Church as an "On-Ramp"

On Monday night, at the Catholic and Evangelical Summit on Poverty, Robert Putnam discussed his new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, at one of the summit’s public sessions. Everything about his presentation was important, but it was his ending that stuck with me. After detailing all the causes and evidences of the gap in opportunity between rich kids and poor kids, Putnam said he was yet hopeful because we Americans have been here before, at the end of the first Gilded Age, and in the Progressive Era, we came up with ways to address the disparities that had emerged in late nineteenth century then, and we can do it again.

Putnam ticked off a list of items that characterized the Progressive Era efforts that could serve to invite creative approaches to the problems we face. For example, he noted that the Progressive Era was marked by shared investment in the future of all children, that there was decentralized experimentation, and that there was both a top-down and a bottom-up quality to the efforts at reform. But, it was the very last item on his list that has had me thinking. He said the poor need “on ramps” to access the opportunities that exist, and mentioned community colleges and vocational apprenticeships as examples.

I should like to add another example of an “on ramp”: the parish. Many, probably most, parishes help the poor with immediate needs such as food and clothing. Many others have English as a Second Language programs which are vital for immigrants. But, how else can our parishes become on ramps for the poor?

First, we should move heaven and earth to keep our Catholic schools open and sufficiently affordable for the poor and working poor to send their students. In their book, Lost Classrooms, Lost Community, Nicole Garnett and Margaret Brinig detail the loss of social capital in a neighborhood when a Catholic school closes. Social capital is precisely what the poor kids lack today. I know that the economic pressures on our Catholic schools are enormous. But, I also know that programs like Notre Dame’s ACE find ways to make Catholic schools flourish. Cristo Rey schools are an exemplary model of an on ramp too. No bishop should even think of closing a Catholic school until he has called ACE to see if the school can be saved, and not only saved, but made excellent.

Second, Putnam talked about the importance of extracurricular activities in building character. Yet, with funding difficulties, many schools, both public and private, have cut these programs or made the available only to those who can afford them, and poor families can’t afford them. Could someone start an effort to make extracurricular activities available in all schools, public, private and charter, funded with a mix of public and private funds, and made available to all students, no matter what school they attend? This would address the growing segregation across class lines that Putnam highlighted. It would also introduce a much needed area for collaboration between public, private and charter schools as a time when the three types of schools, and the people who run them, view the others as competitors.

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Third, just as the national parish served the needs of immigrants in a variety of ways, in our time parents are hard pressed to find affordable day care options. As important as a parish school, every pastor should explore the possibility of starting a parish pre-school. Pastors face many challenges these days, but you do not need a roman collar to run programs like these – indeed, many of the management tasks pastors usually undertake should have long since been handed over to lay leaders in the parish. I also can’t think of a better way to encourage young families to stay involved in their local Church than to have a pre-school program, and declining church membership among the poor was one of the indicators of declining social capital Putnam cited.

Fourth, parishes can host mentoring programs for children – and for young couples. The waiting list for Big Brothers and Big Sisters programs is long and growing, but the older person in the pew behind you might be able to help your child in ways you can’t even imagine. We all know the pressures young couples face: Instead of just undertaking a few months of marriage preparation courses, why not set up a program in which an older couple meets with some regularity with a young couple, to serve as a sounding board, to suggest ways of coping with the stresses they face, to build solidarity one with another. There is not a town or neighborhood in America that does not have retired people with time on their hands and wisdom in their hearts. Has anyone asked them to help?

Fifth, programs like the Catholic Campaign for Human Development do wonderful work trying to get at the root causes of systemic poverty. In every parish, there is an annual collection. But, if every parish had a CCHD committee that not only encourages people to give to the collection, but to learn about and get involved with the community organizing efforts CCHD may have going on in their city, what else could be achieved? Catholic Relief Services’ “Operation Rice Bowl” is a great way for young parents to teach their children about the importance of giving from our bounty to those who have less. What is the domestic, local equivalent?

These are five ideas that came to me in a couple of days. I am sure there are other ideas that others would have. I hope that these are also some of the kinds of things the Synod will discuss: Our Church is only as healthy as our parishes, and our parishes are only as healthy as our families, and with the changing socio-economic pressures Putnam has outlined, the nuclear family can scarcely be expected to handle it all. The extended families of yesteryear are almost impossible to recreate in an era of mobile work forces. But, to what degree can a parish re-conceive of itself as a surrogate extended family and, just so, make itself better able to serve as the field hospital Pope Francis has called the Church to be?  

Private action will not be enough to confront and conquer the problems Putnam details in his book. But, public action will not be enough either. We need both. And, we do not have to wait for the government to get some initiatives started. Robert F. Kennedy, paraphrasing a line from a Shaw play, famously said: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” It is time for our Church, at every level, to dream of things that never were, and ask why not. 


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