One of my friends recently moved into the local Catholic Worker and was telling a group of us about the changes he is going through over this move. He was raised as a very conservative Catholic identifying himself as someone who “kissed the bishop’s ring” and not only looked down on us Catholics who question some of the decisions of the hierarchy, but prayed for our souls.
While in college, he went on a immersion trip to Nicaragua where he began to question many of his core beliefs about life, faith and the Catholic Church by learning first hand what a life of oppression and poverty really means. He began studying liberation and feminist theology and went on to earn his M.A. in Theology part-time. Over these past few years, he has developed a great understanding, one that he truly tries to live by, of Catholic Social Teaching. As someone raised in an economically, socially and racially privileged suburb, his transformation and dedication to living in solidarity with the poor is immensely admirable, but our conversation left me wondering what “living in solidarity with the oppressed and most vulnerable” really means.
Over the past few years, he has had a full-time, living-wage job managing an office for a local business. In addition to a living wage salary, he has been offered health benefits, and has nice enough colleagues, but he is currently looking for opportunities and work that better suits his passions.
The only thing that did not sit well with me was that for the past couple of years while living on his own, he has been denying his health insurance benefits and receiving the cash instead (which he donates) to “live in solidarity with the millions of people who do not have health insurance.” This seems like a wonderful act of solidarity and support, does it not? His intentions are pure, and he really believes this is what he is called to do. With genuine sincerity, he told us that he “understands that not everyone can do it.”
I guess my struggle with this is that I grew up in a poor neighborhood, sharing a bedroom with my grandmother for several years, and often eating meals from boxes and cans from the local food pantry. I was the first person in my huge extended family to go to and graduate from college, but my family still lives a few pay checks from losing their home. Many of my family members do not have health insurance or survive on Medicaid—the federal and state run healthcare program for impoverished people—so I suppose that it is people like my family whom he is trying to stand in solidarity with. In a matter of weeks when I graduate from my master of social work program, I will lose my own health insurance because neither the Catholic parish I work part-time for nor the very small social service agency I also work part-time for will provide me with health insurance. Since I have a chronic illness and have to take a pill daily that costs between $2-3 each, in addition to the many doctor’s visits and lab tests I need to stay regulated, I was appalled that he thought by giving up his health insurance that he was standing in solidarity with me or my family. I appreciate the gesture, but for me, it felt patronizing. In my mind, it was equivalent for a person who is hungry to watch someone throw fresh tomatoes at people’s heads at a county fair. What a waste! His act may make him feel better, but it does nothing for me but see him throwing away a wonderful gift he has been given that I desperately need.
Solidarity for me in this situation would mean keeping his health insurance and using it wisely. My Christian Social Ethics professor from college, Dr. Matthew Baasten, suggested a wise move for all those who have health insurance. Ever since his family had full health benefits, no matter where they lived, they have found a doctor at a free clinic who is eligible to take their specific insurance. The family is then able to receive health care, but their co-payments and insurance payments at the free clinic help the doctors and nurses keep the place running and stocked to see more people in need at no cost. Dr. Baasten also argued that we must work towards social change and health care for all by supporting organizations who lobby and advocate for health care on the local, state, federal and international level by making donations of both time and money.
Perhaps I am wrong in my understanding of solidarity, for I think it takes a lifetime to really figure out how to live it, but I know how I felt when I learned the way in which someone was trying to be in solidarity with my family and I. For more thoughts on what to do in a time when many have much and many more have none, I recommend theology professor Dr. Ronald J. Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity who looks at the facts of poverty, conservative and liberal views of this problem’s cause, theological and Scriptural foundations for action and solidarity, and what we can do in our world that is very practical.
Becky Schwantes, a Minnesota native, is currently a Master of Social Work candidate at Washington University in St. Louis. She earned her M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame in 2008 and currently works as a Pastoral Associate at a parish in St. Louis and clinical social worker doing psychotherapy and counseling with older adults. Becky also holds a B.A. in Theology and Social Work with a minor is Social Justice and Peace Studies from the University of Portland, Oregon. Her primary areas of interest are Christian Social Ethics, Eco-Feminist Theology, Mental Health and issues of Aging. In her free time, she enjoys traveling the world, walking labyrinths, singing, and laughing with friends.