Shortly after his election, Pope Francis explained why he took the name “Francis” as his papal name after St. Francis Assisi.
“How I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor,” he said.
The notion that the Church shouldn’t just help the poor but also learn from them has, in some ways, defined this papacy. It’s at the heart of World Day of the Poor, which Pope Francis established in 2017.
It’s also at the heart of Unbound, an international sponsorship organization founded by lay Catholics, that works to help hard-working families in Africa, Asia, and Latin America lift themselves out of extreme poverty. Learning from those we serve has been important to us from the beginning.
As we observe the World Day of the Poor, here are five ideas to reflect on about the poor. These are based on what the Unbound community has learned in our 38 years of working with those living on the margins.
1. Challenge your assumptions
We’ve each driven past a street corner where a person is holding a sign asking for money. We see them for only a moment, but in that brief time, without realizing it, we might form judgments. Why isn’t he working? Doesn’t she have any pride? It’s probably a scam. If I give him anything, he’ll just buy booze.
It’s important to resist the temptation to judge others based on appearance or circumstance. It’s also important to challenge our preconceived notions about how and why people become poor. Every person living in poverty has their own story and those stories vary greatly. It’s unkind, as well as unwise, to assume we already know them.
It’s important to resist the temptation to judge others based on appearance or circumstance.
2. Build a relationship
Poverty cheats people of their individuality. We tend to think of “the poor” not as unique human beings but as a nameless, faceless mass to be pitied. We think of them as having nothing to offer but need.
The single greatest squandered natural resource is human potential. The next great scientist, teacher, or leader may never be allowed to gift the world with her talent only because she happened to be born into a poor family and had no one to encourage her. By getting to know a person living in poverty, you can be a catalyst for one of God’s great blessings to the human family.
3. Listen to another
Those who live in poverty aren’t looking for people to rescue them. They’re capable and willing to help themselves, but they lack opportunity. What they need from us is twofold: They need to know that people care about them and they need practical support that can help them lift themselves up.
Unbound doesn’t offer a one-size-fits-all solution to those we seek to help. Rather, we listen to them to learn what their specific needs are and to help them form individualized plans to meet their goals. It’s a philosophy that’s true to one of the key principles of Catholic social teaching: that those most affected by a decision should have the greatest say in making it.
Listen to those you desire to help. Take the time to hear — with an open mind and an open heart — their unique story. And be thankful for the gift that person is to the world and to you.
4. Make a commitment and take action
Taking action is hard. It’s inconvenient. It can require both financial resources and time. It forces us to push beyond the comfortable and familiar. It challenges our biases.
There is nothing easier than coming up with a reason not to do something, but when we do nothing in the face of the suffering of others, little by little it numbs our souls. To be fully alive is to be engaged in humanity. To be a Christian is to recognize God in others and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
There’s no shortage of poverty in our nation and the world. Chances are there’s no shortage in your community either. Thankfully, there’s also no shortage of opportunities for caring people to do something about it. Talk to your pastor or the director of an outreach agency in your area to find out what you can do to become part of the solution.
5. Make helping a habit
The annual World Day of the Poor is a good occasion to reflect on what we can do to help those living in poverty and how we can grow in human solidarity. But if our involvement goes no deeper than that one day, we cheat ourselves.
Pope Francis’ desire for a “church that is poor and for the poor” is a call to rediscover something that can easily become lost when Christians become too comfortable. It’s a reminder that Christ dwells among and within the poor in a profound way. It’s a reminder that the Body of Christ has wounds and that we, like the apostle Thomas when first encountering the Risen Christ (see John 20:24-29), are called to touch those wounds.
To learn more:
The Unbound community invites Catholics and others of goodwill to get to know us and our different approach to overcoming poverty. It begins with a relationship between a child, youth, or elderly person in need and a sponsor willing to help them. If you’d like to learn more, check us out at Unbound.org.