It is no longer possible to interpret poverty on a “one-dimensional” level, according to the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston, who said that local and national poverty in the United States is tied to the global economy.
“Globalization is now the context in which all economics are understood today,” said J. Bryan Hehir, S.J., Ph.D., the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. “There is a trickle-down effect on our national, and local, levels.”
Father Hehir was one of three keynote speakers at “Celebrating Faith in Action,” a daylong interfaith conference and series of workshops sponsored by Fordham’s Bertram M. Beck Institute on Religion and Poverty, part of the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), on the religious community’s response to the challenge of poverty in society.
Speaking at the Lincoln Center campus on “Catholic Social Teaching and the Challenge of Poverty,” Father Hehir said that the United States expects less from the state and more from non-profits in the nation’s fight against poverty. American Catholics are present locally, nationally and globally on poverty issues, but they must also define what it means to be a good citizen in a country that still has 32 million people living below the poverty level.
“It is not enough to measure an economy by its Gross National Product,” he said. “[Any] created order is to be measured by how well it serves the dignity and welfare of the individual human person.”
John Kretzmann, Ph.D., co-director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute, School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, and local anti-poverty activist, held up a “half-empty” glass to illustrate what he said was an institutional “focus on the deficiencies” in poor local communities rather than the assets. ‘It’s a hackneyed symbol that still resonates truth,” he said, recalling a South Bronx community leader who told him ‘we have never been asked in our lives to focus on the full part of our glass.’
“There is a lot of unrecognized wisdom in communities,” he said. “If you go in and look for it, you will find more than anybody expects.” Kretzman advocated working to rebuild communities through the community’s residents. “Democracy thrives only when people recognize the skills that are there when they open their doors in the morning.”
James A. Forbes Jr., Ph.D., senior minister at the Riverside Church, called for the religious community to act to stop the widening gap between the rich and the poor. “Riches not shared become carcinogenic,” he said.
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, welcomed speakers who had traveled from other states on a day of record rainfall, saying “faith brought you here in the midst of the storm.”
“What the Beck Institute is doing, wrestling with the issues of the day — poverty and race — are especially important,” said Father McShane, “It is a topic that is at the heart of Fordham’s mission.”
Fifteen afternoon workshops, promoting the theme “What Works,” explored the topics of homeless shelters, soup kitchens, poverty and the law, a living wage, congregational organizing, life skills/mentoring, housing issues, and education as a human right.
The Beck Institute promotes interdisciplinary collaboration between Fordham and the broader community to alleviate poverty in society. It is committed to preparing leaders who will promote social justice and serve the poor.
– Janet Sassi