Washington state bishops issue poverty letter

Following a year of listening sessions with people living in poverty, the Catholic bishops in the state of Washington issued a pastoral letter calling for direct action in solidarity with those suffering.

The letter, “Who is My Neighbor? The Face of Poverty in Washington State,” was released Nov. 17 by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain and Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio L. Elizondo of Seattle, Bishop Thomas A. Daly of Spokane and Bishop Joseph J. Tyson of Yakima.

A statement by Bishop Daly on the Diocese of Spokane’s website noted the pastoral letter expresses a concern “that poverty is reaching crisis proportions” and calls “all people to direct action in solidarity with those who are homeless, mentally ill, addicted, and hungry.”

Hearing people’s stories

Seeking a broad representation of poverty in communities within each diocese, the bishops met personally with several dozen individuals from across the state.

“In our listening sessions we heard ‘the cry of the poor’ (Psalm 34),” the bishops wrote in their letter.

Among those they met were “immigrants, documented and undocumented, men and women, people who came from middle-class families and ended up homeless, and a woman living in her car with three children due to domestic violence,” said Greg Magnoni, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

“The significance of the listening sessions cannot be overstated,” Magnoni told Our Sunday Visitor. “They had a tremendous effect on the bishops. They were personally changed and deeply moved by the stories of those they met.

“The bishops discovered two things. First, there is a lot of suffering that we need to be aware of, and second, we have to experience it ourselves, and the only way to really understand that is to actually be with and accompany our brothers and sisters living in poverty.”

Magnoni noted that the bishops’ call to solidarity begins with the title of the pastoral letter coming from the parable of the Good Samaritan. “The Samaritan actually walked with this person. He didn’t just give him some money and walk away. He accompanied him, walked him to the inn, saw to his needs personally, and came back to make sure he was doing well.”

The letter opens with the stories of several individuals met by the bishops. “Poverty has a face,” they write, “and it also has a voice. But that voice often does not penetrate the wall of fear, misconception, and prejudice that can separate people who are poor from those of us who have what we need.

“Reflecting on what we heard, we recognize the urgent need for action to alleviate the suffering that has become epidemic in every city, town and community in our state.”

Responsibility to help

Emphasizing Scripture and themes of Catholic social teaching, the bishops address the role and responsibility of the Catholic community and government.

“Scripture and Catholic social teaching form a moral compass to guide our decisions to work for the common good,” they wrote.

“Solidarity with our neighbor begins with listening and leads to action. Acting as sisters and brothers to those who are poor and marginalized, we journey with them as they seek solutions to their problems, address their challenges and take their rightful place in our communities,” the bishops added.

Bishop Daly, in his statement, called the letter “a formal declaration by the bishops of Washington that recognizing and taking action to address poverty are moral issues and priorities for Catholics and all people of good faith.”

With the letter, parishes have been provided a special prayer, study guide and video encouraging communities to gather, reflect, and ask difficult questions and search for solutions.

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“This is going to be an ongoing process where the expectation is that pastors and parish communities will challenge themselves to understand at a personal level what the face of poverty is in their own community,” Magnoni said.

“Something amazing the bishops discovered,” he added, “is that many of the people they spoke with expressed a desire to help others. They were continually saying, ‘I have something to give, and I would like to help others who have struggled like I have;’ so it’s not as if the bishops are saying we need to create programs that serve the poor, but rather we need to engage with people who are experiencing poverty and help them become part of the solution.

“What we expect to emerge is that organizations like Catholic charity agencies, St. Vincent de Paul, and the various religious orders that have outreach activities will find ways to connect Catholic people with those efforts and get them active in accompanying and walking with their neighbors in solving the problem of poverty.”

In concluding the letter, the bishops wrote, “It is our hope that through prayer we will be inspired by God to act in solidarity with our neighbors who do not share fully in the blessings of life.”

James K. Hanna writes from Pennsylvania.