Caring for the poor is essential to Christian faith…so how do we teach our kids this core practice? Here are seven strategies, an overview of Church teaching, and links to helpful resources.
by Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry
Caring for the poor is essential to Christian faith—in fact, Jesus says more than once that our salvation depends on a generous and merciful heart, and generations of saints have responded to that call by devoting their lives to the care of the poor.
So how can we teach our kids this core Christian practice?
There many ways that families can combat poverty; here are just a few ideas. (Need some talking points about poverty to share with your kids? Check out the Talking Points section at the end of this article.)
For starters, we can assess our consumption of material goods, recognizing that our actions affect others and their access to daily living needs:
- Do we waste food?
- Do we own many more things than we need?
- Do we use our money wisely?
- Do we share our material wealth intentionally—giving to charities in a responsible and sacrificial way?
- Do we add to the waste piled on to landfills by throwing out things that can be fixed, or buying excessively things that we don’t need?
- Do pay attention to the origin of the things we buy, avoiding the purchase of items made in sweatshops?
Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to combat a “culture of waste”:
This “culture of waste” tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, are no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if they are poor or disabled, if they are not yet useful — like the unborn child — or are no longer of any use — like the elderly person. This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs, which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many people and families suffer hunger and malnutrition. There was a time when our grandparents were very careful not to throw away any left over food. Consumerism has induced us to be accustomed to excess and to the daily waste of food, whose value, which goes far beyond mere financial parameters, we are no longer able to judge correctly.
Let us remember well, however, that whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor, from the hungry! I ask everyone to reflect on the problem of the loss and waste of food, to identify ways and approaches which, by seriously dealing with this problem, convey solidarity and sharing with the underprivileged. (General Audience, June 5, 2013)
Pray to end poverty
We believe in the power of prayer, and prayer has the power to change our hearts and move us to action. Here are some prayer resources you can use with your family:
- Prayer to Confront Global Poverty (USCCB)
- Prayer for Those in Poverty (USCCB)
- Global Poverty Reflection Walk (PDF) (CRS) An activity that allows participants to pray and reflect on the connection between their lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters living in poverty overseas.
- Prayer of the Helping Hands (PDF) (CRS) A prayer for an end to global poverty.
- A Prayer of St. Franjcis Xavier Cabrini (PDF) CRS
- Litany of Our Lady of Latin America (PDF) CRS
Teach your kids about poverty
There are many excellent Catholic resources online for teaching kids about poverty. Here’s a sampling:
- CRS Education – Families: Lots of activities, slideshows, and other resources designed specifically for use by families.
- Catholics Confront Global Poverty: A joint project between Catholic Relief Services and the U.S. Catholic bishops, this website has educational resources and ways to take action, mostly geared toward adults and older kids or teens.
- PovertyUSA: A project of the U.S. Catholic bishops, with lots of ways to learn about poverty and take action.
- Catholic Charities: Catholic Charities is the domestic aid initiative of the Catholic Church in the United States; at their website, tyou’ll find ways to donate and get involved.
- Hope in a Time of Poverty: A series of messages on poverty and today’s economy from the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development. The messages look at the institutional and systemic causes of poverty in our country today, and are a good background for parents.
- Catholic Social Teaching on Poverty, an Option for the Poor, and the Common Good: This two-page PDF from the U.S. Catholic bishops contains quotes and short excerpts from many Church documents addressing the issue of poverty.
- Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: Economic Life: Real Catholic nerds can read a comprehensive summary of the Church’s social teaching on economic life and poverty in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. The Compendium also places that teaching within the broader framework of evangelization and human dignity.
Practice the Works of Mercy
Keep going week by week until you’ve gotten through all the works of mercy. Some ideas could be: find out what some of the homeless shelters in your area need and get it for them (or volunteer), write to your representatives about immigration reform and caring for aliens, visit a nursing home or a neighbor who doesn’t get a lot of company, volunteer at a soup kitchen or organize a collection for the local food pantry, participate in a clothing drive, etc.
Get Kids Involved in Giving at Church
Get your kids involved in raising money for the various special collections held at your church on Sundays, Set out a giving jar and encourage kids to drop cash and coins in it.
- Children can scavange coins under seat cushions and on sidewalks, or earn coins for extra chores.
