If you want to hear from someone who is really concerned about the condition of our poor in the United States, talk to a visitor from the Gaza Strip.
That was my experience earlier this week while participating in a panel discussion for a group of leaders from across the Middle East. The 12 men and women were participating in an International Visitor Leadership Program run by the U.S. Department of State. For most of the group, this was the first time visiting the United States. They travelled from Washington, D.C., to Denver and down to Colorado Springs to meet with representatives from the organizations that work together at the Helen Hunt Campus, one of which is Catholic Charities Family Connections. Speaking through a translator, I joined with leadership from CPCD Head Start, Colorado Springs Food Rescue and Peak Parent in explaining what our agencies do and how we work together to meet the needs of the community.
After our panel was done with our remarks, Tarek Ziad al Banna, from the Palestinian Territory of Gaza, raised his hand and introduced himself. Mr. al Banna is the board president for a charity organization called Fares al Arab which, based on my limited knowledge of Gaza, must do important and difficult work. His question started with an explanation of the amount of international aid his group receives, especially from individual donors, churches and the government of the United States. Then he asked: “Why is your country sending so much money to other places when people are so clearly struggling in poverty here?”
After our panel struggled to answer that query, another member of the contingent, Nada Binghalib from United Arab Emirates, took the floor. She opened by explaining how troubled they all had been by seeing the people both in downtown Denver and in Colorado Springs experiencing homelessness. Ms. Binghalib explained they had expected it to be free from the problems of poverty that their corner of the world faces.
“I thought America was supposed to be great,” she pleaded. “Why can’t you change things in your government to fix these problems? Don’t the people have the power? Aren’t you worried about what will happen in 20 years if something does not change?”
There is nothing quite like an outside perspective on something to help you see it in a new way. Those questions left me somewhat speechless. There was a part of me that was offended. I wanted to say, “Hey, you can’t talk about our country that way! Only we can talk about our country that way!” Mostly, I was awestruck by the candid observation that the world expects better of us when it comes to taking care of our own people.
My responses on that day, while sitting on the panel, were vague and jumbled. Here is what I see and what I wish I had shared:
There are thousands in our community who care immensely for their neighbors, especially those who are struggling. We see this in the volunteers who give endless hours of time and we see this in the generous and sacrificial gifts of money. There are examples of good people caring for each other both within and outside our faith communities. There are some thoughtful leaders in our business communities and our government. There is more good work being done than you see on a quick visit to our community or our nation.
Then I would have said this: the problem is that there is not enough goodness. There are too many people who do not care for their neighbors — who complain about our poor and homeless rather than helping them. Too many in government and in business who are working to preserve the wealth of some rather than working toward a common good. Yes, I am concerned about the next 20 years because I see people leaving the church, which has been a foundation in supporting the poor since its inception. And I am concerned because the more comfortable people get, the more frightened we become of losing what we have. We move to gated communities, stop coming downtown and stash away our wealth. And finally, I am concerned because society is increasingly talking about our poor and vulnerable as the responsibility of someone else.
Our poor and homeless are the responsibility of our agency and the many others who go to work each day trying to solve the problem. That responsibility is equally shared with city and county government. It is shared by churches. Most importantly, the responsibility lies with every single resident of the community. Nobody gets a pass. If you are not doing something to help the least of your brothers, you are not pulling your weight.
If I could revisit that moment with those good people from the Middle East, I would close with this quote from Pope Benedict’s encyclical letter “God is Love.” “Practical activity will always be insufficient, unless it visibly expresses a love for man, a love nourished by an encounter with Christ. My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them: if my gift is not to prove a source of humiliation, I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift. Those who are in a position to help others will realize that in doing so they themselves receive help; being able to help others is no merit or achievement of their own. This duty is a grace.”
We have a duty. To love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and to be the nation that the world believes us to be.