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The Calling of the Church on Poverty: Charity, Justice and Solidarity
People of faith need to do more to address poverty in our communities. For example, we should support actions led by low-income people themselves.


This article is a response to Dr. Rick Tobias', "The Calling of the Church on Poverty: Charity, Justice and Solidarity." At the March, 2006 Street Level conference, Rick Tobias challenged Christians to seek a deeper response to poverty, a response based in seeking justice. In the attached commentary, Michael Polanyi echos this call, and outlines some new steps Christians are taking to engage, listen to and act in solidarity with low-income people.

What responsibility do people of faith—and Christians in particular—have toward those who live in poverty in our communities? How should we respond to the fact that one in six Canadians lives on a low-income?

An important first step is to create spaces and opportunities in our churches for the presence and the voices of low-income people.

In November, 70 people from across Canada gathered for two days on Parliament Hill to grapple with these questions.

The participants—secular and religious, Evangelical and progressive, middle class and low-income, French-speaking and English-speaking—proposed a range of actions related to the conference theme of "building a faith-based movement for a Canada without poverty."

Some called for advocacy for policy change, some for grassroots mobilization, some for theological reflection, and some for the creation of new relationships of solidarity with low-income people at the local level.

All participants seemed to agree on at least two things. First, people of faith need to do more to address poverty in our communities. And second, that we should support actions led by low-income people themselves, rather than initiating action on their behalf.

In other words, we need to find new ways to listen to poor people in order to better stand in solidarity with them.

Church people in Toronto appear to agree. At a day-long workshop in October entitled "From Charity to Solidarity", fifty people from churches across Toronto suggested that churches need to do much more than provide charity and relief in the form of food, clothing and shelter. We need to advocate—with low-income people—for justice.

Indeed, a growing fatigue and dissatisfaction with charity work was evident at both meetings—and with reason. Many of the food banks and Out of the Cold programs in Toronto are based in churches. And, as their recent advertisements indicate, the Salvation Army alone provides 2.5 million meals to "the hungry" in Canada.

There is a strong sentiment that we, in the churches, need to better advocate for action to address the root causes of poverty—lack of affordable housing, inadequate wages and social assistance rates, inaccessible child care, lack of access to employment insurance and training.

As stated in the Ottawa Manifesto, released by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada last April, "the time has come to add to material action a clear, creative and challenging public voice."

Groups such as the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition have been advocating on these issues for decades. Such political advocacy is important, and church people need to do it more effectively to ensure that governments make poverty reduction a priority.

Participants at the recent Ottawa and Toronto meetings seemed to recognize that a faith-based response to poverty requires something else too—something as simple yet difficult as reaching out and opening our doors and our hearts to those who live in poverty in our own neighbourhoods.

Father Joseph Wresinski, the French founder of the Fourth World Movement, believed that churches can't help but stand with the poor. Just as Jesus lived among and ministered to the poor in His time, the Church exists today to do the same.

Moreover, according to Father Wresinksi, we will never be able to deal with extreme poverty as long we see the poor as people "out there"—whether deficient or oppressed.

Instead, as Christopher Winship writes in the introduction to Wresinski's The Poor are the Church, Wresinski believed that "only by understanding those in the Fourth World as our moral equivalents and by embracing them as full members of society—neighbours, friends—can we possible begin to deal with the problems of extreme poverty."

As Winship notes, "This is a radical proposal. It suggests that giving charity, paying higher taxes, voting correctly and political advocacy are not nearly enough. It is only by fundamentally changing our relationship to the poor that true change will be possible."

Some churches—Sanctuary in Toronto, First United in Vancouver and others—have taken great strides towards creating communities that fully integrate and respect low-income people. But too many mainline churches do not reflect the cultural and social-economic demographics of their neighbourhood.

An important first step is to create spaces and opportunities in our churches for the presence and the voices of low-income people.

To this end, KAIROS, a national coalition of mainline churches, is currently seeking three churches in Toronto who want to pilot a process for reaching out to low-income people in order to bring their voices and issues into the church.

The learnings from this one-year pilot project, which is supported by the Metcalf Foundation of Toronto, as well as the results of a parallel project to mobilize the voices of low-income people in Victoria, Montreal and Charlottetown, will be shared with churches across Canada at the end of the year.

Michael Polanyi coordinates the Canadian Social Development Program at KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives. He can be reached at mpolanyi@kairoscanada.org.

 

 
 
 
 

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