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Wayne Mellinger: Spirituality of Justice Means Reaching Out to Poor, Those in Need

Destitute, vulnerable neighbors in our community need our help now more than ever

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit with the heads of several dozen nonprofit organizations in Santa Barbara as Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, described the massive cuts of funding for social services that are to be expected over the coming months. Williams is a great guy, an old friend and is usually a progressive politician we can count on for innovative policies and humanitarian reforms that promote the “Good Society.” At this meeting a couple weeks ago, he was the bearer of bad news from Sacramento and my comments do not reflect upon my esteemed estimation of him.

There was a time in this great country when the ideals of social justice were shared among large segments of our society. We held up as an ideal for all the world to see a vision of a society in which liberty and freedom for all was accompanied by norms of civility in social life and guarantees of social welfare.

We sought to create a social world in which everyone had equal access to basic life-sustaining and life-enhancing social services, such as health care, education and vital supportive services. Centrally, we did not allow people to die if we had the capacity to save them.

This has sadly changed. Today, our communities are facing massive cuts in the “funding streams” that sustain our nonprofit organizations. These are the groups of people and organizations that create the social safety net that save people’s lives who are free falling. As bad as things are right now, it seems that they are only going to get worse before they get better. We are going to see the evolution of the Unjust Society in which the 1 percent continue to thrive while the poorest among us die.

The persistence, aggravation and very existence of extreme poverty constitute an injustice. The poor are often denied fundamental rights as laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Hunger is but one face of poverty; discrimination, vulnerability, poor health, mental anguish and lack of opportunities for personal and professional development also are faced by the poor. The drastic rise in income inequality is alarming, and it seems that with the crumbling of the welfare state the goal of poverty reduction has been largely set side.

The quality of life that our most destitute neighbors endure should be the moral obligation of our community, and thus, in part, ourselves. When a person is too sick or disabled to work, or a family’s house goes up in flames, neighborly assistance and community support can ensure that basic human needs are met. Similarly, the feeding of those who lack homes is a humanitarian duty and spiritual requirement for many of us.

A social-justice approach to serving the poor comes at issues from this perspective. The people on the streets are not seen as “a problem” and the meager services we offer are not seen as lifestyle lures that get people to quit their jobs in Florida and move here to get our free services.

Rather the problem is seen, to a large extent, as a complex combination of poverty, lack of jobs, inadequate mental health services and lack of affordable housing. From this perspective, there are social structures, institutional barriers and systems of oppression at work that hold down many people. To advocate for social justice is to join with poor people to change these penalizing systems.

Social justice exists when dignity and respect for all is accompanied by equal access to public services. Many of our nation’s working poor, struggling to subsist on the margins, are victims of injustice. Many lack medical insurance, don’t have access to affordable housing and are even hungry. There are gendered and racial aspects to these issues that greatly increase the problems for women and people of color.

The vast inequalities found among people in our nation are often the outcome of systems of oppression and other unjust structural barriers, as well as greed, ignorance and insecurity. Many groups suffer discriminating practices in institutional realms as well, suffering from interactional violence in everyday life, including disrespectful and inhuman treatment.

Charitable acts of kindness providing poor people with basic life requirements are essential to their immediate survival. But charitable acts are best when they are accompanied by efforts to change the situation. To work for social justice is to move beyond mere charitable acts to struggle with impoverished people and remove structural barriers and other obstacles.

The motivation of social-justice workers is often spiritually grounded, and often accompanied by deep contemplation, prayer and discernment. Most of the world’s religions urge us to “love our neighbors” and to help those in need or suffering. The Jewish prophet Amos, for example, was a social-justice pioneer who condemned the greed, oppression and indifference of his society. Jesus of Nazareth, inspired by this prophetic tradition, told the poor: “You are the
light of the world!”

With a crashed economy that is only slowly beginning to get back the millions of jobs lost a couple of years ago, many of us are worried about our own quality of life and reaching out to others less fortunate seems harder. The interconnection of human life demands that we ensure that all people have access to food, clean water, education and health care. And the most vulnerable and fragile, including women, the mentally ill, the disabled and the infirm, deserve to be guaranteed shelter. Unfortunately, my street outreach work has repeatedly introduced me to “throw-away” people whose intrinsic dignity has been discarded by our society. Many of these people suffer severe mental health challenges, sleep in doorways and pick food out of trash cans!

A spirituality of justice includes solidarity with those who are poor and a willingness to accompany people living at the margins, bearing witness to their suffering. Many of us who serve the poor and marginalized take time to truly listen to their stories, allowing ourselves to be moved and disturbed by the widespread and systematic disregard for life in these times.

For any faith to do justice it must be active out in the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the bruised world. The “breaking of the bread” performed by Jesus, for example, shows us how we are to offer our lives to others, especially those most in need, in forming true communion and solidarity with the world. Authentic spiritualities embrace the suffering of the world, and upon deep contemplation, respond to the call to heal and care by taking action.

— Wayne Mellinger Ph.D. is a social justice activist living in Santa Barbara and social worker for the homeless. He was appointed by Santa Barbara County 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr to the South Coast Homeless Advisory Committee and is a board member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE).

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