Editor’s Note: The following proposal sets forth a practical agenda for addressing the problem of poverty at the grass-roots, parish level. Firmly rooted in the principle of subsidiarity, itself a key notion in Catholic social teaching, the proposal aims at placing the skills and concern of laymen and laywomen in Catholic parishes at the service of the needy in their own community. At this time, two parishes in Port Chester, New York, have agreed to become an Opportunity Parish and a Resource Parish. We hope that many more will quickly follow.
The catholic bishops have recently done our society a great service by initiating the debate on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy.
I think the Church has to ask more of its lay members in solving problems of poverty in the United States. For the Church to truly help the poor it must rally its 52 million lay members to become personally involved in solving the problems of poverty. If we accept as truly poor and in need the 35.3 million officially defined poor people in the United States, and that the poor are in due proportion Catholic, that would mean that there are approximately 8.3 million poor Catholics in the United States today. Let us make it our special objective to reduce Catholic poverty in this country by 50% in the next ten years. I suggest implementation of a series of pilot programs which are described below.
Organizationally, parishes can be classified in types. The poorer parishes could be known as “Opportunity Parishes,” which would represent about 20% of the total number of parishes, that is, 4,000 in number. The average parishes would be known as “Sustaining Parishes” and would contain about 60% of the total, resulting in about 12,000 parishes. The richer parishes would be known as “Resource Parishes” and would represent 20% of the total resulting in about 4,000 parishes, including the 249 United States Catholic colleges and universities.
All three types of parishes would have identical organizational structures. However, while the Sustaining Parishes would mainly function within themselves, the Resource Parishes would assist the Opportunity Parishes with funds and personnel. Each parish would have a Lay Board comprised initially of six members, including the pastor; and every year two additional members would be added until the membership reaches twelve. Each Board would be presided over by a lay person and would have a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and chaplain. Each program would be headed by a member of the Board, such as the “Welfare Center,” etc. The committee itself would be staffed by Board and non-Board lay people. The Board members would be elected by the parishioners at large and the officers would be elected by the Board. This Board would be responsible for the implementation of the programs it chooses for its parish.
The pilot program would start with two Opportunity parishes, two Sustaining Parishes and two Resource Parishes. It might attempt five experimental projects, which will address problems of welfare, unemployment, day care centers, study halls and a student “venturer” program.
Implementation of Lay Letter
Welfare: Welfare continues to be one of the most pressing social problems of our time. We, as Catholics, must address this problem. To do so, the non-poor Catholics must find a very fundamental way of relating to the poor. The great common denominator for all human beings is that we get hungry three time a day. The non-poor can relate to the poor through fasting. Funds to be used to assist people are to be raised from the savings from dinners that non-poor families give up through fasting. These families would be called “Participating Families.”
Participating Families would agree to have a dinner ceremony at least once a month where they take no food or drink except water. Perhaps no food would be taken between the hours of 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. the following morning. Families could have a small ceremony in place of dinner, perhaps along the lines of saying a prayer for the family they are helping, drinking a glass of water, and each member of the family commenting on how they can help the needy. The reality of having non-poor families voluntarily going to bed hungry to help the poor would have many positive effects. Perhaps the three strongest would be creating an empathy between the non-poor and poor; providing a vehicle for personal and family spiritual growth; and in a very practical sense, doing something about poverty and hunger, for at least one concrete, knowable family.
The specific program would be one where each Parish Lay Board would select two welfare families on the basis of those who, in the view of the Board, have the greatest chance of working themselves out of welfare. The Board’s responsibility would be a three-year commitment to this family which would include finding a job for the adults of the family, associating appropriate volunteer families to work with them, and to provide day care and study hall services where needed. The Board would be responsible for finding jobs for the adults of the enterprising family. The Board would also ensure that they would be paid $6.00 per hour (approximately 10% above the poverty level).
The jobs found would be those considered desirable by the employee. As an example, the male on welfare would like to be an office employee. We would introduce him to some office managers so he could get a good feel of what they do and what is required to get that job. Perhaps one of those could be an office manager for, say, a Federal Express office; and perhaps he could start out by delivering packages. And if he needs to improve his English, perhaps a parishioner would volunteer to spend three hours a day four days a week with him for a few months to help him improve his basic skills in English. Also, an office manager from Federal Express would be his mentor to assist him with the problems he will experience while working for the company. In addition, of course, he would have the volunteer family and other supporting resources from the Lay Board. In three years, with a lot of work on everybody’s part, he may achieve getting the job he wants, become economically self-reliant, and serve as a role model for other welfare recipients. Once the enterprising member is fully compensated by his employer and secure in his job, he would be charged a fee of $5.00 by the Board for this service.
