One Lent many years ago, Bishop ken Untener issued a decree at the annual Chrism Mass: “For the next three months, any meeting held in the diocese, no matter how large or how small, should begin with the question: How will what we are about to do affect the poor?” On the Sundays in Lent, we’ll read what he learned when the decree came to an end.
The decree on the poor was in effect for 97 days.
Never in my life had I talked about and listened to so much about the poor. On some days I had four or five meetings, and each began with: The poor.
I learned a lot, not only about the poor, but also about us, and how we think about (or don’t think about) the poor. Believe me, I am no expert on the poor. But I learned eight things in particular during those 97 days.
First, we tend to forget the “poor” poor.
A typical scenario: The chairperson begins the meeting by saying something like, “Well, the bishop has asked that we begin each meeting with a discussion about how this affects or involves the poor. So we’re going to spend a few minutes doing that. I’ll throw it open for anyone who’d like to say something.”
Silence. Then someone says, “Well, people can be poor in a lot of different ways. There are some people, for example, who don’t have friends and they are poor…”
I interrupt. “I agree with you but this decree has to do with the ‘poor’ poor. they are the ones who get left out, because they’re usually not part of what we did yesterday or today. The other kinds of poor people are part of our lives, and we need to be concerned about them. But I want us to connect with the ‘poor’ poor. If we deal with them, all the rest will follow. The ‘poor’ poor are the ones who rarely if ever are first on an agenda. So let’s talk about them.”
Mental note: Always start with the “poor” poor.