How to Be "A Poor Church for the Poor"

"Pope Francis challenges us to be a poor Church for the poor - how do we do that?"

This question came out of a recent diocesan gathering of life, justice, and peace ministers, and is echoed in the hearts of many Christians seeking to more authentically live the call to discipleship. Many of us are more comfortable being "for the poor" than standing with the poor. But Jesus' ministry of uniting divided people's included not only empowering those with little socio-political standing, but challenging those with power and influence to abandon those things in favor of reconciliation. The question of being "a poor Church for the poor" is really a question of what we are called and willing to give up.

Abandon Positions of Privilege
Willingly abandoning privilege is perhaps the greatest task for many of us seeking to stand with our sisters and brothers on the margins. Our attachment to privilege is so ingrained that it can distort even how we think about the poor in our midst and our relationship to them. Think, for instance, of how often we talk about ourselves being a "voice for the voiceless". This sort of attitude comforts us in our positions of privilege. We see privilege as a means to advocate on behalf of those we assume cannot speak for themselves. It allows us to cling to our privileged seats at the table.

Everyone has a voice - an inherent dignity, a set of experiences they bring to the conversation. Our challenge is not whether we will speak for others, but whether we will listen. In their pastoral A Place at the Table, the US Bishops write, "A table is where people meet to make decisions - in neighborhoods, nations, and the global community. Many people have no place at the table. Their voices and needs are ignored or dismissed." In God's Kingdom, everyone has a place at the table.

Are we willing to make room at our own tables? Are we willing to abandon our tables in favor of new ones? To humbly seek a diminished status at the table of others? We need to give up the privilege to speak first and most loudly. We need to abandon control in favor of communion. This means moving from conversations about people on the margins, to substantive, deliberative conversations with them. Often, this means confronting through dialogue with them the privileges that we enjoy at their expense.

Seek First the Outcast
Too often, we find ourselves caught up with whether or not the fishers and the pharisees are on board with our efforts. The primary focus of Jesus' ministry was proclaiming the Good News to the outcasts. He kept moving outward to find, know, and love the people that others ignored or disparaged. Along the way he invited fisherman and shepherds and others to join him in this ministry of love, and accompanied those that chose to walk with him. But he kept walking, kept seeking. He conversed with the Pharisees, those in positions of power that were openly hostile to his efforts. He actively tried to encourage them to join in the mission, but he kept moving forward. He did not wait around for their approval. And, in this way, he abandoned the privileges of good standing with his community and its elites.

We need to make seeking, knowing, loving, and listening to the poor the priority in our lives and our Church communities. Pope Francis clearly posits this as our necessary priority. "If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse," he writes, "she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neighbors, but above all the poor and the sick, 'those who cannot repay you' (Lk 14:14)" (Evangelii Gaudium, 48).

We often become too focused on and frustrated by all of the hurdles - the parish leadership, the fellow parishioners, the budget considerations - that stand in our way. Instead of looking at how others need to repent, let us first look at ourselves. We need to recognize that each of us enjoys areas of privilege and power that exclude and marginalize others. Look around you and seek those to whom you need to listen. Seek them out with whoever will join you on the journey, be it one person, twenty, or simply the Holy Spirit.

Go Forth in Joy
We need to avoid the temptation to let obstacles define our vocation. To be a poor Church for the poor, we the Church need to put the poor first. That begins with us personally as individuals and with our smaller support communities. We need to model radical Gospel love for our broader community, in the hopes that others will join with us in seeking to walk in Christ's footsteps. But, at the end of the day, that is not the ultimate "goal" of mission. Jesus loved the poor to love them, and invited disciples to do the same. The loving of the poor is the primary task, not secondary to forming disciples or conversing with Pharisees. As Pope Francis continues in that passage from Evangelii Gaudium, "There can be no room for doubt or for explanations that weaken so clear a message, Today and always, 'the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel.'"

Kevin Foy is Associate Director for Maryknoll Mission Education and Promotion in the Western US.