Dear member of the Catholic Community:
Enclosed is an open letter from our Catholic Worker community to the Catholic people of Oklahoma. It is a lot of reading, and we apologize for that, but these are important concepts and requests we are making. Here however is a short executive summary, which highlights what we are asking people like you to do:
We invite you to not only read this letter and catechesis, but to pass it along to members of parish staffs, teachers in Catholic schools, St. Vincent de Paul conferences, parish social ministry people, and anyone else you think might be interested. It is available online at www.justpeace.org/2003adventletter.htm .
Your brother in Christ,
Contact us at: 1524 NW 21, OKC, 73106. Help line (to give to people seeking help): 405-557-0436. To contact Robert Waldrop personally, 405-613-4688 or 405-722-2110 ext 115.
An open letter from the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker community to the Catholic people of Oklahoma, regarding the situation of the poor.
"Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning & misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name. For God will show all the earth your splendor: you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God's worship."
Bold words we hear this second Sunday in Advent, an almost blinding messianic vision of the splendor of truth and wisdom. God himself goes before us in joy, and we journey "by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company." Paul, writing from prison to the first Christian community established in Europe, prays that the love of Christians "may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value,"so that we "may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. John the Baptist comes to us, announcing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, preparing the way of the Lord. It is in the context of these words that are read in all Catholic churches on this Sunday, and our vocation of solidarity, that we come to you with concern in our hearts regarding the situation of the poor here in Oklahoma City and elsewhere.
We will share with you one simple statistic, a snapshot of reality, which we think speaks most eloquently of the present situation. The United States Department of Agriculture periodically surveys food insecurity in the United States and they published in October 2003 a report, "Household Food Security in the United States, 2002". These sober statistics tell us that for the period 2000-2002, the state of Oklahoma was first in the nation for the percent of households with "food insecurity with hunger", 210,000 people in 70,000 households (5.1% of the total)are regularly experiencing hunger in Oklahoma. We have 194,000 households, that's 580,000 people (14.3%) ranked as "food insecure", for this we are tied for fifth place with New Mexico. Our rate of increase in hunger, 1998-2002, was five times the national increase.
As Christians, we should ask ourselves: how does this large number of hungry people in Oklahoma manifest "the peace of justice, the glory of God's worship"?
This is Jesus, often in a distressing disguise, who says to us, "I was hungry, and you gave me no food." This crisis invites us, as Paul does in the second reading, to complete the good work which God begins in us with love and sacramental grace. The poor are not helped by a transient emotional response that is forgotten after the holiday season, rather, they need a sustained commitment from Christians over the long term to meet the needs of the present crisis and to reform political and economic structures of sin that support the culture of death..
We write to you as Catholic Workers, and thus we make our stand within the personalist tradition of our founders, the Servants of God Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who taught us to accept these words as a radical command to accept personal responsibility for feeding the hungry. With humility, but convinced of the importance of this message, we therefore call upon the Catholic people of Oklahoma to witness to the truth of our Christian faith by accepting personal responsibility for providing food for hungry people. We ask all Catholics to bring food to give to the poor to every mass that we attend, throughout the cycles of times and seasons, across every week of the year.
It is not enough, however, to simply feed the poor, although that is the necessary place our journey begins. Catholics must also ask, as Oscar Romero of El Salvador has done before us, "Why do these people not have enough to eat?" The culture of death has a quick and ready answer: if they are hungry, it is their own fault. That answer, however, is fraught with error. That some go hungry because of personal fault cannot be denied. But to accept this as the entire answer flies in the face of reality and is grounded in a false anthropology of the human person..
As with hunger, the duty of the Catholic Church in this situation is not ambiguous. We must teach and preach the entire word of God that we have been given, including the Church's social doctrines, with words and with actions, in season and out of season, in all places, at all times, and to all peoples. This includes such fundamental truths as the twin duties of solidarity and participation, the importance of subsidiarity, the problems caused by structures of sin, the dignity of labor, and the moral duty of employers to pay a just wage to their employees.
