scorn, know-alls who think they have the monopoly of infallible judgment.” These folks do little to dispel despair.

To Whom Shall we go, Lord?

In the light of current political and economic realities, how can people of hope respond? The challenge is to go beyond mediocrity, beyond living like everyone else in our secular society, a bourgeois, middle-class lifestyle, to the call of Jesus in the Gospels and thus to a Christian response to those most in need.

Georges Bernanos, the author of The Diary of a Country Priest, tells of the pitfalls of those who claim to be Christian and don’t work on the revolution of the heart: “The world expects so much from Christians and receives so little… Christians should be the salt, not the syrup of the earth… They don’t allow the holiness of saints to beam out over the world.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernanos: an Ecclesial Existence, Ignatius Press, 1996)

Bernanos cautions us in our mundane, bourgeois world: “The worst sort of imprudence is to underestimate the mediocre. Mediocrity is a colorless and odorless gas that we peacefully allow to accumulate, and then it suddenly explodes with incredible violence.”

Who is called to the revolution of the heart so far beyond mediocrity? Who is called to a whole new way of life–even to heroism? Who can respond as Jesus would to the crises of our age? Vatican II proclaimed the universal call to holiness–every Christian, every Catholic. Dorothy Day had affirmed this calling throughout her life in the Catholic Worker movement; she had learned it from the saints.

The beautiful encyclical Veritatis Splendor, (The Splendor of Truth), spells out the Gospel call even more, with the story of the rich young man and his encounter with Jesus as the base for the whole document. (We didn’t read this encyclical until recently because a prominent Jesuit theologian denigrated it so fiercely in America magazine. He was wrong.) It is amazing that a pope who is considered very conservative could write such a radical document, especially Chapter I.

The theological world described in this encyclical is filled with ironies. Catholic theologians are not seen as telling people to give up all and follow Jesus, as opposing consumerism and materialism, nor as great opponents of the global market crushing millions of its people in its profit path.

Some appear to be bourgeois theologians, always seeking new ways and new theories to avoid guilt and responsibility for the bourgeoisie instead of focusing on the responsibilities of Catholics. They carry on the minimalist tradition of pre-Vatican II theologians who specialized in casuistry, with the great challenge, “How far can I go before it is a mortal sin?”

The world has too many theologians imitating Pilate, who asks of Jesus, “What is truth?” when they know darn good and well what is the truth–give up all and follow Jesus instead of trying to increase the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

If we follow the lead of theologians, no Catholics would be required to serve the poor–a theology of excuse could always be found. We know all about the theology of excuse. We were specialists in it at one time.

Only yesterday, a couple from St. Thomas parish complained bitterly about the focus in the parishes on programs on self-development and the lack of challenge to be concerned about the human rights and needs of the poorest of the poor in our world.

The encyclical emphasizes that “The way…consists in the following of Jesus, once one has given up one’s own wealth and very self.” Pope John Paul II emphasizes here that it is not a matter only of disposingoneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment(although it does include the commandments). But, “more radically it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father.”

What, specifically, is the way of Jesus in the world? How would Jesus respond to the current situation of the poor?

The encyclical spells out the response: “Jesus asks us to follow him along the path of love, a love which gives itself completely to the brethren out of love for God.” What is required is the imitation of Jesus, of which “the washing of the feet is a sign.”

One of the priests of the Community of St. John from Laredo was recently in Houston. He reminded us that we are to be icons (saints) of the love of Jesus. As he told us, there are many ways to live this out. We can’t all be the same. We can’t all be like Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day–and that’s good! It relieves boredom in the world of icons.

It is not a question of who is to be an icon–we all must be–but a question of how. There will be as many “hows” as there are people. Your “how” will not be my “how.” But every human being must decide how they are going to live out the Gospel. And the place to begin is contemplation, not apologetics.

Before the Poor

The advantage of living out the Gospel to give up all and follow Jesus is the ability one receives to be concerned about the poor and human persons rather than focus on one’s own needs. The paradox of the Gospel is that one grows and grows by giving rather than by asking or receiving.

Unfortunately, some human rights movements have turned into a narcissistic circus where what we have are middle-class victims instead of human rights workers.

Catholics cannot ignore concern for the poor and their poverty. The condition of poverty becomes, as Bernanos says, a worthy and honorable thing by reference to Christ, who “being rich, became poor for our sake” (2 Cor 8:9). The great hope Christianity brought into the world of the poor “was certainly not that of a dictatorship of the proletariat but that of a society in which the poor would be honored because God himself had made himself poor and had thus hallowed–not only the moral disposition of poverty of spirit, as certain simoniac theologians sometimes let it be known–but the very social condition of the poor. The question is not how we can make the poor rich, since all the gold of your mines would probably not suffice for this. In any event, you’d only succeed in multiplying the pseudorich. No, the question is not how we can enrich the poor but how we can honor the poor, or, rather, how we can give them the honor that is their due.”

When questioned about the posture of the saints and where to find them, Bernanos responded: “On their knees before the poor, the infirm, the leprous–that’s how, at the feet of their royal guest.”

Bernanos’ understanding of the relationship of rich and poor is prophetic in the light of what has happened in today’s global economy, where the poor are dishonored in a new way, especially in the centers of cheap child labor in the Third World in tax-free zones where labor organizing is prohibited and goods are made for U.S. consumers. He told us that “the worst thing is that the rich have dishonored the poor in a new way. They have absorbed the poor into their own ideology, persuading them that poverty is a disgrace and wealth an honor. By so doing they have inflicted the most thorough, even if perhaps most unnoticed, attack upon the honor of Jesus Christ, and the cleverest of all attacks, too, on his Church, who is the trustee of the poor and who is alone, absolutely alone, in safeguarding the honor of poverty. Ah! Our enemies do have an easy time of it!”

How can today’s Catholics equal or recapture the vision of the great Christian saints who gave up all to follow Jesus, who made their life decisions based on their hope for eternal life and their discipleship? How can we find their joy and hope and commitment?

Bernanos gives us an answer when he speaks of St. Francis of Assisi:

“My dear brothers! I’ll repeat now what I’ve already said, because it’s always the same thing: If you had followed this saint instead of cheering him, Europe would never have known the Reformation, or the Wars of Religion, or the terrible Spanish repression. For it’s you this saint was calling….” (And we would not have had nearly so many
birdbaths, either!)

It is the same with Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Rose Hawthorne, Juan Diego, Father Damian and so many others. As each of them knew, once having heard the Beatitudes, there is a mysterious connection that binds the poor with the Kingdom of God.

As we seek to follow Jesus and meditate on the lives of the saints, the road becomes more clear–even without federal funds. Amen.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVI, No. 7, December 1996.