A Place at the Table

Sept.30-Oct. 6, 2004
VOL 123 NO. 34
A Place at the Table
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
At a recent meeting of the diocese’s Social Action Ministry (SAM), one message rose above all others — do something. The words may have been spoken out of frustration and they may sound simplistic, but when dealing with Catholicism and social justice, they ring true. Social justice is one aspect of faith where people in the pews can be empowered to use their voices, resources, talents and gifts to make a difference.

The September SAM meeting took place at the Harrison Center in Syracuse on a Tuesday morning. Discussion ran the gamut from school uniforms to farm workers and New York State legislation. Although the formula for SAM has changed from that of a diocesan director of the office to a broader, more regional model, the diocese is still working to change unjust structures locally and globally. In the past, clergy and lay persons have served as directors of the office. The task of reorganizing that particular ministry fell into the “to do” basket of Dennis Manning, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, a couple of years ago.

“We’d like to have county-based leadership to support parishes in each county and parish-based leadership in the area of social justice and advocates for persons with disabilities,” Manning explained. With considerable help from Cindy Falise, diocesan director of the Respect Life Office, Manning has tried to find and place key people in the seven counties of the diocese to help spread the workload of those who are active in the ministry. Now, a group representative of most of the counties in the diocese gathers on a regular basis to review topics such as fair trade, sweatshop labor, conscientious objector training, jail ministry, ministry to persons with disabilities, the death penalty and pro-life issues. They keep each other informed and try to develop ways to bring these issues to the table in each parish and in each Catholic home.

On the diocesan level, Bishop James Moynihan has supported efforts to begin a project entitled, “A Place at the Table.” The document of the same title is a pastoral reflection from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The table itself is symbolic, the bishops write, because it is where people gather to eat, to make decisions, and to gather around the table to celebrate Eucharist. But, they wrote, “Many people have no place at the table. Their voices and needs are ignored or dismissed.” The document goes into the national and global explanation of poverty and the responsibility Catholics have to work to end it. The statistics in the document are staggering: More than half the world’s population lives on less than two dollars a day. More than 1.2 billion people live on less than one dollar a day. Almost 800 million people across the globe, most of them children, live with hunger or malnutrition as a regular fact of life. And the bishops wrote, “These people are not just statistics; they are sisters and brothers, members of our one human family.” To put this in perspective, one only has to read the Gospels to find out the church’s response to the poor. Faith calls all to look at the way others are treated, discern how to help make their situation more just and to act in way that promotes the dignity of all God’s people.

That premise is the foundation of why the SAM group meets at the Harrison Center. They are trying to make an impact, but they need help from the people all over the diocese to make a real difference. Once armed with concrete ways to help, they are confident that Catholics across the seven counties of the diocese will also be able to commit to stopping the unjust cycle of poverty. Paul Welch heads up the human needs arm of Onondaga County Catholic Charities. He has been active in the social justice arena for many years. One of his projects is the Fair Trade School Uniform Project. The initiative comes from the Global Women’s Exchange which is a not-for-profit fair trade program from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd which works with women in 14 developing countries. The program allows schools to really get involved in Catholic social teaching by purchasing school uniforms made by women working at sites in Mexico and Thailand. The project builds solidarity, creates a means by which to educate students about social justice and supports ethical and fair trade labor policies at the same time. The uniforms can be made in any style and most orders can be completed within a few months. “We hope to connect Third World workers with consumers here,” Welch explained. Welch also described the fair trade coffee project developed by Catholic Relief Services (CRS). While coffee prices decline in the U.S., it means small scale coffee growers in places like Central America are making even less money. Revenues are lower than the cost of production for these farmers. Buying coffee through he CRS Coffee Project ensures that small farmers earn a fair price for their coffee. Welch said that some parishes are using fair trade coffee for their parish events. “The price is a little higher,” he said, “but this is a way to introduce the practice of buying fair trade coffee for church events as a sort of corporate response [to poverty].” Discussion around the table at the SAM meeting included concerns about price and the market place. “Jesus doesn’t talk about letting the market rule,” Welch said. “Jesus had very clear limits to the markets.” Ralph Jones, diocesan director of the Office of Black Catholic Ministry, said that the fair trade coffee he had tried was about “the best tasting coffee I’ve ever had.”

Jones was at the meeting to talk about a new campaign to address a new foreign policy in the U.S. He told those at the meeting that 92 percent of the weapons used across the world were made in the U.S. and that 80 percent of the countries purchasing those weapons have bad human rights records. “We’re third from the bottom of the list of countries contributing to the rest of the world,” Jones said. Michelle Bennett works for Catholic Charities in the Eastern Region of the diocese. She came to the meeting and reported on the need for a moratorium on the death penalty in New York State. The state’s highest court overturned the death penalty, but there is a push to reinstate it. Bennett discussed contacting local law makers regarding the death penalty. She is working in that region to gain attention for the issue.

With the U.S. currently at battle in different regions of the globe, the issue of conscientious objection is striking close to home. Paul Frazier, a local activist and Jail Ministry worker, has been speaking across the diocese to young people and parents about Catholic teaching regarding conscientious objector status. “We’re learning what our kids are up against,” Frazier said. “A connection between 9/11 and the Iraq war is being raised in grammar school classrooms. It’s hard to grasp — what do you do instead of going to war? Well, there’s hundreds of things young people could do. They could work in soup kitchens, educate themselves more about peace, go to places like Unity Acres. We frame these things as service; they are acts of mercy and are alternatives to war.”

Cindy Falise served as facilitator at the September meeting and said the response to poverty has to be more than “just feeding people.” Parishes need to take the time to consider the question of who is missing from their table, Falise said. “People missing from the table include the unborn, those at war, those who work in sweatshops. You have to ask, ‘What can I do?’” Falise said. “Become informed. Pray about it. Think about who can help you.” One way to begin, she said, is to bring up the letter regarding “A Place at the Table” mailed from the bishop’s office to each pastor. When speaking to pastors, it is best to have an idea that is workable to bring to the table. Develop an action plan and keep it simple, Falise advised. “Follow Jesus,” Falise said. “He started alone.”

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