The social doctrines teach that one solution to the problem of poverty is to empower poor people by ownership of land, homes, and means of production, so that they may participate fully in their own lives, and improve their situation by the work of their own hands. Economic history clearly suggests that this ideal is most practically realized in the cooperative form of business organization. An authentically Catholic response to the growing crisis among the poor would be to increase the economic opportunities of the poor by organizing cooperative enterprises that are owned by their workers. Oklahoma therefore needs a Catholic program to create worker owned jobs in cooperative enterprises as a matter of social justice, and we invite all to join with us in creating such a campaign.
This is not simply a matter of economics and social justice, it is also an important, and presently marginalized, aspect of building a civilization of life. The movement to enact constitutional protection for unborn children is obviously at a legislative, judicial, cultural, and political impasse, and is likely to remain so for years to come. We believe that it is therefore necessary to pay more attention to resolving the grave and often tragic cultural, economic, and social factors that are primary drivers of the pro-abortion decision. By increasing the economic security, stability, and opportunities of low income people, we can reduce the incidence of abortion in our communities, even as our congress and judiciary remain mired in the culture of death.
As Catholic Workers, we deliver food to people in need who don't have transportation to get to a regular food bank. There are not many who do this kind of work, and for four years we have seen an increase in requests for our help, to the point that in November we could only make one food delivery (instead of two regularly scheduled) and 55 households were sent away without food.
We offer this to you, not as a plea to help us in particular, but as one final snapshot to illustrate the pressing need of this day for Christians to rise from the apathy and spiritual laziness that is fundamental to the materialistic ethic of the culture of death and to meet these challenges with faith, hope, love, and creative solidarity, manifesting our religion with practical action to alleviate the present food emergency among the poor, and working with sustained effort over the long term to address the root causes of poverty and hunger by helping to create cooperative jobs as a matter of social justice and economic opportunity for the poor.
On this the Second Sunday of Advent, in the year of grace 2003, we ask your prayers on behalf of the poor during these difficult times.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, help the helpless, strengthen the fearful, comfort the sorrowful, bring justice to the poor, peace to all nations, and solidarity among all peoples. Holy St. Joseph, you who provided bread for your Son and food for the poor, help the helpless, comfort the dying, bring justice to the poor, honor to labor, and peace to all nations. We venerate your justice, the gospels praise your name. Be strength now at our side, be light against the darkness. In your devoted family, our souls in trust confide. Sustain us and all our brothers and sisters on our journey towards your heavenly kingdom.
And so it will come to pass, that "The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
OSCAR ROMERO CATHOLIC WORKER COMMUNITY OF OKLAHOMA CITY
Many people have great esteem for Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin who founded the Catholic Worker movement, but they may not realize that in their day, they were radically opposed to the development of government social services to help the poor. They saw these nascent institutions as evidence of the tragic failure of Christians to do the job given to us by Christ.
Fast forward 70 or so years, and we have a situation where Dorothy and Peter's worst fears have been realized. Helping the poor has become a matter of partisan politics. Politicians use government social programs as weapons of class warfare, encouraging people to covet the welfare checks of the poor. Instead of a moral obligation, helping the poor has become a zero sum game where for one to be helped, another must be hurt. Even worse, politicians that tend to support adequate funding for government social services are often pro-abortion, while anti-abortion politicians are the ones waving the class warfare/slash social services banner on election day. And so it comes to pass that in Oklahoma, hunger is increasing at five times the national rate.
