Addressing the church at the beginning of Lent, Pope Francis called on Christians to "become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference."
Emphasizing the oneness of the ecclesial body, wherein "if one member suffers, all suffer together" (1 Corinthians 12:26), the pope prescribed practices based less on personal penance than on the "formation of the heart" as a way "of overcoming indifference and our pretensions to self-sufficiency."
"Every Christian community is called to go out of itself and to be engaged in the life of the greater society of which it is a part," Francis writes in his letter, "especially with the poor and those who are far away."
The letter is short on specifics. How, exactly, can we use Lent to make an impact on the lives of others? Last year, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn released the book A Path Appears. (A film documentary companion to the book aired in three segments on PBS this month and will soon stream online.) The project takes its title from the Chinese essayist Lu Xun, who wrote in 1921: "Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing -- but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears."
In one respect, the book is a rich catalogue of astounding trailblazers -- idealistic college students as well as former slum-dwellers, gang-bangers, sex traffickers and drug mules -- who have overcome adversity to establish charitable foundations and social programs that do a tremendous amount of good for the most disadvantaged.
But more than that, the book is a guide to those who wish to make a difference in the world but cannot leave everything behind to found a nongovernmental organization or join Doctors Without Borders. In effect, it is a rallying cry against indifference, against the idea that there is nothing we can do or that "handouts" are useless. Many of us "tend to be skeptical that a modest sum can actually make a difference," the authors write. "Yet one of the clearest lessons in our long journey is that it is indeed possible to have an impact with a modest sum."
The book gives examples: For $5, you can buy an antimalarial net for an at-risk family, possibly saving lives. For just 75 cents per person, Helen Keller International can buy low-price drugs from Pfizer to eliminate blindness caused by a horrible disease like trachoma in Mali.
One of the recurring themes of the book is the importance of education. In telling my friends about it, I tried to remember a mind-boggling statistic from a 1995 survey it had cited. The number of words that children hear correlates to their families' socioeconomic status. By the age of 4, the average child of working professionals will have heard ... how many more words than the average child who is on welfare? I couldn't recall. Thirty thousand? Three hundred thousand?
I looked back at the book and gasped: 30 million. Thirty million words.
WuDunn and Kristof suggest, then, that one of the most impactful investments any of us can make is in early childhood education before children fall behind the eight ball and subsequent problems become intractable. For $20, they report, Reach Out and Read "can take on a new child and introduce him or her to the joys of reading."
It is well worth reading this book for its inspiring (and sometimes devastating) stories, shrewd advice on making efficient donations, and practical list of organizations to which one can contribute. I would like to highlight one Catholic organization on its list: Catholic Relief Services.
CRS is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its famous Rice Bowl program, small cardboard boxes many of us have seen given away in our parishes. The idea is to save up our change during Lent, as well as more significant amounts of money that come our way, and to bring it to a local parish during Holy Week. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds go to CRS's efforts overseas; 25 percent is used to help the poor in one's local diocese.
Rice Bowl's website is handsomely done. Its weekly Lenten guide includes text and video stories of people who have benefited from charitable giving to CRS: a soy bean farmer and grandmother named Gertruda in Tanzania, a 5-year-old Syrian refugee in Lebanon named Tanious, the struggling Ramirez family in rural Nicaragua.
It also offers a number of meatless recipes from around the world. The website suggests putting the $3 you save by not buying meat into your Rice Bowl for eventual donation.
Of course, you can also give directly online.
Helping such an organization provide vulnerable communities with clean drinking water, health exams and treatment for children, and seeds and training for farmers could be one way for us to help overcome global indifference during Lent this year.