This article was written by Nic Cable, a senior at DePaul University and a second year interfaith scholar. He is finishing up a double major in Religious Studies and Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies.
Friday night Bridget Liddell (a fellow scholar) and I, along with two other DePaul students, traveled down to the First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park. We were joining the Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Campus Ministry that is affiliated with the University of Chicago. The group gathered to prepare dinner for homeless people in cooperation with The Night Ministry, a non-denominational, non-profit organization, dedicated to serving the needs of “Chicago’s most vulnerable”. We boiled hotdogs, bagged chips and cookies, and loaded them into three cars along with sodas, bananas and a handful of college students ready to help make the world a better place.
We headed down to the service site, unloaded the food and began serving dozens of cold and hungry men, women and children. As we reached the end of the line people were invited to come back for another helping. It became evident that these people were really vulnerable when we began handing out two hotdogs at a time, even three, to these starving people. Towards the end , when the population was waning, for those who remained, we began filling empty hotdog bun bags with numerous helpings. There seemed to be nothing that could fill the emptiness in these good people.
As we commuted back to campus, I reflected upon my experiences of the night. I thought about the socio-political implications of community service, such as feeding the homeless on a street corner or in a soup kitchen. I couldn’t get rid of the awful feelings, knowing that the nice people we served were suffering to stay alive, while I was heading home to a warm bed, where I would wake up to a warm breakfast. What good, I wondered, was the dinner I just served, but a flimsy band-aid applied to the deep wound of poverty that has attacked the heart of our shared humanity?
I then remembered the Peace Studies class I’m taking this quarter on activism. During our class on Thursday, we discussed Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, which focuses on, among many things, the paradigm of the Oppressor and the Oppressed within society. One topic of heated debate was the methodology and merit of various forms of activism. For example, people engage social problems differently; some give their time, others their money, and some do neither or both. The question raised in class was whether those who were volunteering their time and effort were just perpetuating the status quo by allowing it to remain static.
This hit me hard because I give a lot of my free time to working with groups such as the Night Ministry, which I feel do great things for people who are suffering. But, the counter argument, my professor explained, was that instead of promoting social services we should be working to overhaul the entire system so that welfare will not be needed in the future. I never looked at the charity I do as perhaps adding to the oppression rather than ameliorating it.
Before I succumbed completely to pessimism and hopelessness, I recalled what Ft. Memo said to my class on Social Change, Friday morning. He said that justice is about being with people. We need to be face to face and hand in hand with the poor, hearts together working to emancipate both the oppressed and all of us who maintain the system of oppression. So, is Charity enough? Absolutely not. But, it is an imperative component to living a just and happy life, as well as becoming fully human. When we are face to face with our greatest fears, we must find that voice within us that calmly says, “open your eyes and act.”
Published in the January 2010 Issue of the Interfaith Review