Where Do We Go From Here?
From the earliest news of Pope Francis’ announcement that he would visit Philadelphia, many people in our region recognized what a powerful opportunity it would provide to raise issues of poverty and human suffering. We recognized that his persistent global message of compassion and justice for those on the margins was critically needed in our city, where over a quarter of the population lives in poverty, where thousands are trapped in homelessness, addiction, or lost in the criminal justice system. So it was a wise and important decision by the World Meeting of Families to create an opportunity for raising issues of homelessness and hunger as an integral part of preparation for the Papal Visit.
A core goal of the Hunger and Homelessness Committee was not only to raise the issues of hunger and homelessness, but also to provide practical ways for people and communities to respond. We had some remarkable success in the specific initiatives we developed – the Francis Fund and the Justice Campaign. We were able to actually expand the capacity of many organizations to provide services and support for persons in our area struggling with poverty. We were able to send a strong message to our national leaders that complemented the message they heard from the Holy Father when he spoke to Congress.
The Undoing the Knots project, which culminated in the Knotted Grotto, was an astonishing success, far beyond what we had anticipated. It was clear that providing a public vehicle to share struggles tapped a deep chord in many people. Our ultimate goal was to invite people to connect their personal and familial struggles with the struggles of hurting people in our community; as we invited them to pray for the undoing of their “knots,” we invited them to help undo the knots of poverty and injustice through the other elements of the Mercy and Justice Campaign. The sheer magnitude of visitors to the Grotto overwhelmed our volunteers’ capacity to fully share the vision with each visitor, but we feel that many people were able to see the connections. And we hope and pray that the Grotto not only enhanced the spiritual life of those who participated, but that it planted seeds of greater empathy and compassion.
It was also deeply encouraging to see many persons who had experienced homelessness and poverty take on leadership roles through this process. We had such persons participating on the Committee and on subcommittees. Many of them shared their stories and spoke of the urgency of the issues at Mercy and Justice events and other public venues. Many formerly homeless residents of Project HOME played a key role in the outreach to currently homeless persons on the streets in an effort to provide services, alternatives, and support during the WMOF and Papal Visit. Many others volunteered in a variety of capacities throughout the year: at public events such as the Pope-Ups and Days of Action; at the Knotted Grotto; and even through selling WMOF merchandise that had been created by homeless persons and former gang members. We believe the empowerment of these men and women can continue into the future in providing leadership in the work to end homelessness.
A remarkable part of the Mercy and Justice Campaign was the formation of an interfaith working group. Clergy and laity from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths came together to support the campaign in a variety of ways. There were important connections formed in this process, including the recognition that our different communities are doing similar work and ministry for persons in need. The very act of coming together for a common cause was a sign of healing in our society, particularly in an age where religious violence is scarring our world. The group recognized the need for deepening these relations in ways that can enhance our common work of compassion and justice. We must explore how we can do this in the coming year.
There remains an important challenge: Where do we go from here? How do we tap into the energy of the Papal Visit and move forward in continuing a Mercy and Justice agenda? We recognize that literally millions of persons in our region were in some way touched and moved by the Holy Father’s presence in our city. We know that the Pope’s message included a strong challenge to us all to love, mercy, compassion, and concern for our sisters and brothers who struggle with poverty, addiction, and social marginalization. Therefore, there is a deep reservoir of persons, in congregations or not, who are primed to join the movement to seriously address poverty and homelessness in our community. How can we reach out to and mobilize this community? How can we continue to stress the centrality of mercy and justice in our faith lives and congregations? How can we create concrete venues for new people to get involved, through financial support, volunteering, program development, and advocacy? And how can we foster broader commitment in our region to lasting solutions to poverty and homelessness?