These days, there is much superficial talk about the importance of the government doing less, and people doing more, and as a result, however much we are doing, we must do more. It is not that Christians don't do a lot for the poor, because we obviously do. Catholics, in particular, through St. Vincent de Paul conferences, Catholic Charities, Catholic Worker communities, and many parish social ministries, extend a hand of hope and help and solidarity to the poor. But private charity isn't keeping up with the need. The point Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin were making, in their opposition to Social Security and the early AFDC, is that the Christian duty to feed and help the poor is personal, not political. By delegating that responsibility to a government bureaucracy, we miss the point of Christ's commands, and put the poor at risk of the politics of the moment. The ways that we can involve ourselves with feeding the poor are many:
But as we say in our declaration, it is not enough to feed the poor, we must ask why they are hungry in the first place. This is a complicated question, but a major factor in poverty in America is that full-time work doesn't always earn a just living these days. 25% of American workers make less than $8.00 an hour. Homeless shelters, emergency food pantries, and soup kitchens nationwide are increasingly "patronized" by people with full time jobs. A recent article in Newsweek says, "The bottom 10 percent of American workers earn just 37 percent of our median wage... their counterparts in other industrialized countries earn upwards of 60 percent. And those are countries that provide health care and child care, which cuts the economic pinch considerably." The magazine goes on to say that 5 out of 10 of the occupations expected to grow in the next decade are low wage jobs.
Which is to say, among the social teachings that we think are not readily understood by Catholics is the duty of employers to pay a just wage. We understand that what a just wage is, in terms of dollar amount, is a matter of some debate, but we think that at minimum a job should pay enough that a family could buy enough to eat, and pay for their housing, utilities, clothing, medical care, and transportation, on a frugal budget. Thus, the minimum wage is not a just wage.
A review of social and income statistics shows that the situation of the poor is getting much worse. The incomes of more than half the population have been stagnant or declining in constant dollars since the 1970s, and those in the bottom 20% of households have done the worst. This information is readily available in the Statistical Abstract of the United States. It is often said that "a rising tide lifts all boats," but the actual objective facts do not support the statement. In the United States, as the rich have gotten richer, the poor and the working classes have gotten poorer. That's what the data show.
We tell ourselves, "Well, these workers aren't worth more money." And when we do this, we show how the culture of death has corrupted our thinking. This statement says that some people deserve to be hungry and always on the edge of economic desperation, even if they work full time for a big corporation. You certainly won't find the popes and bishops of the Catholic Church teaching that false doctrine, but there are many Catholics who believe that.
Catholic social teaching has much to offer in terms of figuring out a better way to run this planet. Rerum Novarum, the social encyclical of Leo XIII, sparked a great social action movement among Catholics. Catholic thinkers and writers such as Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton did much to apply these ideals to practical situations. Modern economic structures such as credit unions, farmer and consumer cooperatives, and employee stock ownership plans derive from these Catholic social ideals.
So let us consider the problem of low wage employees in the light of Catholic social teaching. Under the present system, a corporation with low wage employees divides its wealth among workers, management, and the absentee owner stockholders. Managers elected by the absentee owner stockholders decide how the pie is divided. This arrangement, where owners of capital are superior in the organization to the labor, is typically viewed with disfavor in the social teachings. From Leo XIII to John Paul II there is an unbroken record of teaching that labor is superior to capital in business organizations. But in America 2003, our dominant economic structure is the corporation, and in that form of business organization, capital holds all the cards.
In a cooperative enterprise, the owners are the workers, there are no absentee stockholders to drain off the productive efforts of the worker-owners. When the owners are the workers, the economic pie gets divided in a more just way. And this is obviously of particular utility to low wage workers. If their wage was supplemented by their share of the profits of the enterprise, then they would be more likely to earn a just wage for their work.
Beginning with Leo XIII, popes, bishops, and councils emphasized the importance of workers owning homes and productive lands. In the modern era, ownership of a share in a cooperative enterprise is the equivalent of the 19th century ownership of a productive homestead. It applies the basic principle - ownership of land and productive assets should be spread widely - to the present problem - too many workers earning too low wages.
The Catholic community would have much to offer workers interested in transitioning from low wage employment to becoming worker owners of their own jobs in cooperative enterprises. There is a wealth of intelligence, knowledge, and practical business experience in the Catholic community which could be put to work creating cooperative jobs that would be owned by formerly low wage workers, thus enabling them to earn a just and honest wage by the power of their own work and labor.
