How One Worker-Owned Cooperative Offered Hope and Economic Development

When the big industry in a region closes its doors, or moves out of state or out of the country, there is justified anger, grief, and hand-wringing. Workers who depended on the jobs, checks, and benefits may have few employment alternatives.

Unemployment benefits can’t make up the lost income. The economy sags. The human toll follows.

But Opportunity Threads, a group that receives funding from the Catholic bishops through the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), offers a story of hope amid such adversity.

For much of the last century the economy of western North Carolina has depended on furniture and textile industries. But when these industries closed operations in the area, local people stepped in to develop an alternative model of economic development.

Opportunity Threads is a “cut-and-sew” cooperative that employs 23 full-time workers, who in turn support at least 100 family members. Molly Hemstreet, now the general manager of Opportunity Threads, grew up in the area and taught English as a Second Language to recent immigrants. She and several community members pals identified a growing consumer interest in local, sustainable goods that support the “triple bottom line” of social, economic, and environmental benefits to a community.

Working with one used sewing machine after hours in a borrowed room, they helped start a local renaissance in micro-manufacturing. Together they turned the excess inventory of irregular socks from a local small producer into winsome stuffed animals, and introduced “up-cycling” to the area.

With grant assistance from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. Catholic bishops’ domestic, anti-poverty program, Opportunity Threads was soon established as a worker-owned business that draws on skilled un- and underemployed people in the community of Burke County, North Carolina, to create sustainable livelihoods and put a new face on textile production in the rural South.

Molly supports worker ownership because it gives people responsibility and a voice in the company and promotes dignity and respect. The long route to worker-owner may take a worker up to 18 months, but the painstaking training and vetting pays off by creating a group that works together as a balanced team. As further proof, Opportunity Threads has yet to lose an owner or “pre-member” to a vote of the worker-owners.

But that’s not all. Opportunity Threads has actively helped other suppliers and producers work together and share jobs. Molly calls it “co-opetition.” The work has developed into the Carolina Textile District, which aggregates work, screens producers, and determines who’s best for a job. Molly said the pie of the textile industry is large enough for everyone to have a piece without competing and being at each other’s throats.

In fact, so many other groups have asked Opportunity Threads how to establish a successful worker-owned model that Molly and others formed The Industrial Commons, which also got a grant from CCHD. The Industrial Commons now helps small- to mid-sized industrial firms and networks create economic opportunity for low-income workers, improve livelihoods, develop democratic workplaces, and root ownership in communities to create sustainable change.

From where I sit, that looks like a tremendously positive alternative to handwringing and despair.

Beth Griffin is a free-lance journalist with an abiding interest in social justice.

 Going Deeper

In most dioceses in the U.S., Nov. 18-19, 2017, was the national collection to support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Nov. 19 was also the first World Day of the Poor.  Use this Poverty Map to find out about work in your part of the country that is supported by the bishops through CCHD.

A Reflection for Poverty Awareness Month

Listening is an important ingredient to every healthy relationship. Can you think of an instance in which a relationship in your life either deepened or was challenged due to the ability or inability of one or both parties to listen to the other?  Our relationship with Christ, and with our neighbors, in whom Christ is present, is the same way. The readings for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Jan. 28, 2018) reminded us of the importance of listening. Listening to God’s call for our lives, our communities, and our world is essential. We first listen, and then we are called to respond. What a fitting theme to reflect on during Poverty Awareness Month!

As we heard in this Sunday’s first reading, we might recall that throughout the Old Testament, God speaks through prophets like Moses, calling the people to repent of their unfaithfulness—which is often illustrated by their worship of false idols, immoral living, and failure to care for those who are poor and oppressed. In the first reading, Moses describes the role of a prophet, who is to be God’s “voice” to the people. Moses invites the people to listen to God’s words to them.

