Saturday, June 11, 2011

Human Dignity and Social Justice

"If you want peace, work for justice." - Pope Paul VI

There are many ways to work for justice in our world. Christian teaching on human dignity and social justice spans far and wide. In a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our tradition recalls the story of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) and instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.

What does this mean for each of us in our daily lives?

First, we must look at where our dignity and identity is rooted.

As Christians we believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a "Gospel of life." It invites all persons and societies to a new life lived abundantly in respect for human dignity. (Living the Gospel of Life)

Central to the principle of human dignity is the understanding that, every human being is created in the image of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, destined for union with God, and therefore worthy of respect as a member of the human family.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a summary and expansion of Scriptures) tells us this:

1718. In what is the dignity of the human person rooted? (CCC 1700)
The dignity of the human person is rooted in man’s creation in the image and likeness of God.

1719. Where is the dignity of the human person fulfilled? (CCC 1700)
The dignity of the human person is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude.

1720. How is the dignity of the human person fulfilled on the part of man? (CCC 1700)
The dignity of the human person is fulfilled on the part of man through:
1. performing free human acts
2. conforming to moral conscience
3. growing in virtue
4. avoiding sin.

If we do not value the life of each human person, then it's difficult to work for social justice.

Second, we need to define social justice.

In order to define social justice, let us begin, by taking a look at what social ministry is:

Social Ministry has two main aspects: social service (also known as Parish Outreach) and social action

Social Service is giving direct aid to someone in need. It usually involves performing one or more of the corporal works of mercy. That is, giving alms to the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick or imprisoned, taking care of orphans and widows, visiting the shut-ins etc. Another name for it is charity.

Social Action is correcting the structures that perpetuate the need. Another name for this is Social Justice. Through the lens of social justice, we begin to take a look at the problems and issues facing us in our own communities, the nation and finally the world, and we begin to ask questions such as,

"Why is there so much unemployment in our area?"

"Why are there so many poor in our community?"

"How will the deforestation of our rain forests affect our global climate?" etc...

Very often when you are performing social service, you also become involved in solving the problem which created the need in the first place, and the two are closely related and often blend together. An example of this would be, someone comes to your food pantry, and tells you he/she has no food, because he/she lost their job recently. You may know of an employer looking to hire someone right away for a job requiring little or no skills. You give that person food, then place that person in touch with the employer

You then would have solved both problems for that person. (a) the immediate need of food through an act of charity (social service) and (b) you would have corrected the problem which created and perpetuated the need. (social justice)

Sciptural references for our human identity:

We are all One Body in Christ -1Cor 12:12

Together we are Christ's Body, each of us a different part -1Cor 12:27

All are one in Christ -Gal 3:28

"I am the Vine, you are the branches.." -John 15:1-5

You are God's temple. -1Cor 3:16

Vatican II document: "Constitution on the Church" Chapter 1 states that the Church is:
#1. A sign and instrument in the world.
#3. The Kingdom of Christ here on earth.
#7. All of us are to use our gifts to serve one another.
#9. Not as individuals are we called to be saved, but as One Body.

Then, what should we do? What is our mission as Christians?

Jesus begins His ministry of bringing the Good News to the poor. -Luke 4:16-19

At the Last Judgement Christ will seperate the sheep from the goats. -Matt 25:31-46

You are the Salt of the Earth. -Matt 5:3-16

Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. -Matt 5:6-9

The goals of social justice and church outreach are the same: To follow the command to "love one another as I have loved you".

To enable everyone to enter into a relationship with Christ in such a way, so that everyone can come to know Christ in the same way that the Father knows the Son.

If we think about this for a moment, it becomes clear. If our basic human needs are met, that is to say that if we are not concerned with obtaining food, clothing, shelter etc., then we are better able to enter into a closer relationship with Christ.

So, we step out to serve lunch in Veteran's Park each Saturday, but our vision is much broader than the food. We offer ourselves - our desires, our gifts - in God's hands and pray that He transforms our offering and transforms those who are served to seek after Him.

We ask to look through Christ's eyes to see the dignity and value in each person we meet - just as Christ does.

There are many facets involved. Yet if we focus on human dignity, work for social justice, and open the eyes of our hearts, then our Lord will lead each of us (with our individual gifts) down the right path and take care of the details of those in need.

