CCHD: Living the Message of Christ on the Margins


Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Isaiah 42 tells us how we will know the Messiah:

He will not cry out, nor shout, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow dim or be bruised until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

In fulfilling this prophecy, Jesus Christ confronts us with the boldness of his example: what does it mean to support the bruised and smoldering, and to work tirelessly for justice?

It means, in part, directing our help to the most vulnerable members of society. In 2013, roughly 45 million Americans lived in poverty, close to 15 million of them children. For newcomers to the United States, poverty rates are often higher than those among the native-born population. People who are struggling live all around us, in every city and state, with a broad range of needs corresponding to income, age, health, and immigration status – and Christ’s example directs us to reach out to them all.

But because the needs of our suffering neighbors are diverse, so too must be our methods of outreach. There is the policy approach: for example, in 2013, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps) kept nearly 5 million people out of poverty. Despite its success in keeping struggling families food secure, SNAP has repeatedly come under fire by politicians hoping to make gainful cuts to social spending. So the CCHD’s commitment to providing clear and accurate information about the function of SNAP and other programs aimed at supporting poor families is an incredibly valuable tool for inviting Catholics into public advocacy for the good of our suffering neighbors.

It is somewhat more challenging to measure the impact of local and grassroots organizations helping people in need, in part because the forms aid can take are very diverse. But community-built support systems are absolutely indispensible to the health of society, and can oftentimes respond to needs that large-scale government programs would have more difficulty addressing. The CCHD’s mission to locate and fund ground-level aid groups is the subsidiarity-based counterpart to its solidarity-based advocacy for SNAP, and its goals are just as necessary.

Consider, for example, Parent Voices Oakland, an Oakland-based advocacy group seeking effective childcare solutions for working parents. A CCHD grantee this year, Parent Voices Oakland aims to respond to a problem recently profiled in the Pacific Standard – that is, the rise of round-the-clock daycare due to the increasing work loads of parents in the labor market. But childcare, especially for parents who work very long hours, is not necessarily affordable, reliable, or obviously safe, and for working families all three of those qualities are absolutely necessary. Parent Voices Oakland hopes to establish community-based childcare choices as well as eventually make childcare available to all parents regardless of income or current access. Like the CCHD’s model, Parent Voices considers all options, from state programs to community organizations, and in doing so makes the most of the rich tapestry of support working parents are due.

This model of help – which utilizes the talents and knowledge of low-income families and their communities as well as their organizing potential – recognizes the full value of the people who have asserted their need, and gives us some insight into what a Church on the Margins might look like. It will be prophetic in its mission, and like the Messiah, it will place first the well-being of those who are weak, suffering, and vulnerable. But it will not just support top-down distributions of resources. It will walk with the suffering as they make their own way forward, bringing forth outside help when needed, and supporting already-present community resources for change when they are available.

The CCHD, in other words, is an avenue through which we can live the message of Christ on the margins, where so many reeds are bruised and wicks are close to burning out. Like the Messiah’s mission on earth, the goal is justice – and where justice is needed, tireless work is required. For those of us watching trends in inequality and economic pressure on families with despair, this is the work that must be done.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig is from Fort Worth, Texas. She writes about Christian ethics, poverty and political theology for Salon, The Atlantic and The Week. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and obtained her MPhil in Christian theology from the University of Cambridge. She is currently a doctoral student at Brown University.

Bishop Jaime Soto on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development

The USCCB collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development will be taken up in parishes nationwide on the weekend of November 22-23. Please give generously.

Bishop Jaime Soto, Chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on CCHD

Bishop Jaime Soto, Chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on CCHD

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is the anti-poverty program of the Catholic bishops of the United States. Thinking about CCHD, my thoughts turn to the latest flashpoint of anger and civil unrest in our country—Ferguson, Missouri.

When the bishops created CCHD forty years ago, core to its mission was overcoming poverty by bringing together people of diverse backgrounds and different income brackets to identify solutions to poverty. Forty years later, the turmoil of Ferguson seems to pose a unique threat to our country. Yet there are eerie echoes of the past.

Just after the police shooting of the young black man, Michael Brown, there was much speculation and punditry about the reasons for the explosion of outrage. It’s right to ask whether adequate resources are available to stem a rising tide of frustration in our communities. And there are real concerns about racism, profiling and the militarization of local police enforcement. But I want to draw attention to one aspect that caught my attention in a radio report I heard in those initial days.

An African-American woman, active in the community of Ferguson, spoke about low voter turnout in the area. This may be just one underlying factor among many, but not an insignificant one.

Low voter participation means that structures intended to promote the common good may be far from representative. Confidence in decisions made and trust in those who make them become fragile. In Ferguson, authority was disconnected from accountability, fomenting a volatile social imbalance that only needed a spark. What little social fabric existed quickly unraveled.