Moses’ message from God to the people spans numerous chapters in Deuteronomy. The instructions aim to help the people remain in right relationship with both God and neighbor.  Part of the instructions are about caring for the stranger, orphan and widow (14:29) and forgiving the debts of those who are poor (15:1-11), for example. Moses exhorts the people to listen (18:15). Those who listen to God’s voice, engaging in both right worship (orthodoxy) and right practice or deed (orthopraxy), will flourish.

The refrain of the Psalm likewise exhorts the people to hear God’s voice: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

Listening is also key in the second reading. Paul writes to the community at Corinth in anticipation of Christ’s second coming, which he and the early Christians believed was imminent. Whatever our state in life, this reading calls each of us to create space in our hearts and lives so that, “without distraction,” we can listen to God’s voice.

In this past Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus—the son of God, the one about whom the prophets spoke—speaks words that elicit immediate response.  “He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him,” the people remark.  If “even the unclean spirits” obey, then those who are “faithful” should be even better at recognizing Christ’s voice!

We can peel back another layer to this story by asking: Who is the man with the unclean spirit, whom Jesus liberates? In Jesus’ time, mental illness, disability, and disease were frequently attributed to demonic possession. (See, for example, Mt. 9:32-34, 12:22-32, and 17:14-21; and Lk. 4:31-41.)  As a result, those who were sick, disabled, or mentally ill were on the peripheries. They were ignored or even intentionally marginalized. But not by Jesus. Jesus approaches the man in today’s Gospel without fear. He sees the person behind the condition. In some other healing stories (e.g. Mt. 9:32-38, Mk. 1:29-45, etc.), Jesus is “moved by pity” or compassion.  He speaks with authority, healing the one who is sick or possessed. Those who watch the miracles rarely seem to understand Jesus’ message. We know his invitation to faith and compassion is not only for the Gospel crowds and Pharisees: it is for us today as well!

We all struggle to listen to Christ’s call. This can be challenging due to our busyness or from our unwillingness to prioritize prayer or to encounter Christ in the “other.” How can we listen, when the world around us seems so much in turmoil?  Instead of viewing prayer as a way to escape from the realities around us, can we think of it as a special time to unite the deepest concerns of our hearts, and of the world, with Christ’s loving presence?

Try this prayer exercise: find a quiet space and read the Gospel reading again (Mark 1:21-28). Imagine that you are a character in the story—perhaps someone in the crowd, perhaps the man with the unclean spirit. Imagine how it would feel to be there. Imagine using your senses: what do you see around you? What do you hear? What do you smell? Imagine seeing or meeting Jesus.  React to what he says and does. Enter into the story.

Then, read the story again. This time, substitute a modern-day person into the story for the person with the unclean spirit—perhaps someone who is often rejected: a homeless person; someone with a mental illness; an undocumented person; an individual with a disability; a refugee. Watch Jesus see and approach this person. See what happens. Let this exercise lead you into prayer for those on the peripheries. Pray about how Christ might be calling you to respond.

In God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI challenged us to allow love of God and love of neighbor to “become one: in the least of our brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God” (no. 15).

The month of January is Poverty Awareness Month. Connecting love of God and love of neighbor in prayer can help us form a strong foundation through which we can open our hearts to see Christ’s face in those who experience poverty—over 40 million people in the United States. At, a website of the Catholic bishops in the United States, you can learn facts about poverty, watch videos, and read stories about how faith communities are responding.

Another part of our response is to allow ourselves to be “moved with compassion” to imitate Jesus’ example of healing. Consider: how can I imitate Jesus and encounter someone on the peripheries? Following the footsteps of Jesus, we are all called to listen to God’s voice, recognize his presence in our neighbors, and respond with acts of charity and justice.

This reflection is excerpted from a liturgical aid for the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Jan. 28, 2018), by the USCCB Dept. of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

Five Things You Need to Know about Poverty in America

Connor Bannon, intern for the Catholic Campaign/USCCB

If Pope Francis has taught us anything during these last four years (and I would submit that he has taught us quite a few things), it is that “poverty in the world is a scandal.”  It is a cry “in a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone.”  It is especially a scandal in a nation like the United States, which, despite possessing more than enough money to end material poverty, consistently exhibits one of the highest rates of poverty in the “developed” world.