We need to pray for peace, trust in God's omnipotent plan and take action - TOGETHER.

This means we must collaborate as the body of Christ and with those of different faiths, as well. There is strength in unity.

Almighty and eternal God, may Your grace enkindle in all of us a love for the many unfortunate people whom poverty and misery reduce to a condition of life unworthy of human beings.

Arouse in the hearts of those who call You Father a hunger and thirst for social justice and for fraternal charity in deeds and in truth.

Grant, O Lord, peace to souls, peace to families, peace to our country and peace among nations. Amen.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Jesus on the streets - in Brazil

Amazon Relief brings aid and Christ’s love to "at risk" children and the poor who live in "The Green Hell"— an area near the equator, 1,200 miles up the Amazon River. The poverty in the region can hardly be described. Many children and families live in overcrowded shacks, built on stilts over perpetually fermenting sewage. There are no roads into these areas — only foot traffic over precarious docks. And then there’s the heat, the humidity, the disease, the lack of food.....

A friend of mine recently wrote an article on her blog detailing the mission of Amazon Relief. Please visit her 'Christianity101blog to read Parts 1 (detailed information of the beautiful mission to the poor) and 2 (David's story).

Below I have reprinted my interview. It really describes how Jesus is on the streets everywhere if we open our hearts and eyes to see.

1. Tell us how you first met Jim and Lois Flickinger and what led to your trip to the Amazon?

I first met Jim and Lois serving lunch for the homeless and those in need at the ‘Tuesday lunch’ in downtown Grand Rapids. I had begun a Saturday lunch program, ‘Jesus on the streets’. We joined forces under their non-profit. Shortly after, my husband and I started formation for Third Order Franciscans in the same fraternity they are in.

2. Where exactly did you go in the Amazon and what was your main purpose for going there?

We flew to Manaus, Brazil, a city of around two million people at the mouth of the Amazon River and stayed with a beautiful couple, Josue and Raimunda, who have been hosting Jim and Lois for 15 years.
We also journeyed by plane deep into the Amazon jungle to spend time with the Munduruku Indians. We stayed overnight at a Franciscan mission established almost 100 years ago to help the Munduruku.
My main purpose for going on this mission trip was to see Amazon Relief in action, to meet Jesus Christ in people of Brazil and see how we could further help them and also learn from them.

3. How long were you there, and what kinds of things did you do?

Our trip was eight days. We visited schools funded by Amazon Relief, playing with the kids and sitting in on some of their classes. We walked along broken streets visiting the homes of school children built on the edge of raw sewage. The homes, built out of scrap materials, were the about 12’ x 12’. By our standards they would be seen as dirty and small, but the mothers kept their very neat and tidy and warmly welcomed us in. We took the families of school children out for dinner; spent time learning and playing with children at the home run by the Sisters of Charity. They take care of children age birth through five years who would otherwise be on the streets or home alone all day; visited the leper colony where we sang songs, listened and shared hugs and smiles with “Jesus in disguise.” We served lunch in various parks, very similar to our ministry with the poor here except that this would be the only meal the people would eat for 1-2 days.) We also spent much time with various Franciscan priests and sisters, witnessing them live out the gospel in their ministry to the people of Manaus and in the Indian villages along the various rivers in the jungle.

4. What was your most profound memory from your trip?

There were many profound memories from my trip. It’s difficult to choose just one!They all center around the people – the lepers and especially the children. Everyone in Brazil invites you in with their beautiful dark eyes and huge smiles. Upon entering the walls of the first school we visited, I was surrounded by a sea of smiling children. They showered me with hugs and greetings like I was a dear friend. The only way to describe the scene is that my soul was so overwhelmed with joy I thought this must be what heaven is like – unharnessed love! They quickly swept me away with them to the playground. Yes, there is much material poverty, yet the children have an inner joy we don’t normally see here in the states.

My most cherished memories are the times we spent with two boys, Willame and Gabriel. Jim and Lois met them two-three years ago, and these boys immediately captured my heart with their warm smiles and gentle, courteous ways. We spent time with the boys every day we were in Manaus. First some background on the boys:
Willame is 15 years old, lives with his grandparents and nine other children in a two room tin-roofed wooden shack. His grandfather is the only one working a job – selling popsicles! This provides very little income for the twelve people living there. The threat of malaria is always present and malnourishment in the family is prevalent.