Jobs: When the lay Commission held hearings in Pittsburgh, we heard of the terrible plight of the former steel workers who refuse to leave their communities, hoping for high paying steel jobs that will not return. At the same time, in places such as Fairfield County, Connecticut there is a shortage of reinforcing steel workers for jobs that pay $18.50 per hour, plus benefits. And the unions in that area are now opened up for additional membership. Why not invite, and pay for the transportation of, two former steel workers to come from Pittsburgh and stay with a volunteer family in Fairfield County from two to four weeks? If they like the work and the area, we would then pay for their families to come up, and if they like it, we would help them find housing and reestablish themselves in the area. During the first year of this program, we would assign a volunteer family to them and reinforce this new family in every reasonable way.
The reason this kind of program is important is that some of our smokestack industry workers are going to have to leave their communities after many generations, which they find a difficult thing to do. But the use of parishes and dedicated new friends would make this considerably easier.
Our objective should be for each parish to find one job a month, that is, twelve jobs a year. If all 20,000 parishes were to do this, in ten years this should be a source of 2.4 million jobs.
Student Venture Program: We should initiate a program at Catholic colleges and universities by which one semester of college training would be devoted to working in an Opportunity Parish. They would live at the parish rectory or at one of the parish halls. These venturers bring not only their skills and caring to help the poor, but also raise their aspirations. These students could do everything from remedial reading to care of the elderly. This would prepare them as future leaders to understand the society and problems they must cope with, and to know at an early age that they can do something about it.
Study Halls: Each parish parochial school will have an after-school study hall. One of the problems in the Opportunity Parishes is that there are many “latchkey” kids who have no one home when they get home from school., Also, in many cases, the parents cannot speak English. The result is these kids do not do their homework and their parents, in many cases, are not in a position to help them do it. In the beginning, the study hall would be small. We could start with grades 3 through 7 and have just 20 students. The program would be monitored by a teacher who could be paid by the parish Lay Board. The staff would be composed of local high school students who volunteer for this as their community service. There would be a nominal charge for this service of 50 cents a day.
Day Care Centers: Each parish would establish a day care center for the children of working mothers. These centers would be limited initially to twenty children. The priority would be given to those children whose parents are coming off welfare. The day care centers would be staffed initially by one professional who would be paid by the parish Lay Board and the staff would be volunteers. This would be a wonderful opportunity for Catholic mothers whose children are grown to help solve one of the pressing problems of our time. There would be a nominal charge of $1.00 per day for this service.
Lay Board Exchange: Start the Lay Board Exchange, a monthly newsletter circulated among the 20,000 Lay Boards in this country as well as any interested parties. In this newsletter, we would discuss programs that parishes have tried successfully and encouraged parishes to write us of their experience. Once a program has proven successful, a package would be prepared and made available to Lay Boards; each parish board would decide on its own which program is most practicable for itself.
Parish: There are approximately 20,000 Catholic parishes in the United States and they form the most basic unit of the Church. In this group we also include 249 Catholic colleges and universities. Every Catholic belongs to a parish. Parishes would be divided into three different categories based on their wealth. The names of these parishes would be—Opportunity Parish, Sustaining Parish and Resources Parish.
Opportunity Parish: These are the parishes that are the 20% lowest in wealth, that is approximately 4,000 parishes.
Sustaining Parish: These are the 60% of parishes that are in the middle, the average parish. There would be 12,000 of these parishes.
Resource Parish: These would be the 20% of the parishes rated the highest in wealth and include the Catholic colleges and universities.
Lay Board: Each parish would have a board. Initially, the board would have six (6) members, including the pastor. Every year two more members would be added until the membership reaches twelve. The board would be presided over by a lay person, and will have a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer and Chaplain, as well as a committee system. The board will be elected by the parish membership and the officers by the board. The principal role of the board is the adoption, implementation and supervision of lay programs to assist the needy. Membership on this board is to be a highly honored position within the parish.
Volunteer Family: This would be a parish family that, as a family, would make a one-year commitment to help another family that is on welfare, injured by unemployment, or having some other problem. This would be a highly revered position within the parish.
Enterprising Family: A family that has agreed to come off welfare and join the Lay Board’s program for three (3) years.
Participating Family: A family that agrees for a period of one-year that they will fast for one dinner a month. The funds saved would go to help another family become financially self-reliant.
Venturer: An individual who agrees to live for a minimum of three (3) months at an Opportunity Parish to assist the needy. Most of these would be Catholic college students who would do this work for academic credit.
Mentor: A person who is skilled and successful in a specific field and becomes an advisor to the needy in that field