A day before Thanksgiving, I joined Fr. Michael, a Catholic pastor in Southern Maryland to help deliver food to members of the community in need. When I arrived, Fr. Michael already had his car full of turkeys, pasta, and other food items. One of our stops led us down a long dirt road in a wooded area, after a quarter of mile on this dirt road that was full of potholes we finally reached a clearing in the woods that had two small trailer cabins where a family loved with their children.
Just a few miles from this family’s home, we had seen a number of mansions. The sharp contrast between the two bewildered me. Fr. Michael turned to me and said: “Our county is one of the wealthiest in the United States and yet, we have people here living in horrible housing. Often, they are pushed aside, blamed for their misfortunes and hidden from our views. They need our help: a decent roof over their heads, supportive social service programs, and jobs.”
I nodded in agreement. I have seen so many working families in Washington D.C. and Maryland struggling to find an adequate housing or paying a disproportionate part of their income for rental apartments in bad conditions. More and more, people with disabilities and retirees who have lived and worked in their neighborhoods all their lives are no longer able to afford their rent. Costs have grown disproportionally to their income. Too many parents have to work two or even three jobs to be able pay the rent and utilities on top of other financial obligations. As a result, they have less time to spend with their children and to be involved in their communities. Those communities, then, become less resilient; their children more prone to suffer negative consequences ranging from poor academic achievement to gang involvement.
In the coming weeks, we will be celebrating the story of a poor family that 2,000 years ago struggled desperately to find a safe home in Bethlehem. That fits into even a larger story about God coming to us in Jesus Christ and making his home among the poor, at the margins of the structures of power. Those of us who are tired and disenchanted by secular hyper-consumerism iteration of Christmas, may want to reflect on its core spiritual message. Beyond its highly sentimentalized veneer, Christmas is a story about the Spirit of the Lord bringing glad tidings to the poor, healing the brokenhearted and proclaiming liberty to captives. As such, Advent, as a preparation is an invitation for us to pay attention to the poor around us to the transforming presence of the Spirit of God in midst of our broken and yet still beautiful world.
In his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis points out that lack of housing, both in rural areas and in large cities, is a major issue for human ecology. “Having a home,’ he writes, ‘has much to do with a sense of personal dignity and the growth of families.” He then insists that, “creativity should be shown in integrating rundown neighborhoods into a welcoming city: How beautiful those cities which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development!”
But how do we prepare the way of the Lord and translate these words into action? Allow me to offer two suggestions. First, let’s be clear: safe, decent housing that the working poor can afford is an important moral, justice, and a life issue. It is about investing in strong, resilient families and healthy children that can then be empowered to love, serve others, and glorify God. As faith communities, it is incumbent upon us to bring the Gospel values to shed light on the growing gentrification of many of our neighborhoods, local zoning law ordinances, proposed models of urban development, tenants rights, etc.
Second, to make tangible progress in improving housing and strengthening resiliency of our local communities, we need to come work together to make it happen. The archdiocesan Justice and Advocacy (J&A) Councils are wonderful example of that. Montgomery, Charles and Prince George’s counties each have their own J&A Councils. They meet with County Council Members to remind them of Catholic Social Teachings priorities and to support legislation that protects and empowers the most vulnerable, and promote the common good. They testify at budget hearings, ask critical questions, bring Gospel values and perspectives, they host community forums, organize local parish campaigns – they are the contemporary presence of Jesus in the public square. J&A Councils serve as a vital bridge between their respective local parishes and the larger Catholic community organizing efforts.
The have done so much to advance the common good, helping to secure funding for affordable housing and for programs for homeless and disabled. But there is a need for more people – especially young adults – to join the local J & A Councils. I hope and pray that during this Advent, anyone reading this may express interest in joining their ranks. What a powerful way would that be to help prepare the way of the Lord! For more information, please contact Fr. Jacek Orzechowski at Jacek.Orzechowski@CC-DC.org