Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
How Should We Think About the Poor?
On March 26, 1991, Bishop Kenneth E. Untener of Saginaw,
Michigan, issued a —decree— that from that day forward, until July
1, 1991, all meetings held under Church auspices, at the parish
or diocesan level, no matter what their purpose, must begin with
the agenda item: How shall what we are doing here affect or involve
the poor? The following are his reflections as he looks back on
The decree on the poor was in effect for 97 days.
Never in my life had I talked about and listened to
so much about the poor. On some days I had four or five meetings,
and each began with: the poor.
I learned a lot, not only about the poor, but also
about us, and how we think about (or don't think about) the poor.
Believe me, I am no expert on the poor. But I learned eight things
in particular during those 97 days.
1) We tend to forget the "poor" poor.
A typical scenario: The chairperson begins the meeting
by saying something like, "Well, the bishop has asked that
we begin each meeting with a discussion about how this affects or
involves the poor. So we're going to spend a few minutes doing that.
I'll throw it open for anyone who would like to say something."
Then someone says, "Well, people can be poor in a
lot of different ways. There are some people, for example, who don't
have friends, and they are poor..."
I interrupt. "I agree with you. But this decree has
to do with the 'poor' poor. They are the ones who get left out,
because they're usually not part of what we did yesterday or today.
The other kinds of poor people are part of our lives, and we need
to be concerned about them. But I want us to connect with the 'poor'
poor. If we deal with them, all the rest will follow. The 'poor'
poor are the ones who rarely if ever are first on an agenda. So
let's talk about them."
Mental note: Always start with the "poor" poor.
2) The poor are often "invisible."
We rarely sat too long through those awkward group
pauses that drive everybody nuts. Thankfully, someone was always
present who could speak firsthand about an experience with a poor
person. Once they did, others began to think of things to say about
The real-life poor do not come as easily to mind as,
say, the sick. After the ice was broken, a person might say, "Well,
now that you mention it, I did hear about such-and-such family,
and how they haven't been around much lately, and that they've been
having a hard time of it." Then somebody else would tell of someone
they knew or heard about, and we would all be somewhat surprised.
We didn't expect poor people to be in our neck of the woods.
Poor people are everywhere, and once we tune in to
them, a whole new world opens up. Tuning in to the poor, however,
is no small trick.
The poor around us (as opposed to the ghetto, or some
distant country) are often invisible. They aren't in our same "networks."
- They aren't at the same gatherings.
- They don't belong to councils or committees.
- They don't always go to church (and if they do, they try hard not to look
- They don't bump into us at the mall or the supermarket.
Take tuition assistance at schools. We offer help
for those who cannot pay full tuitionor cannot pay any tuition.
But the poor often do not come forward. Why? It is announced in
the parish bulletin. There are even fliers about it.
But the poor don't get the parish bulletin. They don't see or
respond to the fliers. If you want the poor to take advantage of
help to the poor, you must reach out to find them. To find the poor,
you must go out of your way. You must look with different eyes,
for the poor feel that we do not want them in the normal parts of
our lives. So they disguise themselves or absent themselves.
Mental note: It takes initiative and creativity to reach
3) The biggest problem is the "undeserving
Place a child before us with a hungry face and ragged
clothes and we jump at the chance to help.
Children, you see, haven—t done anything to make themselves undeserving.
They haven—t made the bad choices that landed them in this mess.
They can—t be blamed for failing to do what they can to help themselves,
because children can—t help themselves anyway. They really can—t
help it if they are poor.
Poor children don—t make it hard to help the poor. Poor adults
who have had bad luck don—t make it hard to help the poor.
The —undeserving poor— are the ones who make it hard
to help the poor. They are the ones who have made the bad choices,
or failed to make any choice at all. They are the ones who have
been helped before—and it didn—t help. They are the ones who seem
to expect us to bail them out, and who hardly say "thank you"
when we do. They are the ones who seem to take advantage of the
system, or other people.
Help them anyway. If you start to distinguish between the deserving
and the undeserving poor, you are finishedat least as far
as the gospel is concerned. Who is really to decide if they are
I do not mean that we shouldn't try to help them help themselves.
As the saying goes, "Give me a fish and you feed me for a day.
Teach me to fish and you feed me for life."
We should always try to help the poor help themselves. But be
careful about metering out your help too carefully. Jesus was never
overly careful about metering out his mercy. He was criticized for
his largess, his "reckless" mercy toward undeserving sinners.
The memory of Jesus helps us deal with the "undeserving poor."
The "undeserving poor" remind us that something deeper
needs to changewhatever it is that makes them feel so hopeless
and helpless. We need to address that something deeper. In the meantime,
help them. Do not be judgmental or overly careful.
Mental note: If you're going to err, err on the side of
4) If you try to help the poor, you will sometimes
Every parish minister can tell stories of people
who have come with a sad tale. You check it out very carefully,
give them moneyand later find out that they did the same thing
at three or four neighboring parishes.
Helping the poor has its risks. You will sometimes get taken.