Recently released to little fanfare, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 report on Income and Poverty in the United States reveals that 40.6 million, or 12.7 percent, of Americans live in poverty.

After spending several days pouring over this report and its close relative, The Supplemental Poverty Measure, I’d like to share five things that you should know about poverty in the United States.

1. Family matters.

Family Matters is not just an iconic television show.  It is also an important fact about poverty in America.  The Census report reveals that 13.1 percent of families with a single male householder and 26.6 percent of families with a single female householder live in poverty, whereas only 5.1 percent of married households live in poverty.

At the same time, nearly one in five children are living in poverty. That’s 13.3 million kids. Although children only make up 23% of the U.S. population, they disproportionally represent 33% of people living in poverty.

 2. Education matters.

Education Matters is not an iconic television show.  Nevertheless, it is an important fact about poverty in America.  This year’s Census data shows that formally educated Americans are much less likely to live in poverty than Americans without formal education.  More precisely, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that, whereas 4.5 percent of people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher lived in poverty, 9.4 percent of people with only some college lived in poverty, 13.3 percent of people with only a high school diploma lived in poverty, and 24.8 percent of people without a high school diploma lived in poverty.

3. Work works, except when it doesn’t.

It has been said many times and in many ways, but the fact remains: the best anti-poverty program is a good job.  The current Census report shows that only 5.8 percent of all workers live in poverty.  That said, it also reveals a dichotomy between full-time, year-round workers (2.2 percent of whom live in poverty) and part-time, year-round workers (14.7 percent of whom live in poverty).  The best anti-poverty program is not just any job.  The best anti-poverty is a good job, which is to say a full time, year-round, job that pays a living wage. Learn more: Demanding a Living Wage

4. The safety net saves.

While it is true that the best anti-poverty program is a good job, it is also true that the social safety net saves many vulnerable men, women, and children from the grips of poverty.  In this regard, the supplemental poverty report reveals that Social Security keeps 26.1 million people, including 1 in 3 seniors, from living in poverty.  Moreover, the reports show that refundable tax credits, food stamps (i.e. SNAP), Supplemental Security Income, and housing subsidies keep a combined 18.2 million people out of poverty.  Learn more: Safeguarding and Strengthening the Social Safety Net

5. Healthcare costs.

The Census Bureau also measures the impact of select household expenses on low-income families and individuals. The Census Bureau found that an astonishing 10.5 million people were made poor because of high healthcare costs and that “medical expenses were the largest contributing cost to increasing the number of individuals in poverty.”  Achieving affordable healthcare, in other words, is not merely a matter of healthcare policy, it is an essential part of any “war on poverty.” Learn More: Making Healthcare Affordable

Learn more! Our interactive map at now has updated statistics for your state to inform your advocacy efforts.  Additionally, the county-level view of our map highlights programs across the country doing this critical work with help from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Connor Bannon an intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a student at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Going Deeper!

During Poverty Awareness Month, join the U.S. Bishops, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, and the Catholic community in the United States in taking up Pope Francis’ challenge to live in solidarity with the poor!  Join us this January, as we reflect daily on the reality of poverty and respond with charity and justice.  Sign up to receive daily reflections in your inbox during Poverty Awareness Month.

A Place at the Table Turns Fifteen—Where are We Now?

November 2017 is the fifteenth anniversary of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ pastoral reflection, A Place at the Table: A Catholic Recommitment to Overcome Poverty and to Respect the Dignity of All God’s Children (also in Spanish).

The 2002 reflection uses the powerful symbol of the table—where we come together for food, where neighborhood, national, and global leaders meet to make decisions, and where we gather as Catholics to worship—to ask: Who is invited? Who is excluded?