Willame sleeps on the bare floor with no pillow or blanket with two other children in a room about 8’ x 8’. Only recently were they able to put in a toilet. Many of the homes use a hole in the floor where the waste is deposited below the house. When it rains, the sewage and trash flow freely in the streets and in trenches built to help the problem. Precarious bridges are built over the flowing river of sewage in order to get from one part of the slums to the other.

Gabriel, 11, lives nearby with his older brothers. Like Willame, he never knew his father, and his mother deserted him a few years earlier. He is a shy, but caring young boy with eyes that cry out to be loved. He is a good student who loves to sing.

Seeing pictures of where these boys and others live doesn’t give the full picture. Food is scarce, dogs bark constantly day and night, along with other noises like the deafening rain on the tin roof. The air is hot and humid with a stench of raw sewage, and there is little to no privacy in which the kids can study for school.
With all these circumstances, the boys were kind, eager to spend time with me playing games, talking or studying for school at the home where we stayed. They held my hand whenever we crossed the very busy streets and made sure I didn’t step in any holes or on trash.

One night we took them out for pizza. The two boys and I played foosball in the back room of the restaurant after we ate - such a simple time, but so full of joy. None of us wanted the night to end. On the drive back to their neighborhood, they leaned their heads on my shoulder and just smiled. The day before we left for home, Gabriel asked if we could take him with us in our suitcase! Willame and I hugged and cried at the airport at our departure. I told him that he was a strong boy. Most 15 year-old boys hold back their tears for fear of embarrassment, but not here. I would adopt these boys in a moment, but truly believe what’s needed is to see that they are nourished and cared for in a safe, loving environment; given spiritual formation to know the love of Christ and offered a good education so they can thrive in their own country. Then they can give back in their own culture and make it a better place for everyone else there also. Through Amazon Relief, Willame and Gabriel and other children like them are not without hope. Amazon Relief provides some of that hope.
Every day I pray for the children’s’ spiritual and physical safety. I hope you will, too.

Our time in the leper colony was so beautiful I didn’t want to leave. There is much suffering – physical, spiritual, emotional, financial – among those afflicted with leprosy. What shines above all this is the peace that permeates the atmosphere in the hospital. It’s hard to describe how suffering and peace can co-exist in one place, but the people I met showed me great strength and hope that only comes from deep faith in God.
As we were visiting with people at the leper hospital, a gentleman walked by us a few times. The third time he passed by, he just stopped right in front of me. We looked deep into each others eyes for what seemed an eternity, but was really about 15 seconds. He then gently took my hand, smiled, nodded and quietly walked away. Mother Teresa always said she saw Christ in the poor. That day, in that moment, Jesus was there in that man.
God did show me Christ in the people of Brazil. Around every turn, in various people and circumstances, Jesus was present teaching me and calling for help from His brothers and sisters around the world.

5. What specifically is Amazon Relief able to do with donations?

Donations provide financial support for six schools for young children (4-14 years of age). Currently the schools serve over 1,000 children, teaching them reading, writing, arithmetic, gardening and hygiene --- and feeding them a meal each day.
Working with "graduates" of our schools (children who have gone through our schools) as they continue their education. We have established an accelerated learning/tutoring program designed to help high school children prepare for college; we have hired a professor to give computer instruction; we have begun to provide computers and textbooks to some of our graduates; and we are giving some tuition funds for further educational opportunities.
Donations fund two vocational schools in remote areas of the jungle wherein over 200 high school age students learn skills which are useful and will provide them with jobs in the community (woodworking, motor repair, cooking, sewing, etc.).
They offer adult education courses to parents of our students.
They fund eight soup kitchens which provide over 3,000 weekly meals, provide food, medicine and clothing for the poor.
They provide education and spiritual support within the leper colony. Also, special carts are provided for those with leprosy which allows them greater mobility.

Please pray for the people of the Amazon and consider donating to this mission. 100% of donations go right to the cause. Not even 1% of your money will go to administrative costs.