A church of the poor

Pope Francis surprised many early in his first weeks as pope when he urged that the Church for “a poor church, a church for the poor.”

But his words should call us back to an earlier pope who called the Church to be a “church of the poor.”

Pope St. John XXIII came from humble origins.  He is reported to have said: “Born poor, but of honored and humble people, I am particularly proud to die poor.

A church of the poor identifies with the poor, identifies with their struggles, identifies with their hopes and their frustrations. It is a church walking with the poor.

It is good that the Church is a church “for” the poor, taking into account their needs and concerns.

But there is the danger that a church “for” the poor may look down at the poor with pity and think that is has the solutions for their plight.

That is a danger for all of us. Will we just do things for the poor or will we risk walking alongside them, sharing their struggles and their joys?

I recently read Lee Rainboth’s The Grinder: One Community’s Journey Through the Pain and Hope from the Great Haiti Earthquake,  his account of living in a Haitian community before, during, and after the 2010 earthquake.

What struck me was his willingness to be a part of the community, not someone trying to save it. But he did recognize that he did have an advantage that he could offer to the people – a chance to tell their stories which helped them move out of the desperation and paralysis that the earthquake provoked.

One way of putting this is that he enabled the people to recover – perhaps for the first time – their voice. He also helped them recover their sense of their power, partly by his art work with the people.

A church of the poor will not provide solutions for the poor; it will not throw money at projects, though it will share its resources in a way that enables all to work together.

Lee has a paragraph at the end of his book that I think might help us understand the challenges of being a church of the poor, not just for the poor.

Haiti had all the resources that it needed at its fingertips to recover on its own.   They could have rebuilt their own country.   They may have appreciated some advice on how to put all of the pieces together but now they’ll never know how.   A new country cannot be bought in the street, it must be rebuilt.   But because of all of the promises of what billions of dollars could buy, they’ve lost faith in those resources that they had and been shown that they have no value.   And that destruction of faith in one’s own self-worth, or collective worth as a country, is much more impossible to rebuild than buildings made of cement.


If you want to buy Lee’s book, buy the paperback. The Kindle edition does not have the art work!

Full disclosure: I know Lee and met him once in Ames, Iowa.

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