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.