We have already begun. A year ago we started work organizing a food cooperative that would only sell Oklahoma foods, and that is owned by its customers and the producers, farmers, and ranchers who supply the products. We have about 100 members now, 30 of which of farmers or ranchers, and began operations in November, grossing more than $3,000 on our first order. Some of these farmers are very small operations, and their owners have low incomes. We got this far with less than $2,000 in startup expenditures, most of which came from capital contributions of the members, expenditures on our behalf by other organizations, and a small grant we received in conjunction with the Cherokee Small Farms group. Our Catholic Worker house provided the original idea, internet presence, organizational work, and about $200 in seed money. Epiphany Church has allowed us to use its facilities for our inaugural banquet and to prepare the monthly orders, and also joined the cooperative. So you can see how a very small amount of initial investment can have very large returns. Rural poverty is a major issue in Oklahoma, this cooperative gives very small farmers an opportunity to develop urban markets for their produce, meats, and crafts. You can learn more about this first cooperative effort at www.oklahomafood.org . When we have the money, we are ready to start another website, www.oklahomaclothing.org , which we hope will do for Oklahoma fabric arts and products what our oklahomafood website is doing for direct marketing of Oklahoma food products.
We have already created one full time job. By working with an Okemah farmer over the past year, he was able to quit his job in town and be a full time farmer. One job does not constitute a rural economic recovery, obviously, but consider this: we are nobody and have less than $6,000/year in cash money to spend (most of which gets spent on food), and all we did was offer him suggestions, access to information, encouragement, and a way to meet new customers and with that small assist he was able to make the jump to full-time farming. So this seems to us to be promising of what can be done if we work at this and more people learn about the possibilities.
The Catholic Church has a long history of supporting cooperatives. The Mondragon Cooperatives of Spain, which have tens of thousands of worker owners and are one of the largest business enterprises in Spain, were started by a Catholic priest who applied the social justice teachings of the Church of the situation in his region, which was an economically depressed area of Basque country. They started with five worker owners, operating out of a garage, making kerosene heaters. Now their products are sold around the world and tens of thousands of worker owners earn a just wage by their own labor in enterprises they control.
As more workers come to own their own jobs, either as proprietors or as workers in a cooperative enterprise, there will be less poverty, and more economic security, since these formerly low-wage workers would be enabled to earn a just and honest wage by their own work and labor.
There are certainly other possibilities, and all should be explored, but we have to begin working now in a serious way to create alternative economic opportunities for the poor. Every year the culture of death leaves more people behind for the wolves to devour. You may think that is simply a dramatic rhetorical flourish, but it is in fact an accurate description of what is going on out there in some parts of this town. Some of you wouldn't believe the situations we see as we go around giving food to the poor. It is not a very pretty sight when people get left behind, and we see that all the time.
Things won't get better by themselves. The default option, the one that happens if we decide to do nothing, is that things will go from bad to worse and then continue to deteriorate. Only by hard and creative work will the situation be turned around. People need to decide if they are going to just sit around and watch things fall apart or if they are going to be part of the solution.
We hope that these words challenge indifference and apathy, and most of all, break through that tragic spiritual laziness which we get from the culture of death and its relentless materialism. It may be easier in the short-run to let somebody else be responsible, but over the long term that is a losing proposition, for each of us as individuals and for our entire civilization, such as it is.
If you are ready to explore in greater depth the orthodoxy (content), orthopraxis (practice), and spirituality of the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church, then we invite you to invite the Oscar Romero Catholic Worker House to present a social justice mission to your parish, school, or organization. The details can be tailored to your specific circumstances and needs, but would include reflections on the content, practice, and spirituality of the social justice teachings, practical social justice action (that is, as part of the mission together we will do something for the poor), prayer and devotional experiences (such as the social justice stations of the cross, which connects each station of the Cross with a specific social justice situation here in Oklahoma, and the St. Joseph's Table, which is an offering of food to the poor).