January is an interesting month as we transition from considerable darkness into the light. Just today the weatherman announced that we should see 45 minutes more sunlight by the end of the month. The whole notion of our coming out of the darkness and moving into the light reminds me to reflect on my own journey and how important both light and darkness are as various paths are traveled.
There are those times when my driving journey is stopped short by the stranger at the critical intersection who is asking via cardboard sign for a dollar or a job in exchange for food. I am tempted, like most people, to look away, to avoid meeting eye to eye, all the time wondering what specific life stories have occasioned spending a day or many days and many nights on the street.
When I give in to the temptation to look in the other direction, there is no real relief from the questions I have about how homelessness has exploded in the region and how we should be responding as a community.
In many conversations about the situation of homelessness or the crisis of poverty, people often end up talking about the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor.” The discussion can easily start dismissing those who didn’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, didn’t make the “right” choices. But even those whose lives have been easy realize that it probably wasn’t just “the grace of God” that made them successful.
Upon deeper reflection, people know that their accomplishments happened because others, with only moderate stress and much grace, provided consistent support. Successful journeys are much more interdependent than we might realize at first blush.
Becoming a just society
As a church and a region, we are also on a journey about our future and what paths we might take to become a more just and equitable society that promotes opportunity and economic growth and puts an end to poverty and economic stagnation.
These are the same questions that the Metropolitan Council is asking as they design their next strategic plan for the region. Thrive MSP 2040 is their effort to involve local communities and citizens in examining the environment and in planning for the strategic investments that will enable the region to thrive for our children and grandchildren going forward.
The foundational principle in regional planning, of course, is that we are all connected at many levels. Unfortunately we aren’t as conscious of this notion as we could be. The cities and suburbs, exurbs and urban core all depend on each others’ success in an interdependent region. As a metro area, we need to include a response to the growing poverty and homelessness in our planning for the region.
Perhaps a contribution local parishes could make to this planning effort is to replicate the question Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Mich., asked all parish and diocesan groups, no matter their purpose, to ask at the beginning of their meetings: “How shall what we are doing here affect or involve the poor?”
As the bishop reflected on his diocese’s 72-day focus on this question and the temptation to bottom out on judging the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, he pleaded with his people to “always err on the side of largess.”
“Always err on the side of largess and graciousness.” Perhaps as a church, local communities and a region, this is an attitude that will take us from darkness into greater light!
Kathy Tomlin is vice president for social justice advocacy for Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.