- Older kids can earn money with extra chores or raise money with mini-fundraisers: for instance, selling treats to friends and neighbors, or holding a contest, or getting people to sponsor their special activity (fasting for a day, running to end hunger, etc.).
- Teens should be encouraged to think about tithing their job earnings and/or allowance.
- Don’t forget to model charitable giving by putting a check or cash in the jar yourself—and don’t forget the jar at home on Sunday!
Go grocery shopping for the poor
Writing a check to the local food shelf is easy, but actually going on a special shopping trip for the hungry gets your kids involved in a powerful way.
- Set a budget in advance. Ask older kids for contributions; children can contribute by earning money with extra chores, or share their gift money.
- Let kids choose what to buy, with guidance. Consider whether you want to brainstorm a grocery list in advance or just let your kids browse…either way works, but they’ll result in different experiences. Urge your kids to select food that the recipients would really like and that is also nutritious. (This is a good opportunity to learn about shopping for the best price and reading nutrition labels, too.) Curious about what food shelves actually need? Call your local food shelf, or check out this helpful article.
- Drop off the food in person, with your kids. If possible, ask for a tour of the food shelf…and ask how many local families use it every month.
- Be sure to bless the food with a prayer before donating!
Encourage older kids and teens to research public policy—and act
As Christians, our pursuit of social justice begins with the encounter with Jesus and culminates in imitating his healing and sacrificial action. Moreover, the Catholic Church teaches that this action must include not only direct charity, but action to address sinful social structures.
Help your older kids and teens grow into adults who know how to take action by guiding them in researching Catholic social teaching on poverty and the policy of their elected representatives. Then, ask them to write or visit those elected representatives in order to talk to them about those policy positions. Your state legislators might even be willing to meet with your kids in person!
Talking Points: Why Care for the Poor?
Here are some points to bring up as you talk to your kids about addressing domestic and global poverty:
- Our first response to God’s love for us is to return that love to God. The way that God asks us to do this is by caring for those who can’t care for themselves.
- The Church, looking to the example of Jesus, teaches a preferential option for the poor. This means, very simply, that we make a special effort to help those who need it most. The poor deserve to be the first priority of our personal action and our public policy for the simple reason that God wants us to relieve their suffering. Jesus sought out needy people, whether they suffered from material or spiritual poverty. And his goal was to share what he had to offer with them: healing, sustenance, belonging, and salvation. He offers it freely to us, and when we’ve experienced it, wants us to offer it freely to others.
- The Church’s response to poverty is personal and spiritual. Unlike governments, nonprofit organizations, and other secular efforts to end poverty, the Church’s care for the poor is rooted in the humility of Jesus. As Catholics, we see not only suffering human beings, but the suffering Christ, in the victims of poverty. We act to relieve that suffering not only on a physical level, but on a spiritual level, too. Our approach is exemplified by the example of St. Francis, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and Servant of God Dorothy Day, all of whom served the poor in a very personal way. “Tell me,” Pope Francis asked an audience recently, “when you give alms do you look into the eyes of the man or woman to whom you give alms? . . . And when you give alms, do you touch the hand of the one to whom you give alms, or do you toss the coin?”
- Just because we don’t see poverty where we live doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Many of the people in the world are living in poverty, and most of them are children. We are called to respond to the needs of the poor that we can see, and those who are invisible in our culture and our world. Perhaps you live in a town where poverty is not apparent. It can be tempting to believe that since we can’t see it, that it doesn’t exist. But, you might not always recognize the poor when you see them. Some families are one medical bill away from hunger or one broken-down car away from homelessness.
- Poverty is a human dignity issue. It’s not enough to be sorry that people are poor; our lives must be charitable in practice. After the Resurrection, when Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved Jesus as a way of making up for his three denials, Peter said “yes.” Jesus’ response to that was that he should “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep” and “feed my sheep.” There are a couple of words for “love” that are used here—one of them is “agape.” Agape is most often translated as “charity.” It is an active love that reaches out to others to be God’s love for them. When God tells us that we should love God with our whole selves and love our neighbors as ourselves, God wants us to love with this agape—with charity. To love God is to promote the dignity of all people. To follow Jesus’ example is to be particularly attentive to the poor and disenfranchised.