To work with the urban poor to fashion a vision of wholeness of human life against the realities of economic, racial and social injustice; to hold that vision and its responsibilities before the churches of the U.C.C. and the people of Metropolitan Boston; and to work with the urban poor towards the fulfillment of that vision.
– excerpted from Purpose Statement, City Mission Society, written for the 175th Anniversary of the City Mission Society, Boston, Massachusetts, March 1991
For some years I have taught a course at Boston College on the History and Development of Racism, and that experience has helped me to see the importance of the language we use to identify groups of people. For instance, in that course I’ve discovered it important to change the word by which I designate African people who have usually been called “slaves.” I have replaced that term with “the enslaved” or “the enslaved Africans.” The latter term does not characterize the people, but rather communicates what was done to the African people. It has been a good consciousness-raiser for students, reminding them that slavery was something done to people, rather than a description of the enslaved.
In a similar way I would like to see us at City Mission Society re-think the way we designate the people who are the focus of our concern. My consciousness about this was heightened recently when I heard William Sloane Coffin refer to the way Archbishop Romero spoke of “poor” people among whom he served. The Archbishop used a phrase which in his Spanish language translates “those who are made poor.”
To refer to people as “the poor” seems to characterize them; it vaguely points to assumptions in the speaker’s or hearer’s mind about who “the poor” are. “Those who are made poor” raises to consciousness a whole set of circumstances which create the condition of poverty.
“Those who are made poor” reminds me that the status of poverty is something done to people, a state into which society thrusts them and too often keeps them. It reminds me that in a nation of affluence there is no way to justify that any person should be in poverty.
“Those who are made poor” reminds me that I am the beneficiary of a personal, family, and societal history that has insured me against poverty. There is nothing about me as a human being which would or should indicate that I am where I am rather than be in poverty. My position has nothing to do with my humanity; it is the result of the way my society is organized. The position of those whom some call “the poor” has nothing to do with their humanity; it is the result of the way society is organized.
The vision that we share in CMS is “against the realities of economic, racial and social injustice.”.. That vision reminds me that society does not have to be organized in a way in which some are “made poor.”
Every single time I say “those who are made poor” I am reminded of the realities of injustice; I am reminded of the vision toward which we work and move. Changing the word is the easy part; the tough struggle comes as we encounter those hard realities of the world. Changing the word will be a constant consciousness-raiser for me and hopefully for others who will listen. Out of the raised awareness that poverty is an injustice to be addressed, I’m hopeful for a prod that will keep me in the long struggle, dissatisfied with anything less than the vision.