When Sam Wazan was growing up in Lebanon, he said his family was financially secure; but then war broke out, and we ended up poor. He came here for a better life.
As a doctor, Jessica Schorr Saxe sees limited access to health care as one of the core issues surrounding American poverty. A member of Havurat Tikvah Reconstructionist Jewish congregation, she thinks about the Jewish precept of tzedakah, a Hebrew often translated as charity. But the definition, she said, is justice.
The Rev. John Cleghorn leads the 250-member Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian Church, established in 1912, which was ready to close in 2006 because of dwindling membership. Instead of folding, the church reached outward. They used their extra space to create a 50-bed homeless shelter run with the Salvation Army.
On Monday, these three individuals spoke at Poverty: A Faithful Response, a film and panel discussion at Queens University of Charlotte sponsored by the universitys Belk Chapel and Center for Ethics and Religion. More than 70 people watched the documentary The Line and listened to panel members speak from their various faith perspectives.
The three Abrahamic faith traditions are rooted in deep concerns for a just society, said Suzanne Watts Henderson, director of the ethics and religion center, who moderated the discussion.
More than 46 million Americans live in poverty, including one in every four children. The 2010 U.S. census defines poverty as a person under 65 living alone on less than $11,344 a year, or a family of four living on less than $22,113.
Urban Ministry Center, an interfaith organization in Charlotte dedicated to ending homelessness, says on their website that there are 7,000 people in Mecklenburg County without a reliable and safe place to sleep.
Its pretty impossible to read the Bible and not understand that from one cover to the next, it is clearly focused on the poor, said Cleghorn. You look at the Decalogue the Ten Commandments; they break down along two lines: loving God and loving neighbor. And they leave it unmistakably clear that we love God by loving our neighbor.
In the New Testament, Jesus says things that really ought to make us uncomfortable, like The last shall be first and Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.
In the Torah, said Saxe, There are a lot of protections about how the poor are treated. They are to be treated with dignity. In the Book of Leviticus, Every seven years debts were to be annulled so that people werent kept in debt forever.
Feel with the poor
Wazan, who recently published a novel The Last Moderate Muslim, explained that two of the five pillars of Islam are about helping people to understand and address poverty.
One pillar is sawm, or fasting during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims do not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. One purpose of Ramadan is to feel with the poor. When the poor cannot eat, the poor get cranky, they use profanities, they shout, they want to take it out on others and we experience that.
The second pillar, zakat, is alms giving. Every adult who is financially able gives 2.5 percent of their wealth, over their necessities, at the end of each lunar year to benefit the needy.
All of our faith traditions command us to care for the poor, the orphan, the widowed, the stranger and for any who are in need, said Maria Hanlin, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries, a coalition of more than 100 congregations who advance social justice issues.
The wonderful thing is, we dont have to have the same beliefs to work together to address the social issues of our community. And in so doing, our understanding of God grows.
The point of faith
Said Cleghorn: In America the fastest growing religion is people who dont affiliate with any faith. I wonder if what that triggers is self-concern, inward focus, self-preservation, a lot of focus on institutional maintenance rather than looking out for the other. Its risky. Its risky to say, Were going to stay alive by giving ourselves away. The point of religion, the point of faith, is transformation.
Though it may feel counterintuitive for some people, churches and people of faith need to be out there on the edge, giving themselves away.