As a bishop, I’m troubled to see violence erode a community. I’m also concerned about the underlying problems of diminishing public participation and representation. In my home state of California during the recent elections, a comparatively small percentage of citizens turned out to vote. We need to be sober about the problems of stale voter turnout.

Even a nation of laws cannot survive without the participation of ordinary people. Liberty loses its meaning without a common purpose fashioned from the crucible of thoughtful, respectful social dialogue. Groups supported by CCHD are working to reverse the process of community implosion by engaging citizens in critical conversations and activating the community’s native talent, resources and creativity. CCHD groups are reinforcing and creating social bonds based on faith, sharing and solidarity. In Ferguson, they are addressing racism and lack of opportunity for so many young people who feel excluded. Groups like Sacramento Area Congregations Together, in my diocese, are organizing parishes to reintegrate ex-offenders into the community in safe, productive and meaningful ways. Efforts like these help keep people from returning to prison and a life of crime.

Growing political polarity and economic disparity, as well as dwindling social civility seem to be pushing more people to the margins, either by coercion or self-exclusion. The relation between this growing exclusion and questions of democratic participation is not casual.

Pope Benedict XVI gave these questions, and the challenges they pose for Christians, much thought in his encyclical on charity, Deus Caritas Est. He proposed that even if a society could perfectly administer justice, Christians would still have the duty of charity. Charity is no substitute for justice. Charity implies justice. It enables a free society to build social bonds that justice alone cannot forge. We should listen carefully to the wise instruction of the Book of Proverbs: “He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will himself also call and not be heard.”

Through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the bishops of the United States offer a unique contribution towards overcoming the hostility and indifference plaguing our country. The empowerment of local groups committed to breaking down the walls of race and income inequality, in the name of a greater solidarity, reverses the trend of disintegration that we’re witnessing in places like Ferguson. The credibility that CCHD supported groups bring to the table of democracy is a love for neighbor that satisfies the demands of justice and exceeds them.

Jaime Soto is the bishop of Sacramento and the chairman of the USCCB’s Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Living Subsidiarity, Serving the Common Good

Aaron Weldon of the USCCB.

Aaron Weldon of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities.

The USCCB collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development will be taken up in parishes nationwide on the weekend of November 22-23. Please give generously.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development plays an important part in the Church’s mission to address poverty. One dimension of this work that may go unnoticed is the contribution CCHD makes to the life of the body politic. CCHD supports organizations working locally to get people involved in the issues that affect them. These groups bring people together to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their cities and neighborhoods. By supporting these groups, CCHD makes an invaluable contribution to the common good.

When we think politics, we often think about government and the state. We think of judges and elected officials who develop, enforce and interpret laws. But a healthy body politic requires more than good governance by state officials. A healthy society requires institutions and associations that make up civil society. In fact, this is the basic meaning of subsidiarity. In order to take responsibility for the social issues they face at the local level, communities need strong institutions. The state, as well as large or multi-national corporations, develops an oversized and unhealthy place in society when local institutions diminish and community voices go unheard.

The human person is social. She needs opportunities to work with others at a human level. Certainly, the first institution in which persons learn to work with others is the family. Other small-scale institutions – such as unions, small associations, community organizations, and even recreational clubs – provide venues for people to work with their neighbors on common projects. They serve as places for citizens to encounter one another and to cooperate on particular tasks, such as beautifying the neighborhood, raising money for charitable works, or providing forums to talk about issues of common concern. The whole community benefits from the vitality of these groups.

Western Colorado Congress is supported by CCHD.

Western Colorado Congress is supported by CCHD.

CCHD supports these kinds of institutions. For example, Western Colorado Congress works with rural residents, farmers and ranchers in Colorado. Many of these women and men have contended with the abuse of eminent domain, as well as pollution of their water supplies. These people should be able to speak up in defense of their land. WCC has helped to organize local stakeholders, so that large companies cannot simply impose their will on people in the rural areas. A functioning democracy requires engaged citizens who seek the common good. A CCHD-funded group like WCC provides the institutional structure necessary to help citizens become engaged.

The prevalence of poverty in the wealthiest nation in history is a scandal. It is certainly imperative that we who are Christians confront this scandal. The work of CCHD breaks the cycle of poverty by building up the local-level institutions required by a healthy society. CCHD contributes to the body politic. Through this ministry, the Church is a leaven in the world, promoting subsidiarity and serving the common good.

Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant in the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and a PhD candidate in systematic theology at The Catholic University of America.

Go deeper:
Visit PovertyUSA and PobrezaUSA to learn more about the work of CCHD supported organizations and follow CCHD on Twitter.