Learning From the Empowered Poor

These days we don’t talk to each other enough, especially across economic class.

If you wanted to talk with someone who is poor, where exactly would that happen?  Growing up middle class, high school might be the last time you walked alongside people who haven’t shared the perks of your income strata. Then college and career kick in to fuel a trajectory far from those mean streets shared by people who struggle to make ends meet.  

Journey to Justice, a weekend formation retreat designed by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, seeks to address this challenge.  The retreat centers on a visit to a social agency and a group of the empowered poor who participate in agency life.  It’s designed to be more just a parachute drop into a poor neighborhood.

CCHD, the anti-poverty division of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wanted to create a forum, a space for dialogue, between the middle class and the economically marginalized.  So Journey to Justice is designed to allow self-awareness to develop as the middle class faithful explore what it might mean to be poor. [1]

Before the Visit

  • Most of Friday evening & Saturday morning are spent learning what the Bible and Catholic social teaching say about “the preferential option for the poor.” In a nutshell: Social sin, embodied in unjust systems that oppress the poor, is just as important as personal sin. In addition, the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates how neighbors can be found even in those who are radically different from us.
  • A video called, “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty” includes interviews with low-income persons, all of this to heighten awareness of what it might be like to be poor.

During the Visit

  • The group takes a trip to a social agency funded by CCHD, where they have a meeting with empowered people living in poverty.
  • The meeting is intended to be a dialogue, not a presentation from one side for the other. The leader’s handbook explains: “By dialogical we mean: There are a sufficient conversational opportunities. . .There is time for questions and answers. People are directed to actively listen to one another, without judgment.”[2]

After the Visit

  • Participants go home to debrief, sharing what they experienced and felt during the immersion.
  • They revisit church teachings on social sin/personal sin and its implications.
  • They hold a workshop on social analysis, examining the root causes of poverty.
  • They share a guided imagery experience to stir up their imagination about how to respond to what they saw and heard when visiting empowered low-income leaders.
  • They commit to some sort of follow up action in the context of the Mass.

All of this takes place within the space of a single weekend.  Whether or not you are Catholic, this immersion model offers valuable lessons on how to create space for dialogue with the poor.

Lesson One: Prepare Through Study.  The way this retreat is structured, participants spend more time studying and debriefing than they actually spend on-site. This prepares the heart and mind to actually be changed by the experience.

Lesson Two: Focus on Self-Awareness. To generalize a bit, one of the hazards of being white and middle class is thinking the one’s experience (college education, stable bank account, nice car) is universal. The fact is, having all these perks biases our thinking. Paying adequate attention to our pre-judgments and biases heightens the ability to be changed by the experience.

Lesson Three: Focus on Dialogue, Not Service.   Notice: Participants do not arrive onsite with a pickup truck loaded with food or hand-me-down clothes. The purpose of the visit is something different: respectful conversation with active listening, without judgment.

Nothing important ever happens without a good conversation.


[1]Jeffry Korgen, My Lord and My God: Engaging Catholics in Social Ministry (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), 55-71.

[2] Journey to Justice Guidebook (Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2014), 9.

Photo:  diannehope, Morguefile license.


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