Reflections on Social Justice Preaching

I have something to confess: I’ve never been a big fan of preaching on behalf of mission and charity organizations.  Perhaps your experience has been similar to mine—instead of a Sunday homily, you get something in between a sales pitch and a guilt trip, complete with pictures of starving children and mothers digging through trash heaps.  When the basket comes around, I reach into my pocket and reluctantly give a dollar or two, moved not by compassion but by guilt.  I then return home, feeling even more guilty that I didn't give five or ten dollars instead.  I often end up feeling hopeless, knowing that even if I had given ten dollars—heck, even if I had given my entire year's stipend—there will still be starving children and mothers digging through trash heaps.  At the end of the day, I have given my money, but I have not been changed significantly by my experience.  If anything, I subconsciously attempt to remove the images from my head in order to get rid of the guilt that comes along with them.


I guess my largest problem with this “shock you into giving” approach is that, in order to uphold one of the principles of Catholic social teaching, the preferential option for the poor, this approach completely neglects an equally-important principle of Catholic social teaching—the dignity of human life.  We see in these images not a person with a story.  We see instead a symptom, a problem which needs to be eradicated.  The person in the picture becomes a symbol of this problem, and their dignity as a human being is completely dismantled.

 

Put yourself in their shoes.  Imagine you were struggling to make ends meet and could not afford to feed your family.  Your son is showing physical signs of malnutrition.  Finally, worse comes to worst and you head to the dumpster behind the nearby fast food restaurant to search for something to feed your son.  As you climb into the dumpster a camera crew rolls through, snapping shots of you and your starving child.  Congratulations!  You are now on billboards, pamphlets, posters, and late-night commercials.  Your picture will hang in church halls and will be projected during Masses.  Your son’s face has become the official face of poverty—just what you wanted, right?  Nobody will ever learn his name or the fact that he has an incredible singing voice.  BUT they will know that he’s poor!  Why should they need to know more than that?
Eventually, you get back on your feet and are able to support yourself and your family.  Your son is going to school and the future looks bright.  Where are the camera crews now?


My negative experiences with mission and charity preaching made me hesitant to apply to a summer immersion program with Catholic Relief Services (CRS).  The Global Fellows program is a ten-day immersion trip to a country where CRS is present.  The purpose of the trip is to become familiar with the work of CRS in developing countries, as well as to get to know the people of these countries.  The immersion experience comes at a cost, though—the global fellows are required to preach for CRS for three years upon returning.  I feared that I was going to be expected to become one of these “shock-into-giving” preachers.  I applied, was accepted, and began preparing for a trip to East Timor—the world’s second-youngest country.


My fears of becoming what I dislike began to fade as I became more familiar with CRS leading up to the trip.  Looking at their website and their printed material, I noticed something peculiar about the pictures—these people are smiling!  There were no shots of visibly starving children or people in pain.  Instead, there were pictures of people actively involved with and benefiting from the projects run by CRS.  My fears were further smashed during the pre-trip orientation, where we were told about CRS’ strict photo policy of not taking shots of people in embarrassing or painful situations.  My fears completely dissolved during my time with CRS in East Timor, where I experienced not only poverty, but also hope, joy, and a people working hard to build a brighter future for their young country.


One project which we visited was located in the mountain village of Ossurua, where CRS is working with local farmers to improve seed storage and maize production.  Each year’s maize crop provides the main source of food for the entire year for these villagers.  In the past, improper storage techniques of the crop left it vulnerable to mold, weevils, and rats.  In Ossurua, if the crop is ruined, it could mean months of hunger.  By implementing better storage techniques, the villagers are able to ensure that their crop lasts until the following year’s growing season.  This is where CRS comes in, providing more modern storage techniques to help reduce post-yield loss and ensure that the crop stays safe.  CRS is also working with Seeds of Life to provide higher-yield seeds for the farmers to use.  These higher-yield seeds produce maize cobs nearly twice as large as that currently grown by the people of Ossurua.


This program, still in its infancy, has shown great success.  The villagers are pleased with the results, and are looking forward to full implementation of the program in the near future.  One of the greatest parts of the program is the fact that it addresses the long-term issue of hunger experienced by the villagers.  It’s not simply a hand-out or free aid program.  CRS began by meeting with the villagers, learning about their concerns, their farming methods, and the root of the storage problems.  They then worked with the villagers to address these concerns.  As the program is implemented, CRS’ role is mainly one of education, training the Ossurua villagers on how the new storage techniques work and how they can be implemented.  CRS is focused on helping the villagers help themselves.  By doing so, they are providing a solution which will last for many years to come, solving the problem of hunger in Ossurua by eliminating its root cause.  Through it all, the villagers retain their dignity and their voice.


When we visited Ossurua, I was surprised by what we found.  Yes, there were signs of poverty and hunger.  But even more so, there were signs of hope, joy, and determination.  We were greeted with smiles and handshakes.  As the farmers told us their stories, they shared more about their success and happiness than their hardships and struggles.  Family and communal life were valued strongly and visibly present, as well.  The day ended with a large feast provided by the villagers—incredible hospitality despite material poverty.

 

So yes—I will be preaching a message about poverty based upon my experiences in East Timor.  But I will do so by telling stories of hope, stories of joy, stories of the success of CRS and the Timorese people.  In my preaching, I will tell the story of the villagers of Ossurua.  I will tell the stories of the young women attending the Canossian Vocational Technical College in Baucau, learning to make a brighter future for themselves and their families thorough education.  I will preach about the villagers of Darulete, whose greatest wish is to build a more suitable chapel in which to celebrate Mass.  I will preach about Florentino, a Timorese native and CRS employee who has done more for the country of East Timor and her people than just about anyone else.  I will preach about an entire country of people praying for peace through CRS’ 111 Days of Prayer for Peaceful Elections program.  I will preach on Catholic social teaching—all the principles of Catholic social teaching.  After all, the people of East Timor are not the face of poverty; they are the face of hope.  Their struggles are real, but their struggles do not define them.  When the struggles are resolved, the people will still remain—and their story will still be worth telling.  It is through hope—not guilt—that I plan to move people to compassion, prayer, and authentic charity.  This is what Catholic social teaching is all about.  And this is the message of CRS, as well—a message I am glad to proclaim.

 

 

Br. Samuel Hakeem, OP is currently in Surabaya, Indonesia, where he will be spending the rest of the Summer living in a house of Dominican Friars, ministering with them and learning about the Indonesian culture as a continuation of a  Summer formation program based on social justice.