Legates offer the poor a hand up in tough economic times
Robert Chisholm knows that helping the poor is part of his responsibility as a Catholic, but it’s not something he does out of a sense of duty.
“To me, lending my time, talent and treasure to an initiative of this type is really very natural,” said Chisholm, chairman of the board of Community Partnership for Homeless in Miami, Fla. “It is part of Church teaching, but I don’t give it a second thought. I just do it.”
The call to serve
Chisholm, an architect and member of the Miami Chapter, is one of several Legates involved in helping the poor and homeless — a population in the forefront of America’s consciousness during the current recession.
In Asbury Park, N.J., Joe Marmora serves as executive director of Interfaith Neighbors, which provides rent subsidies, meals-onwheels, food and heating assistance to the poor. In Tampa, Fla., Jeff Darrey works with Trinity Café, which serves a free restaurant-quality meal to some 200 people each weekday.
All three men have responded generously to the Lord’s call to help the destitute, implicit in both the Gospel and Catholic social teaching. In the 2001 document Living the Gospel of Life, the U.S. bishops said, “Catholics should eagerly involve themselves as advocates for the weak and marginalized” in areas such as poverty, hunger, employment and housing.
Many people — including Catholics — have come to expect the government to solve these problems. However, individuals can be more effective at bringing solutions to poverty, said Joseph Varacalli, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College.
“The Catholic response to those in a state of poverty must not be merely in terms of government and bureaucratic programs — which can be cold, abstract and even, in certain cases, counterproductive — but also in terms of individual charitable efforts, the latter with its more necessarily human face,” he said.
Indeed, Legatus members who work with homeless and other poverty-stricken people say treating them with dignity is a hallmark of their programs. “We approach people with a lot of respect, a lot of love and providing hope,” Chisholm said. In fact, Chisholm puts his architectural skills to good use by designing CPH buildings so they more closely resemble houses rather than institutional buildings.
“Sometimes people of the streets who are in such dire straits just need somebody to treat them with love, kindness and dignity,” added Darrey, cofounder of Trinity Café and CEO of Marketing Associates/USA, Inc. “That’s what we provide at Trinity Café. Over and over again we see the difference it makes in people’s lives and the softness on people’s faces when they leave compared to when they come in.”
A hand up
However, homeless advocates know that it’s not enough just to be caring and provide people with food or a place to sleep.
Programs like the Community Partnership seek to help the poor make changes in their lives that will keep them off the streets. From its inception in 1995, Chisholm said, CPH wanted to offer a continuum of care and real hope.
Finding the root cause of someone’s homelessness, hunger or poverty can be challenging, he said. “Many people are unable to cope with life. We offer all the help in the world, but we also teach them that there are responsibilities and consequences to everything you do in life. If they want to be helped, we help get them back on their feet with a lot of love and respect, but also a lot of discipline.”
Since Community Partnership’s beginnings, about 61% of residents in its two homeless assistance centers have made the move toward selfsufficiency, meaning they were able to leave the facility, get a job and function in society.
“We certainly don’t believe in anyone having a free ride in life,” Chisholm said. “We want people to be valuable, contributing members of society within their capabilities, be able to provide for themselves or their family and lead a responsible life within the minimum parameters.”
Chisholm said the average stay in one of the partnership’s centers is 45 days. In addition to food and temporary shelter, the centers offer case management, health and child care and job training. CPH is funded by a 1% sales tax on food and beverages sold at certain restaurants in Miami-Dade County and donations from charitable foundations, corporations and individuals.
Those who work with the poor and homeless regularly encounter skepticism about whether those they help are truly needy. Marmora, who was working in real estate when he helped start Interfaith Neighbors in Asbury Park more than 20 years ago, said he often hears from well-to-do friends that the poor are lazy and simply don’t want to work.
“We minister to the working poor,” he said. “They’re just families that live on the edge. They are unskilled, make minimum wages and can’t afford the high rents they have to pay. So they struggle whenever they get too far behind, and we kind of lift them up and keep the family together.”
Although Catholics are called to feed the hungry and house the homeless, Church teaching makes it clear that such work is not to be at the expense of more serious issues like abortion.
In Living the Gospel of Life, the bishops write that if the human person is the “temple of the Holy Spirit” or the “living house of God,” then issues such as racism, poverty, hunger, employment, education, housing and healthcare form the crossbeams and walls of the structure while attacks on innocent human life — such as abortion and euthanasia — strike at the foundation. “Neglect of these issues is the equivalent of building our house on sand,” the document says.
In a similar vein, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput warns against looking at Catholic social doctrine as the Church’s sole mission in his new book Render Unto Caesar. “The Catholic faith is much more than just another public philosophy or useful set of social programs. The Church is not an association of social workers. She is a community of believers and disciples. In fact, the Church’s social service has no meaning outside her Christcentered faith.”
Trinity Café’s Jeff Darrey says all the social issues work together and deserve his attention. For example, if he serves a meal to a hungry woman and learns she is in a crisis pregnancy, he would refer her to a pregnancy center for help in carrying her child to term. Five years ago, he and his wife Sharon supported an 18- month-long billboard campaign directing abortion-minded women to a pregnancy center.
“It’s not an issue of either/or,” Darrey said. “This is what we’re called to do. This is the whole purpose. This is why I care.”
Judy Roberts is a freelance writer based in Graytown, Ohio.
Corporal Works of Mercy
Feed the hungry
Give drink to the thirsty
Clothe the naked
Shelter the homeless
Visit the sick
Visit those in prison
Bury the dead