Learning hard lessons about complex nature of poverty, hunger

| John Garvey | September 28, 2011 | 0 Comments
John Garvey

John Garvey

Our youngest daughter, having just graduated from Boston College, moved to Seattle to spend a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. She is working there for a nonprofit that collects food for poor people and advocates for government food programs.

It can’t be an easy program for a young person. For one thing, JVC, in order to build community among the volunteers, encourages them to give up their iPhones, iPads, iPods and laptops. We Skype with her just once a week, when she has time to slip away to a wifi spot at the local Starbucks.

One day recently, about a month into her work with the JVC, my daughter found herself down in the dumps. She is a gentle and idealistic soul, the sort who gives her last $5 to a panhandler and then can’t afford to ride the bus home. But her work was teaching her some hard lessons about the complex nature of poverty.

One of her team’s leaders explained to her that although her group collects 31 million pounds of food each year (leftovers from Costco and bakeries and other commercial producers), it would take far more to feed all of the hungry people just in their part of Washington.

Meanwhile, on her way to work in the morning (when she has cash for the bus), she has begun to notice the large number of poor and mentally ill people who ride with her.

No simple fix for hunger

The problem that she is dealing with seems both enormous and intractable. And her boss told her that even if they could feed everyone, that wouldn’t solve the problem. It turns out that, when you give a poor man a meal, he becomes hungry just a few hours later.

The thing about hunger is that there is no straightforward fix, not even one that can be achieved through arduous means or huge amounts of money.

We have to combat the cause of hunger, not just fight the symptom, and we can’t agree on what the cause is.

Is it the education system? (And if it is, is it that we don’t spend enough money? Or because teachers’ unions prevent needed reform?)

Is it the decline of the family? Government housing policy? Drugs? Racism? Laziness on the part of the “have-nots”? Greed on the part of the “haves”?

Or perhaps it’s some combination of all of these problems. And each of these causes is as intractable as the problem of hunger with which we began.

We live in a fallen world

It all serves as a reminder that we live in a fallen world. We are mere human beings. Some among us are always doing the wrong thing. We all take our turns: We are always hating and coveting and acquiring unfairly at others’ expense.

That is the meaning of original sin.

God made us good in the beginning. And from the beginning we have always found ways of frustrating his design.

My wife and I consoled our daugh­ter by telling her that this dilemma is no reason to stop feeding the hungry. Jesus told us that we will always have the poor with us. He understood what she is just coming to realize.

But Jesus also said that, when the Son of Man returns in glory to welcome the just into heaven, he won’t dwell on their policy achievements; he will focus on their personal attempts to do what is right: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

Idealism is contagious, especially among the young.

But as much as we all want to save the world, we will never enjoy the satisfaction of solving the big problems such as hunger and poverty. We can only take our satisfaction at the retail level. The people that we help, having recognized Christ in them, will at least not be hungry tonight.

That’s a good thing.

John Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by Catholic News Service.

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