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Maria Fitzsimmons is a Coordinator for the Office for Peace and Justice.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Poverty Awareness Month: This January Let the Scales Fall from Our Eyes

The Christmas season is coming to a close. Like the decorations and the festive gatherings, the generosity that permeates our hearts and minds during the Advent and Christmas Seasons is a welcome change of perspective. During Christmas, we act generously towards our family and friends, and we also seek to share generously with poor and marginalized people in our communities in special ways. If only the poverty and injustice that afflict us and our neighbors were as easily put away as the Christmas lights and nativity scenes.

I think it is deeply appropriate that following the Christmas season, Catholics are invited not to step back from the spirit of generosity that defines the time of year, but to refocus that spirit and deepen our reflection and action to encounter poverty in our country. During the month of January, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops invites us to focus on the fact of poverty in our society, and the accompanying fact that its eradication is well within our reach.

During Poverty Awareness Month the USCCB and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development offers us daily resources to understand the pervasive and shocking facts of poverty in the United States. Learning about the startling inequalities that define the lives of millions of American stirs in our hearts compassion for those who suffer, but we are called to go deeper. In fact, the realization of the truth of rampant poverty in the US, the world's richest country, should foster not only compassion, but anger. It is appropriate to be angry at this status quo. From that compassion and anger, we as the Body of Christ alive in the world can move to act together to end poverty.

This is a central message of this month and of the entirety of our faith as Catholics. We are not only called to open our eyes to the experiences of oppression in our lives and the lives of others, as difficult as that may be, but that we should also open our eyes to the fact that we can take proactive steps to stem and one day end this oppression. Awareness of the problem without awareness of the solution would be paralyzing, which is to say that we are not called to despair but to hope. The Hope of Christ is an active and uplifting hope. Poverty Awareness Month is an opportunity to know what is wrong, that millions of Americans are suffering, and to know that we can and must act.

Christ called Saul to open his eyes, but that was not the end of the story. Christ did not leave Saul on the road. Rather, christened with a new name, Paul entered into community and acted on the truth he learned. Because knowing Christ was not the end. Acting on the truth of Christ made Paul's knowing truly matter for his life and as a result, Paul helped found our Church from a small community of faith to a global Body of Christ.

This January, we must be aware. Let us be aware that the unemployment rate in Chicago is 9 percent, one of the worst in the United States, and the unemployment rate in the African-American community in Illinois is 16 percent. Over half of recent college graduates remain unemployed. Let us be aware that the poverty rate for women in Illinois is nearly 16 percent and that one in six Americans live in poverty. Let us be aware that the implications of these numbers mean that seniors have to choose which of the life saving medications they need they can actually afford to take, and that the children who most need services are being shuffled to different schools while the city cuts vital curricular and extracurricular programs. But, we cannot be still in that awareness. The scales must fall from our eyes and we must call others to shake the scales from theirs. Then, we must act on the truths we know from our own experiences and from the resources the USCCB shares this month to recognize the poverty and oppression that defines so much of our lives.

Poverty is a crippling fact in our society. But it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that poverty need not continue to blind and paralyze us, but rather we have a path out. This January we will be aware of the problems, but we will also be aware that our action is the solution.

Take action this January in three ways. First, join Organizing Catholics for Justice at (www.OrganizingCatholicsForJustice.org) and take action with the Catholic Community in the Archdiocese of Chicago to end poverty. Also, invest in other organizations that are acting to end poverty across Chicago and the state of Illinois by donating to the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (http://www.chicagopeaceandjustice.org/cchd/donate-to-cchd/.) Finally, learn more about Poverty Awareness Month at www.chicagopeaceandjustice.org/poverty.
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