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Students learn lobbying and a lot more

Nothing is so powerful in breaking down barriers as an encounter with another person. The students in the Catholic schools in Kansas City, Mo., are learning that lesson firsthand when it comes to people who fall into the “poor” category of this culture.

“We had an image of poor people as dirty people, living on the street with raggedy clothes,” said 12-year-old Erin Campbell. But after she had met with some poor people and heard their stories, she said, “We learned there are working poor. Some people still look nice when they’re poor, and we have to go past the looks and try to help them out.”

Grade by grade, Tom Turner and Patricia Scherrer Haney (see story page 14) are teaching the Kansas City students to go past not only the looks to see real people but also to go beyond the standard activities for helping people.

As Teresa Malcolm’s story illustrates, kids can be quick studies in the social justice arena. Turner and Haney, challenged to “do something” besides talk, have found a way to infuse with life and purpose the words of the American bishops in their 1999 document “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions.”

While pointing to the Catholic commitment to both education and social justice, the bishops wrote that the church’s “social heritage is unknown by many Catholics. Sadly, our social doctrine is not shared or taught in a consistent and comprehensive way in too many of our schools, seminaries, religious education programs, colleges and universities. … The sharing of our social tradition is a defining measure of Catholic education and formation.”

It has been amply illustrated that where strong programs of social teaching exist, particularly at the college and university level, students eagerly take up the cause and volunteer, demonstrate, lobby and educate others.

In the case of the “That’s Not Fair!” program in Kansas City, students are learning early to not only empathize with poor people or take up collections to ease the plight of poor people, they are learning to take the kind of action aimed at changing the system. They are learning to dare to move toward making things better.

In the doing, we can only presume that the students are learning something that has gone by the cultural wayside in recent years. The bishops in the 1999 document recognized that “public debate in our nation is often divided between those who focus on personal responsibility and those who focus on social responsibilities.” They add, “Our tradition insists that both are necessary.”

The recognition that most people do not choose poverty leads the Catholic community to another conviction. “Our church teaches that the role of government and other institutions is to protect human life and human dignity and promote the common good,” the bishops wrote. That’s a message most kids are not going to hear in today’s political conversation or in the messages from the culture of over-hyped individualism and consumerism.

Perhaps after a day of lobbying legislators for a tax credit for the working poor and a pickup game of football on the Capitol lawn, this group of Missouri students will understand the demands of social justice as nothing extraordinary -- just another, necessary part of the Christian call.

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001