(The same is true of forgiveness. If you try to forgive 70 times
seven, you will sometimes get stepped on.) It's a darn shame. Be
generous anyway. Don't be foolish, but don't overdo the safety rules.
It's like playing racquetball. You're going to get hit with the
ball now and then, and it hurts. You can learn how to step out of
the way of certain shotsbut you are still going to get hit
sometimes. The only way to avoid it is to stand in the corner and
never get into the game.
If you are going to be generous to the poor, you are sometimes
going to get taken. The only alternative is to "stand in a corner"
and never really get into helping the poor.
Mental note: Learn to write off your losses.
5) Helping the poor is not always a pleasant experience.
It's no picnic helping the poor. There is often no
feeling of fulfillment. It's worklike a lot of virtue is worklike
taking care of an elderly parent is work.
The poor, as fate would have it, are just like us. They are mixtures
of virtues and vices. Like us, they are not always grateful. Like
us, they don't always trust. Like us, they don't always respond.
Like us, they are both generous and greedy. Like us, they are sometimes
wonderful and sometimes awful. Whatever happened to the noble poor?
Some are out there, but mostly they are in Charles Dickens.
The "poor" poor are not always so noble, and they are the hardest
to deal withwhich is probably why we don't.
Mental note: When you help the poor, you always receive
more than you givebut it may not seem that way at the time.
6) Food baskets at Thanksgiving, toys at Christmas
are good as far as they gobut they don't go very far.
People easily talk about direct help to the poor
on special occasionsclothes, food, money. Those fine things
shouldn't be taken lightly. But that is the easy part. The hard
part is trying to do something about the poor's state in life.
The discussion always slowed when we tried to focus
on this. Where do you begin? What do you do?
It's hard when you deal with the causes. How can
we give them basic skills to manage their lives? Can we make loans
available to them through our own credit unionsat considerable
risk? Shouldn't the state make better provision for dependent children?
What about health insurance? How do we help them find work? How
do we help them find work that pays a living wage? Why are single
parents, usually women, abandoned so easily by a spouse?
Mental note: Direct assistance is good. Tackling
the causes is better.
7) Sometimes the poor are overwhelmed
People who deal with the poor can tell a hundred stories
about how they waste money and opportunities. You bring food to
their home—and notice a large-screen TV. You give them money—and
they buy groceries at the nearby convenience store (where prices
are much higher). You have their car fixed—and find out it is a
Buick Skylark. Whenever you visit, they are watching TV.
Why? Let—s try to put ourselves in their shoes.
You are thinking about cleaning the garage (or the basement, or
your desk). Actually, you have been thinking about it for weeks.
Well, to tell the truth, you have been thinking about it since last
winter when you were trying to find room in the garage for the snow
It is a hopeless mess, but today is the day you are going to tackle
it. Getting started is the problem, because with a mess like that,
there is no logical place to begin.
So you decide to have a beer first, and watch a couple innings
of the ball game. Hold that thought. Right there, in that moment,
you are in their shoes. You may spend only half an hour watching
the game, and you will eventually get to your taskbut in those
30 minutes of doing nothing, you know exactly how they feel all
day each day. At least with cleaning the garage, there is an end
in sight. But for the poor, the task seems to have no beginning
and no ending. They can't get enough together even to get starteda
down payment, transportation, protection from an abusive husband,
Their life is like that all the time. It is too big a mess even
to know where to begin. So they try to forget it by enjoying some
"luxuries," having a beer, watching TV, etc.
Mental note: Don't judge their "laziness" too
8) The poor also help the poor.
People who work with the poor can tell a hundred
stories about the —generous poor.— A hundred stories. A family takes
in a neighbor—s child without a second thought, because the child
needs to be taken in somewhere. A person who has next to nothing
gives money to someone who has nothing at all, simply saying, —Well,
they need it more than I do.— A poor family in a small house takes
in another family because they had their heat turned off in the
dead of winter. Food is shared even though there isn—t enough to
There are countless true stories about the —generous poor.— The
widow—s mite wasn—t a parable that Jesus made up. It was a true
story that unfolded before his eyes. And it still happens every
day in poor communities.
Mental note: God loves a cheerful giver, which is one
of the reasons why God loves the poor.
Putting our insights into action
When the 97 days had ended, I asked myself, —Is it all over?
Can we now get back to normal?—
Yes. We can get back to normal by realizing that —normal— means
talking about the poor at normal meetings, and finding ways to translate
our words into actions. —Normal— means focusing on the poor as much
as Jesus did.
I hope that the decree simply primed the pump. I hope we have
only just begun, for there is more to learn, more to do.
The decree was successful, but it was like the success of someone
who joined Weight Watchers and reached their goal by losing 37 pounds.
They are congratulated, cheered by all at the meeting and given
a pin. But the true measure of success is whether they will change
their eating habits in the weeks and months and years ahead. Some
do, and some don—t.
The Church of Saginaw achieved its goal of talking about the
poor at all meetings for 97 days. Now we must see if we have changed
our meeting habits, and if we will think and act differently. The
true measure of success lies in the months and years ahead.
May God, who has begun this good work in us, sustain us along
the way as we strive mightily to live what we have learned.