(RNS) — As both a pediatrician and a Jesuit priest, I can see the impact that poverty has on those without resources, especially during the coldest time of year.
During the past month, we have seen how those living in poverty are most vulnerable because of homelessness, inadequately heated homes and the increased prevalence of infectious diseases in their communities.
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the national anti-poverty program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has named January as Poverty Awareness Month for good reason.
This year, poverty awareness has taken on added resonance with the recent passage of tax reform by the U.S. Congress. Most analyses of this reform indicate it will exacerbate the inequality that already exists in this country by continuing to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, while leaving many others to struggle with the burdens of poverty. This change in tax policy leaves many people with a social conscience in disbelief and wondering what we can do, collectively, to stop its callousness towards people in need.
It is time for people of faith to reclaim their compelling voice by bringing awareness to the poverty suffered by those less fortunate, and by creating opportunities for those more fortunate to walk in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in need. Sadly, over the past several decades, some prominent voices have aligned themselves with the powerful rather than the marginalized. Their support allowed this recent tax legislation to gain tax cuts for the wealthy by eliminating health care insurance for as many as 13 million individuals.
These actions could eventually lead to the shredding of our nation’s social safety net. In the past several years, believers from many faith traditions have increasingly recognized the need to stand with the poor and vulnerable and to explore ways to connect those who are comfortable with those who are struggling.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were more than 40 million Americans living in poverty in 2016, the latest year for which we have data. This represents more than 12 percent of the population. While the good news is that poverty has declined in recent years, the bad news is that there are still far too many people struggling on a daily basis.
In addition, there is the undeniable recognition that individuals disproportionately suffer poverty due to their race, ethnicity or gender. The Census Bureau found that 22 percent of all people who identify as black, 19 percent of those who identify as Hispanics and 14 percent of those who identify as women are living in poverty. By comparison, the figure for men is 11 percent.
As society becomes increasingly unequal and segregated, the voices of people of faith must speak of values that recognize the God-given human rights and dignity of all people.
My experience working as a physician among the poor of El Salvador during its civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s transformed and inspired me to return the gift I had received: faith that incarnates God’s love, compassion and justice for all people, especially for those left behind.
Three years ago, I founded an organization called A Faith That Does Justice in San Diego to bring vulnerable populations and people in a position to help them together to create solidarity and opportunities for action. In 2016, I brought this program to Boston to reach out to its more diverse population, many of whom have recently arrived in the United States.
Over the past year, we have held faith-based workshops that encourage people to work for a more just society. We have held community meetings open to all that explore issues of social justice, including the migration of undocumented people to the United States and the growing dilemma of homelessness in society.
This spring, we will begin an English as a Second Language program that targets adults who need to learn English in order to work and to take their rightful place in society.
As Poverty Awareness Month comes to its conclusion, people of conscience ought to reflect on the reality of families living in poverty. May this exercise allow the values of love, compassion and justice to enter our hearts as we consider how to do our part to contribute to a society where all of God’s people can participate in a fair share of the goods of God’s creation.
There has never been a more urgent time to reclaim the true values of faith-based belief, and perhaps no better way to act than to give a preferential option for the poor — namely, to create conditions for marginalized voices to be heard, to defend the defenseless, and to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor.
(The Rev. Peter Gyves, M.D., is the founder of A Faith That Does Justice. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)