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Challenging why people are poor

Spiritual Director of the TT Society of St Vincent de Paul Fr Roger Paponette emphasised that in service to the poor Vincentians individually and in groups had to ask themselves: “Where are the poor and why are they poor?”

He said, “A balanced spirituality is one that considers these two questions, these two realities and causes us in turn to change the way we operate”.  Fr Paponette was sharing a reflection on ‘Vincentians Walking with Two Feet of Social Action’ the title of the SVP’s virtual training on social justice held June 27 in collaboration with the Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ).  Fr Paponette referenced a statement by the late Brazilian Catholic Archbishop Dom Héilder Câmara, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist”.

The questions of “where are the poor?” and “why are they poor?” are concerns of the heart of God and should be for Catholics as well.  Fr Paponette said the answers are complex and should not be taken for granted.  The encounter with the poor and assisting with their immediate needs i.e. food, shelter, medication, should also be an opportunity to “better their lives” and eliminate the scourge of poverty.   “They are unemployed and unemployable; these things we also have to address”. Fr Paponette reinforced that in respecting the dignity of the poor they must be involved in finding solutions to their problems. Part of the SVP’s mission and the “Christian way” is giving poor persons the opportunity “to encounter their talent, their own usefulness, their own blessedness, their own dignity as human beings”.

Vincentians, he observed, need to be sensitised to the structural issues which contribute to poverty.  He illustrated that the school system can be unjust if it does not cater for the child “who leans at a slower pace”.  Sometimes fighting against structures and institutions is needed, Fr Paponette said, “usually they don’t give up without a fight”.  The SVP will have to work with social workers, unions, and the CCSJ to confront the institutional issues and help restore dignity to persons.

Chair of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice Leela Ramdeen gave a presentation which covered: Introduction to social Justice; History of Catholic Social Teaching; Scripture and Justice; and Parish and Social Action. Responding to a question during the Q and A, Ramdeen highlighted social exclusion and structural injustice in the society. “Why is it people living in Beetham and Maloney when they are applying for jobs have to lie about where they are living?” she asked. Ramdeen questioned what happened to the 5,000 young people who dropped out of the secondary school system and why there were so many homeless on the streets.

The human rights issues and social challenges are known. Ramdeen added that the challenge was using human ingenuity and the resources of the state to address them in a holistic way.  She said political and community will are needed and called for more businesses to be willing to do more for social development. “They are making money,” she commented.

George Johnson of SVP St Ann’s conference observed that there were people who remain “aloof and stay separate from” the people they were trying to help. “We in the community but not of the community; we must expect social injustice will reign” and also consider the factor of safety and security for all. Ramdeen encouraged the SVP to have mentoring, skills training and mediation programmes. “Those are important things we need to think about as Church”.

In welcome statements SVP President Angelique Taylor said the SVP was looking beyond “just giving out hampers” toward finding the root causes of poverty and trying to contribute to their elimination. The training was intended to help members return to their founding principles of charity and social justice, “both of them working in tandem for the good of mankind”.

Simone Francois-Whittier, coordinator of the Archdiocesan Ministry for Migrants and Refugees presented on ‘Welcoming, Protecting, Promoting and Integrating Migrants and Refugees’.