Poverty and its causes, including unequal access to resources and to the “table” where decisions are made, are a “moral scandal.” Pope Francis has frequently echoed this conviction, arguing that the scandal of poverty can only be addressed if those impacted by poverty are invited to the table.

In A Place at the Table, the bishops call all Catholics to act, and point to “the essential roles and responsibilities” of four institutions, or legs, which must work together to overcome poverty: (1) families and individuals, (2) community and religious institutions, (3) the private sector, and (4) government.

The bishops note that the debate around how best to address poverty is often too narrow, focusing only on one or two of the “legs” to the exclusion of the others. They call all four legs essential: “a table may fall without each leg.” The Catholic perspective recognizes the complementary roles of each leg and urges a comprehensive approach. Supporting healthy families and assisting individuals to make good choices are important, but the positive role of government is also essential. Faith-based institutions are an integral community support, yet business institutions must also contribute to the common good through decent work, living wages, and good benefits.

This perspective, the bishops write, is based on the Biblical vision of God’s special concern for those who are vulnerable, Catholic social teaching’s emphasis on human dignity and economic justice, and the Church’s rich lived experience feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and working for justice and peace.

A Place at the Table challenges all of us—parents, children, workers, owners, managers, consumers, investors, community members, and citizens—to work together to live out this vision and call. Through public prayer and private worship, we must anchor our weekday witness in love and solidarity. And our family, parish, and school formation must reflect Christ’s concern for those in need and equip us to confront structures of sin and work for greater justice in the world.

What is most striking about A Place at the Table is its continuing relevance today, fifteen years after its publication. We still have a long way to go in our faith communities and in society. Yet, there are countless examples of how faith communities are working, in inspiring and effective ways, to create “a place at the table.”

  • Catholic Charities in Metuchen, NJ models a unique response to poverty that includes organizing community members to influence local policy around wage theft, immigrants’ rights, housing, and other issues that affect families.
  • In Fresno, CA, a parish community of immigrants recently succeeded in a thirteen-year ecumenical effort to pass a new anti-slum ordinance which will improve living conditions for countless individuals and families.
  • A Catholic school in St. Paul, MN, is helping children invite their Muslim brothers and sisters to the “table” by facilitating a pen-pal relationships between Catholic and Muslim school children in their community.
  • Dioceses around the country are implementing the process of the V National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry (, which is an invitation for all Catholics to reflect on the gifts, opportunities, and challenges around U.S. Hispanic ministry. The broad Church—not only Hispanic Catholics—are invited to get involved.

There are many ways we can build on these and other efforts. We can continue to ask questions about who is invited, and who is excluded, in policies, programs, and decision-making. We can work with others, through our parishes, schools, neighborhood associations, faith-based and secular networks, to put our faith in action. We can get involved in the V National Encuentro process. We can ensure that the many faces of our diverse body of Christ are included in our efforts and in leadership opportunities.

Together, let’s work to create “a place at the table” for everyone.

Jill Rauh is assistant director of education and outreach of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Enduring Charism of St. Vincent de Paul

A statue of St. Vincent de Paul is seen in an April 30 photo in front of a chapel that bears his name on the Washington campus of The Catholic University of America. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Today, September 27, we celebrate the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest of peasant origins who died in 1660. Pope Leo XIII recognized him as the patron saint of charity and of all charitable organizations.

Why does Vincent de Paul have this distinction when so many of the great saints were models of charity and also founded organizations dedicated to charitable works?

One answer is that Vincent was one of the first to recognize that the Gospel call to charity was a responsibility of all believers. He provided the organization and a spiritual foundation for the clergy and laity, even young peasant women, to serve the suffering and poor for the love of God. He famously wrote, “There is great charity but it is badly organized.”

This year the religious orders and organizations founded by St. Vincent de Paul or claim him as their patron are marking the 400th anniversary of the charism of their Vincentian Family.

