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Lessons from my SSLP

Jacob Palcic | Tuesday, August 28, 2012

An influential way of thinking about poverty in America is that those who are poor tend to laziness. As a formulation universally applied to poor people, this way of thinking is absurd. And the vast majority of Americans recognize that, I think. Yet, there is a wide range of attitudes in between two extremes, while most still seem to miss the mark about the realities of poverty and welfare. The matter is complicated when political interest groups such as corporations, unions, Democrats and Republicans wield such power and use it not to advance the common good, but to strengthen their own interests. Yes, there is a legitimate worry that welfare programs weaken beneficiaries’ motivation to work. It is true that some people will sit on a monthly check and food stamps without seeking employment. People do milk the system. Some refugees do it, just like any other human might in similar circumstances. However, to slash funding for programs that are truly helpful in providing necessary footholds for people to climb out of poverty is equally destructive. The right path probably lies somewhere in between the opinions of the polarized interest groups, and the Church can help guide us. Upholding the rights and responsibilities for each member of society, the U.S. Bishops declare:

“Human dignity grounds and is protected by a spectrum of human rights and corresponding duties. Society facilitates participation in all spheres of the social order through inter-related rights and duties. Every person has the right to means that are necessary for the development of life: food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and the necessary social services. Likewise, all citizens have a duty to respect human rights and to fulfill their responsibilities to each other and to the larger society” (Faithful Citizenship, 1999).

So how do we ensure the rights of all members of society without making it too easy or tempting for people to take advantage of the system? There are two fixes. The first would be effected by reason prevailing over interest groups. Creative legislation based on the findings of non-partisan groups and on sound economics and statistics is a good start. But this sort of fix cannot stand for long by itself. Reason alone does not dictate that the common good should be set up as the goal of subgroups and individuals. Rather, hearts and minds must be changed, from the poorest to the wealthiest. Often, such a conversion happens only as a result of an encounter. In the Gospels, a new way arises for those who encounter Christ and respond to his invitation and instruction. After the Pharisees accuse the man healed by Jesus of being ignorant and label Christ a sinner, the man replies, “All I know is I was blind, and now I see.”

This past summer I participated in an SSLP, accompanying refugees in San Antonio with Catholic Charities. Refugees are people outside their country of origin because they have suffered persecution on account of race, religion or other factors. Our mission was to give refugees of diverse nationalities, language groups and faiths the tools necessary to lead fulfilled and productive lives in the United States. I returned to campus with eyes opened.

I have seen the struggle in a city in South Texas. I have seen servicemen and women strain their ears and minds to piece together the broken English of the refugees. I have seen the zeal of ESL instructors, and the eagerness of their students to learn. I have seen a group of Burmese Catholic teenagers sing “Amazing Grace” in their native tongue. I have seen the personal immediacy with which the staff interacts with the refugees; every encounter is a compassionate response to a cry for help. I have seen the HIAS program give hope to Iranian refugees, like bread from heaven, to a persecuted people struggling to find a new homeland. I have seen the stooped forms of many different nationalities harvesting vegetables and herbs from a community garden. Finally, I have seen the struggles of my host families to raise their children, by word and example, in the spirit of humble service. This is, I believe, the same spirit with which Mary accepted the charge of a Divine Son; it is the spirit of Notre Dame.

As we begin a new school year, let us begin to see and act as Christ instructs us. Let us stop judging the marginalized and vulnerable among us, and open ourselves to serve one another with hearts rejoicing in agapic love.


Jacob Palcic is a junior. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.