The Poor are With Us

I was sitting in the bleachers watching my son’s basketball practice when a man started ranting about the Catholic Church. He had overheard my daughter complaining about someone at church that day who had said the food she was preparing wasn’t for kids who happened to wander into the Hall.

“What does the Catholic Church have against feeding those in need?” he said. That really threw me. I didn’t even realize the connection until he gestured to my daughter who had made her hungry stomach clear. The man went on to share the baggage he was carrying around.

“The nuns ran the school in my hometown. Kids would come in hungry but they didn’t have money. The nuns wouldn’t let them go through the line at lunchtime and they fired the lady who tried to feed those kids.”

He didn’t let me respond. He was on a roll. “I just read an article about how all the poverty in the world would end if Catholics and a couple other churches would sell all their artwork and statues and gold. But Catholics don’t care. They’d rather have fancy buildings.”

By the time he was finished, my mind had stopped working. I mumbled that it was unfortunate about the nuns he met and that art is important to inspire people’s souls. He rolled his eyes and turned away.

I spent a restless night blaming myself for not giving him better answers. Because I have thought about this and read about it. Why don’t the words come?

What I should have said is this:

If the Church sold all the artwork it holds, there would possibly be several million dollars available for more service work. There might even be billions. If, of course, the artwork could all be sold for high prices. Then we could feed every person in the world. But for how long? A week? A month? Maybe we could give every family in the world a cow. And this would last for how long? Maybe we could give every family some tools either for farming or fishing. But would every family use those tools?

There have been studies about how to end poverty for centuries. And clearly, money alone is not the answer. So, should we could pour billions into a “think tank” about how to end poverty?

The truth is this: eventually, poverty would return.

The Catholic Church is one of the oldest charitable organizations in the world. And the poor may actually have been better off when all Christians were called to be “charitable” instead of institutionalizing the concept and putting the poor on state-directed “welfare.”

The situation of the nuns withholding food is certainly troublesome…I wonder if they tried to help the poor children in ways that were unseen? The church calls for charity and compassion. Yet, in every church and every organization there are individuals who are mean-spirited. Sadly, that will always be true as well.

As for art…I am an artist. I know, from both creating art and admiring it, that art can lift up the spirit of many people. It elevates us, taking us out of the humdrum of our lives and into the world of Spirit.

Images of Jesus make him seem more accessible. Just as we put pictures on our walls to remind us of the people we love who are in a different place, we need images of Jesus to bring our attention back to him.

I teach my Sunday School students a song that goes, “Rise up my soul and give glory to God…” With music, the proclaiming of the Word of God, the artwork and architecture of the church, as well as charitable acts, we all work together to “give Him glory.”

The Church attempts to give glory to God in the structure and ornamentation of its buildings. In this way, the Church also becomes a beacon of light and hope to those who are drawn to these places of worship out of a simple love for beauty. Tourists regularly go to the great cathedrals of the world to be inspired.

But imagine all the artwork has been sold off. All the beautiful buildings are gone. The money that supported the poor is also used up. And the poor still exist.

Where then is our hope, our dignity and our inspiration?

The Catholic Church here in our small town was built by poor people. They didn’t have a lot of money. But they came together to put up the best structure they could using their sweat and calloused hands. Little by little our congregation has added a few statues, a few nice windows. We generally don’t pay people to create new artwork or re-do the kneelers. I have painted banners. Other artists have donated their work. A couple who run a small upholstery shop, donated their time and supplies to fix the torn and tattered upholstery at the church. Our church building is a labor of love.

And we also have a St. Vincent de Paul center and a food pantry that feeds the hungry and pays household bills for those who need it. Quietly, and without fanfare, there are people from our church who visit the sick, the prisoners and the elderly. We have programs for our youth and give money to all kinds of causes.

It is not an either/or thing: Either we put money into a building OR we care for the poor. We should do both. Because BOTH give glory to God. And if our local church were bombed tomorrow, the people here would put it back up again. Because we need it.

So, back to the man in the bleachers. I’ll see him again soon. Do I dare print out the information above (without the mention of his challenge) and offer it to him in a written form? Or can I speak these words? Stay tuned….

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