What is this Vincentian Charism being celebrated? Briefly, St. Vincent had experiences during 1617 that changed the direction of his ministry, and he began to organize Christian efforts to work with people who are suffering and poor. Those experiences convinced him that people in poverty were spiritually hungry for better pastoral care and that parishioners were willing to put their faith into action by aiding their neighbors in need.

From that date forward, St. Vincent de Paul organized the faithful around him to bring good news to the poor. To advance this mission, he founded an order of priests (the Congregation of the Mission), an order of women religious (the Daughters of Charity), and an association of laywomen (the Ladies of Charity or AIC). His clear understanding and articulation of the charism of service to the poor found in the teaching of Jesus continued to inspire people long after he died. Today, there are over 250 organizations in the Vincentian Family that share this 400-year-old charism, the largest of those being the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, with almost one million members in 150 countries.

Volunteer Joe DeLibero and executive chef Chris Hoffman break down onions in the kitchen of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix Nov. 17. Society staff and volunteers prepare 4,500 meals a day and will do more for Thanksgiving and Christmas. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

For St. Vincent de Paul, the Gospel command to serve Christ in the person of the poor was a real obligation. He tells his followers that, “The poor are our masters.” This is the basis of his spirituality of service but he is under no delusion about the difficulty of this work. Anyone who has worked in a food pantry, soup kitchen, or homeless shelter understands what Vincent de Paul meant when he wrote, “Let us love God, but let it be with the strength of our arms and with the sweat of our brows.”

Collaborating with St. Louise de Marillac and countless others, Vincent de Paul was innovative in his approach to meeting the needs of those he served. His progressive reforms included homes for the elderly, orphanages for children and improved conditions for prisoners.

He lived in the time we may recognize from fictional novels like The Three Musketeers or The Man in the Iron Mask. The historical characters in these novels including King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, Cardinal Richelieu, and Cardinal Mazarin all knew this simple peasant priest from rural France. They respected and often supported his work with people experiencing poverty. Nonetheless, Vincent was not afraid to jeopardize that support when he observed they were creating conditions of poverty and suffering. His firm beliefs eventually cost him his position on an important royal advisory council. St. Vincent de Paul not only served the poor but he risked his personal reputation to advocate their interests.

There is a saying that “The Gospel should comfort the afflicted and it should afflict the comfortable.” The words of Jesus did that to St. Vincent de Paul starting in 1617 and he passed that comfort and affliction on to those around him. By the grace of God, that charism is still alive in the Church today comforting and afflicting as needed for the sake of the Kingdom.

Ralph Middlecamp is the president-elect of the National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul. His six-year term begins October 1. He has been a Vincentian for over 30 years, and most recently served as the CEO of the Madison, WI District Council.

Going Deeper!

Around the United States, members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul are working for just wages, empowering low-income persons to address poverty, securing access to employment for formerly incarcerated persons, and fighting predatory lending.  These stories and others are featured on

Voice of the Poor – the advocacy arm of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul – identifies issues that are critical to people living in poverty and helps bring attention to them so communities and our elected representatives can develop strategies and tactics to reduce or eliminate poverty. Learn more about their important advocacy work online. 

Serving the Local Community: Catholic Colleges and Universities Partner with CCHD

Inspired by their mission, Catholic colleges and universities serve their local communities in many ways, including building partnerships to work for the common good. Since 2010, Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) member institutions have partnered with community organizations funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty program of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Together they collaborate on initiatives that help people in their local communities who are living in poverty participate in decisions that affect their lives, families and communities. These organizations are dedicated to empowering people to create change in their local community through solidarity and education. Saint Joseph’s University, the University of Dallas, and Marquette University are just a few of the institutions addressing local issues of poverty through these partnerships, providing a concrete way for students to live out the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.

