By Brother Samuel Hakeem, OP
I have something to confess: I’ve never been a big fan of preaching on behalf of mission and charity organizations. Perhaps your experience has been similar to mine—instead of a Sunday homily, you get something in between a sales pitch and a guilt trip, complete with pictures of starving children and mothers digging through trash heaps. When the basket comes around, I reach into my pocket and reluctantly give a dollar or two, moved not by compassion but by guilt. I then return home, feeling even more guilty that I didn’t give five or ten dollars instead. I often end up feeling hopeless, knowing that even if I had given ten dollars—heck, even if I had given my entire year’s stipend—there will still be starving children and mothers digging through trash heaps. At the end of the day, I have given my money, but I have not been changed significantly by my experience. If anything, I subconsciously attempt to remove the images from my head in order to get rid of the guilt that comes along with them.
I guess my largest problem with this “shock you into giving” approach is that, in order to uphold one of the principles of Catholic social teaching, the preferential option for the poor, this approach completely neglects an equally-important principle of Catholic social teaching—the dignity of human life. We see in these images not a person with a story. We see instead a symptom, a problem which needs to be eradicated. The person in the picture becomes a symbol of this problem, and their dignity as a human being is completely dismantled.
Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you were struggling to make ends meet and could not afford to feed your family. Your son is showing physical signs of malnutrition. Finally, worse comes to worst and you head to the dumpster behind the nearby fast food restaurant to search for something to feed your son. As you climb into the dumpster a camera crew rolls through, snapping shots of you and your starving child. Congratulations! You are now on billboards, pamphlets, posters, and late-night commercials. Your picture will hang in church halls and will be projected during Masses. Your son’s face has become the official face of poverty—just what you wanted, right? Nobody will ever learn his name or the fact that he has an incredible singing voice. BUT they will know that he’s poor! Why should they need to know more than that?
Eventually, you get back on your feet and are able to support yourself and your family. Your son is going to school and the future looks bright. Where are the camera crews now?
My negative experiences with mission and charity preaching made me hesitant to apply to a summer immersion program with Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The Global Fellows program is a ten-day immersion trip to a country where CRS is present. The purpose of the trip is to become familiar with the work of CRS in developing countries, as well as to get to know the people of these countries. The immersion experience comes at a cost, though—the global fellows are required to preach for CRS for three years upon returning. I feared that I was going to be expected to become one of these “shock-into-giving” preachers. I applied, was accepted, and began preparing for a trip to East Timor—the world’s second-youngest country.
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