Church’s anti-poverty program: Giving the poor a voice for 50 years

By Catholic News Service and Chicago Catholic
Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Elvia Garcia, Isaura Martinez, Enedina Zacarias, Isabel Martinez and Leticia Garay discuss strategies for the Chicago Workers Collaborative in Little Village on Oct. 13, 2017. The Chicago Workers Collaborative, which received a grant from CCHD, organizes low-wage temporary laborers to protect their rights. CCHD is celebrating its 50th anniversary. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When the Rev. Marlon Tilghman learned that any Maryland juvenile taken into custody can be questioned by police without a parent being informed or without an attorney present, his thoughts turned to his teenage granddaughter.

“God forbid if she got pulled over and got interrogated and she said something she wasn’t supposed to say. I would be terrified,” said Tilghman, pastor of the Ames United Methodist Church in Bel Air, Maryland.

Tilghman has been working for the past year with dozens of partners in faith communities that belong to the grassroots organization BRIDGE Maryland to change state law, which, observers have said, is one of the most regressive in the nation. They cite cases in which a child has felt pressured to admit to something he or she did not do.

New legislation became a priority of the group’s Criminal Justice Task Force, which Tilghman co-chairs. The murder of George Floyd, who was killed nearly a year ago when a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground for nearly nine minutes, is a motivating factor, he said.

Ministers and congregation members mobilized around the legislation. They assembled online town hall meetings and coordinated a news conference. The events gave them the opportunity to use the skills in community organizing, personal empowerment, communications and relationship building they have learned with the help of a series of national grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. CCHD has funded the group since 2017.

In this case, BRIDGE Maryland member congregations and its partners were instrumental in building support for the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act, which was introduced in the Maryland legislature last year. The measure passed in the state House but failed by a narrow margin in the Senate. Currently BRIDGE Maryland is building statewide support for the bill since its reintroduction in January.

The organizing and educational efforts by BRIDGE Maryland members are examples of the kind of grassroots work CCHD has supported since several influential U.S. church leaders established the anti-poverty campaign 50 years ago.

The Archdiocese of Chicago was central to the campaign’s founding, and last year the local campaign celebrated its own 50th anniversary.

The campaign aims to eliminate the structural, root causes of poverty by funding community groups that are led by the people they help. It was the brainchild of Auxiliary Bishop Michael Dempsey of Chicago, who served as a pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish on Chicago’s West Side and was coordinator of the Inner-City Apostolate of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

He listened to his parishioners and members of the community, who told him they needed skills and support to advocate for themselves.

The plan for a national collection that would funnel money to fund projects planned by community groups came in response to both social unrest in the United States in the 1960s and Pope Paul VI’s “Populorum Progressio,” in which he said, “For if the new name for peace is development, who would not wish to labor for it with all his powers?” (No. 87).

It was against that backdrop that the U.S. bishops in 1969 voted to create what they called the National Catholic Crusade Against Poverty, naming Bishop Dempsey as the first director, according to “CCHD: Rooted in Our Catholic Identity,” published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2017.

A hallmark of the campaign would be local control: To be eligible for grants, community groups must be led by members of the communities they serve, and a portion of the money collected in each diocese remains in that diocese to fund projects chosen by diocesan leaders.

At the same time, a portion of the money collected is used to educate people who are not poor about the reality of poverty in the United States.

Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell of Los Angeles, co-chairs the bishops’ subcommittee overseeing CCHD. He said he has seen the value of the kind of work CCHD supports since the late 1980s when he was a pastor in South Los Angeles, a poor community with a large minority population.

He said faith-based community organizing can help people realize they have the power to make necessary changes in institutions that perpetuate injustice.

“I love the work of the organizing,” he said. “I love to have seen over the years that people think about themselves in a different way because of the work of the organizing. They begin to see themselves as leaders. They see that they are not victims. They think about (the question of) ‘How do we have some relational power here to turn things around?’”


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