At Saint Joseph’s University, students have the opportunity to work with Urban Tree Connection, a non-profit organization funded by CCHD that works with people living in Philadelphia’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods to develop community-based greening and gardening projects. Urban Tree Connection (UTC) empowers members of the local community by training people in farming and other agricultural skills and making fresh produce more widely available. Their projects are created on vacant land to create safe and functional spaces that promote positive human interactions. Saint Joseph’s University’s Sustainability Committee and Institute for Environmental Stewardship work with UTC to provide access to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at UTC to faculty, staff, administrators, and students at the university. Subscribers to the CSA receive vegetables from UTC’s urban farms, supporting their efforts to transform abandoned lots into community gardens.

In addition to promoting the CSA program, students at SJU are also encouraged to work with UTC in their community gardens through the Philadelphia Service Immersion Program and the Magis Program. The Philadelphia Service Immersion Program is an optional early move-in experience for first-year students. This four-day program introduces incoming freshmen to the Jesuit values of social justice, service to those on the margin, moral discernment, and intellectual inquiry through community service learning. This past fall, six students volunteered with UTC through the program. Each evening, the students reflected on what they learned and experienced that day in a small group discussion led by incoming sophomores. Another opportunity available to connect students to UTC is the Magis Program, a semester-long service and social justice program for first-year students. Students meet weekly in small groups for community service, social justice education, and reflection. UTC is one of the sites where students can serve for the semester as part of the Magis Program.

Like St. Joseph’s, other Catholic campuses are finding that partnerships with CCHD-funded groups provide mutual benefits for all the partners. For example, the University of Dallas partnered with the local diocesan CCHD staff to educate students about the reality of poverty in the United States. Working with students and staff, together they created the Journey to Justice Retreat (J2J) to teach students about the issue of poverty in the local area and throughout the country. Using resources from CCHD such as Poverty USA, participants learned about the effects of poverty on people all over the country.

The J2J Retreat featured a focus on the CCHD-funded group Texas Tenant Union (TTU). TTU is a community organizing group dedicated to securing more and higher quality low-income housing by advocating for legislation, providing free legal counsel for low-income tenants, and offering rights education and counseling for tenants. Former diocesan CCHD intern Colleen McInerney, an alumna of the University of Dallas, says the retreat showed students the importance of CCHD in that TTU “wouldn’t have been able to do nearly as much without the CCHD resources” available to it, which inspired many students to get involved with anti-poverty organizations. The retreat was well-received and students hope that the university will be able to host the retreat again in the future.

In addition to hosting service opportunities and working together on educational programming, Catholic colleges and universities can partner with CCHD-funded organizations to learn more about advocacy within the nation’s political system. Marquette University offers students a way to become involved in advocacy through courses that incorporate service learning and through an internship. Project Return assists men and women who have experienced incarceration in making a positive reentry to the community. Each academic year, students work at Project Return for ten hours a week , helping clients find jobs and housing, work through personal issues, and celebrate accomplishments. They learn about the process of reentry by visiting a prison, meeting parole officers, and witnessing a reentry court run by a federal judge. In addition to learning more about the issue, students most recently advocated with community leaders, canvassed neighborhoods on issues surrounding criminal justice reform, and organized a community mental health day.

The project also enables Marquette student interns to work with a mentor on a variety of tasks and to incorporate their own academic interests into the internship. One student intern during the past year worked to launch a mental health initiative to accommodate clients in need of psychological services. Ed de St. Aubin, Ph.D., the director of the internship program, commented, “The social justice mission of our Jesuit university is completely aligned with the mission of Project Return.” De St. Aubin noticed how the experience opened students up to more growth than a classroom could have afforded, exposing them to numerous human factors connected to criminal justice reform, such as race relations, ethnic disparities, and faith development. Recently, de St. Aubin, as well as interns Max Hughes-Zahner and Alex Krouth, were guests on RiverWest Radio Milwaukee’s show, Expo: Ex-Prisoners Organizing. Hughes-Zahner, a junior at Marquette, noted on the show that this internship “was very important for me to experience it from that side because previous to that I had really only experienced classroom learning about incarceration and prison.”

