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Option for the Poor and Vulnerable

“We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.”

Dorothy Day

  “Love is shown more in deeds than in words.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola

I really don’t like to admit this.  But I clearly recall one day in my high school religion class in which I declared with a stupid amount of confidence, “If people are homeless today in this country, it’s because they choose to be.”  It was long ago, but it still makes me cringe.  Since then, I’ve actually met people living on the streets and I’ve found their reasons for becoming unhoused to be as varied as the people themselves are unique. 

I recently heard an interview in which a psychologist was quoted saying “People don’t live on the streets because they’ve run out of money.  They become unhoused because they’ve run out of relationships.”  In my years of experience in homeless ministry, I would say the psychologist’s assessment was far more accurate than my original opinion.  Still, my heartless high school comment is overwhelmingly popular today with people of all ages.  Our society loves to blame people who are poor for their problems in life.  In contrast, Catholic social teaching places the blame elsewhere, indicating that the moral fitness of a society can be judged by the circumstances of its most vulnerable groups.  Or as Dorothy Day wrote, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”  Poverty is not simply fate or the result of laziness.  It is systemic.  And this theme is not just a social critique. Like all Catholic Social Teaching, it draws upon Scripture, reminding us that whatever we do to the least among us, we do directly to Jesus.

One man who embodied this theme of “Option for the Poor and Vulnerable” and who spent a lifetime building relationships with those who had run out of them, was Jim King, a dear friend and Jesuit priest with whom I was blessed to work during my first job as a high school theology teacher.  Jim had taught at the school for decades before I arrived, and it was immediately clear that he was beloved by generations of students.  He was quirky and jovial, but wasn’t without strong opinions and convictions.  In fact, his commitment to justice guaranteed he would often share some unpopular critiques (especially for a community that had once been an all-boys school).  As a pacifist he didn’t understand the sport of football, claiming, “It’s violent!”  He refused to use the term freshmen because “It’s sexist!”  And he was baffled by the production of pet food in the U.S. noting that with the number of people who are literally starving in our world, “It’s absolutely sinful!”  Still, Jim was completely disarming.  The first time I introduced myself to him I called him Fr. King and he immediately interrupted, “It’s Jim!  Please!”

Having served in India with Mother Teresa, in Africa with AIDS patients, and in El Salvador with communities devastated by the decade-long civil war, it was fitting that we became friends while engaging in service work.  Jim especially had a heart for people living on the streets of his hometown of Akron, Ohio and spent much of his time at the Good Samaritan Hunger Center and the Peter Maurin Center (Akron’s Catholic Worker House of Hospitality). Perhaps most notably, he spent every Monday evening accompanying students to meet people where they lived on the streets of Akron – in campsites along the railroad tracks, under highway overpasses, on the steps of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church, in the woods on the outskirts of the city, and on bus stop benches.  I joined him in this long-standing ministry where we would meet people who had significant mental health issues or addiction problems. People who had histories of abuse and family dysfunction.  People who had been incarcerated.  And people who were taking college courses or seeking employment.  One guy named Will was a brilliant artist who would share new portraits he had drawn each week.  We encountered people who were kind and hospitable, generous and warm, charming and witty.  And Jim was the same with all of them, as he was with the students, as he was with me.  Always greeting everyone by name, with a hug or a handshake, saying “Shalom.  I’m Jim.” 

At the end of each Monday evening visit, we’d reflect on the experience and Jim would always have a comment praising someone he had met for their remarkable ingenuity or resilience, a word of compassion referencing someone else who he knew was especially struggling, or a message about the injustices that lead us to accept people living on the streets as normal or even inevitable along with a note about our responsibility to work for a just world.

A few years into our ministry with the homeless, the school community threw a huge 80th birthday bash for Jim in which plenty of notable alumni and wealthy donors were in attendance.  Jim, however, invited his friends from the streets as his special guests.  He even sent two school vans to pick them up.  One alum who spoke at the celebration shared that Fr. King had been his (don’t say it!) Freshman theology teacher and as a young awkward kid, his experience of witnessing a man who was so truly free to be himself, gave him and his fellow classmates permission to be themselves too.  Often warning students and co-workers alike, “If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy,” Jim’s freedom to be wholly himself was cultivated by prayer and was rooted in his relationship with an ever loving and merciful God who hears the cry of the poor.

Catholic social teaching insists that how we live matters.  How we make and spend our money matters.  Our voices and our voting matters.  Our daily interactions, encounters, and conversations matter.  But do we recognize this?  Do we recognize that all of humanity is deeply connected and that our choices and decisions have the power to especially impact those who are poor and vulnerable?

Jim knew this.  And so, he lived simply and loved generously and preached (in deeds more than in words) on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.  May we do the same.

In memory of James J. King, S.J.


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