Saint Joseph’s University, the University of Dallas, and Marquette University are working with local organizations to create community-based solutions to issues of poverty and inequality. Their partnerships with CCHD-funded groups enable them to live the values of Catholic Social Teaching and have a visible effect on the surrounding neighborhoods. Students are able to work alongside those living the issues they are working to resolve, giving them an experience of solidarity. Through a partnership with an organization funded by CCHD, Catholic universities make a difference in their communities and give students experience in what it means to have a faith that does justice.

Camilla MacKenzie is an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America and former Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

This post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the ACCU Peace and Justice blog.

Praying for Conscience and Courage

Bible Group Praying Together Holding Hands With Eyes ClosedI read a prayer recently, titled “Prayer for Conscience and Courage” by Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister. I was struck by the title and even more by the prayer. What does it mean to pray for “conscience”?  Isn’t a conscience simply what all of us have, that is, a working conscience that somehow lets us know what is right and what is wrong?

By Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (No. 1784), so we know it is important to learn and form our conscience with Scripture and Catholic teaching.  But prayer for conscience — how does that fit?

Again, in the catechism we read, “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice” (No. 1785). So, in order to educate our consciences, we need to pray with Scripture. We pray that we can become what it is God is dreaming for us. Right?

The prayer begins with the words, “Loving God, lead us beyond ourselves to care…”  Then, I had a light-bulb moment when I read more of the prayer:

“Give us the conscience it takes to comprehend what we’re facing, to see what we’re looking at and to say what we see so that others, hearing us, may also brave the pressure that comes with being out of public step.”

So, this prayer is written to help us in this difficult time — a time of great uncertainty and change. Sister Joan is suggesting that we pray, asking God to give us wisdom — God’s wisdom — to help us see what is happening around us and in our world as God sees it and act accordingly.

Doing this kind of prayer is not something we automatically do. We pray for someone who is sick, for personal things we need or are worried about, but we do not often pray for a conscience that is awake, open to seeing as God sees and open to acting on that seeing. More often, we see the world through a lens that thinks more of personal needs than of the needs of all, or the common good, as Jesus and our church teaches us.

I think about poverty. Do we have a conscience that helps us see poverty as God does?

Here are a couple of people I believe have a conscience that helps them see as God sees.

Pope Francis says this: “The times talk to us of so much poverty in the world and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children … without an education, so many poor persons.”

Dorothy Day said: “We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it,” and “Those who cannot see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

Mother Teresa said: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”

Is this the way you see poverty?  Maybe each of us has a way to go to think of poverty the way these “saints” do, but it’s important that our conscience is moving us in that direction, one step at a time.

Years ago, I had the honor of meeting a priest who had a parish in the middle of a poverty-stricken, gang-infested part of Los Angeles called Dolores Mission. At the beginning of his work there, a group of mothers came to him, to inform his “conscience” and call him to action as they spoke to him of their fear for their sons’ lives. Gangs had taken over the neighborhood and there was a lot of violence between rival gangs.

Father Greg heard the mothers and let their love inform his conscience, and he has worked in his ministry to gang members for over 30 years.  When I think of someone who has a well-formed conscience and someone who sees poverty and gang members as God sees them, I know it is Father Greg Boyle.

When speaking of the attitude we should have about poverty, he says, that we should  “seek a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.”

Along with a well-formed conscience, Sister Joan added a prayer for courage. It makes sense considering that we are to follow Jesus and the radical love he showed to all of God’s people, especially those people who others shunned.  We can’t do that on our own. We need God’s help.

Join me in a prayer for conscience and courage as we remember who Jesus was and what he sacrificed for all of creation.

Kathy Langer is director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

This blog post was adapted for ToGoForth. Read the original version at the Visitor of the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

Going Deeper!

In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Catholic bishops remind us that conscience formation is a “lifelong task” (no. 5).  Read this handout (also in Spanish) and read this Scripture reflection (also in Spanish) on the ongoing task of forming our consciences.