Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Teens Learn To See The Face Of Poverty Firsthand

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published November 3, 2005

Teens from the confirmation class at St. Michael’s Church in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, have discovered that even as youth they can be Christ’s voice for social justice in their state legislature as they address the problems of homelessness and decrepit low-income public housing on their island.

They were looking for a project to address a societal problem and voted on homelessness, as some 6,000 people live on the streets and the number of impoverished equals the population of the third largest island in their state. They visited public housing communities, where they discovered that many homes are leaking and have broken appliances. They spoke with a housing authority official and learned that while some of the homeless have been on waiting lists for years, five housing projects remain 15 percent unoccupied.

“It’s just easier for managing it. When something breaks (they say) we’ll just take it from a vacant apartment,” teen Miyeko Inafuku said.

At the National Catholic Youth Conference, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development recognized the 10 Hawaiian teens Oct. 29 with the 2005 Multi Media Youth Arts Contest Award for their video entitled, “Let Their Voices Be Heard! Public Housing and Homelessness in Hawaii.” The video documented the problem and the action needed to address it.

They interviewed homeless people, including a woman named Judy who lives near St. Michael’s and who struggles to survive but is grateful that people care at the parish. And they learned of temporary diocesan relief efforts to place homeless people in single rooms just to get them off the streets, and how some living out of cars can’t even afford to park them at overnight lots. While a housing official said it would cost too much at $650 million to renovate the facilities, they contacted their state representative who is helping the youth, as Hawaii has an 8.8 percent economic growth rate and $200 million in surplus.

The teens gathered, some wearing a haku or head lei, on the stage of the Catacomb Café in the exhibit hall area as supporters sat on sofas and at round tables before them. Teen Mary Brittainy Kauli’a then sang a song she wrote for the video with her father, Don, who accompanied her on a ukulele. The song is heard in the video as volunteers are filmed at their parish’s weekly food pantry holding hands and praying.

“Can you feel me, I’m shaking, I have no place to go and sleep, no place to call home. A place in the Bible says that they shall inherit this world, the meek and the humble, we should never ever ignore,” she sang.

Mike Poulin of CCHD, the anti-poverty and social justice program of the U.S. Catholic bishops, praised their work for being educational and resourceful, looking at the structures that need to be changed.

In an interview by the CCHD booth, Inafuku, wearing a T-shirt reading “let their voices be heard” in Hawaiian and a silver cross necklace, said the project marked an awakening.

“I really never gave much thought to homelessness before, but after we began I realized that even just thinking about it isn’t enough—you’ve got to try to do something. I also learned that you can help people, but it’s a long process to get anything accomplished,” said Inafuku.

“I never knew how complex it was to do things, but it can be done. You just have to try.”

At a conference session on poverty before hundreds of teens, presenters Ann Marie Eckert and Steve Krzanowski also recognized the Hawaiian teens and challenged youth to follow their lead and educate and center themselves through Catholic social justice teaching and to focus their lives on eucharistic service. Krzanowski, 19, is a college freshman from Connellsville, Pa., who at 16 became involved in the CCHD’s Break the Cycle of Poverty cross country biking event, and was the youngest CCHD intern. He was recently awarded a grant for his project Pennsylvania End to Economical Struggles and Poverty. Eckert attended her first NCYC in 1981 and has been attending ever since. She is coordinator of youth ministry services for the Center for Ministry Development and has helped author many books about youth ministry, leadership, community building and environmental justice and trains adults and youth in leadership skills, youth ministry and talking about justice issues.

Krzanowski said that the church has been writing on this topic since the industrial revolution where it advocated for the rights of laborers, and if its teachings on sexuality would fill a bookcase, its social teachings could fill an entire wall or more.

“In order to be Catholic you must take care of others through works of charity and for justice … Jesus is calling us to wash one another’s feet, of those less fortunate,” he said. “I challenge you to be the change you want to see in the world, which Gandhi said. Let the Holy Spirit fill you with compassion and love so that you can be builders of peace and justice.”

Eckert noted that many working poor struggle daily to make ends meet and “we pass by them every day without realizing.” Poor teens go without common items like cell phones, CDs and sports uniforms. To illustrate the need for both service and justice she told the story of a woman who found a baby floating down a river and rescued her, but then found another one which she also saved. When the babies kept coming downstream, she called upon others to help her, and eventually the entire community rallied to create a coordinated response. Then a stranger came to the village where the people showed him their work to save babies. His first question was, “‘why doesn’t someone go up river and figure out who’s throwing these babies in?’ That’s what’s called social change … We’ve got to go upstream and figure out what the problem is,” said Eckert.

As 37 million people live in poverty in the United States, when crisis strikes they suffer the most, Eckert continued. The church teaches the principle of preferential option for the poor, that in every economic, political and social decision one must take into account the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable. This doesn’t mean that everybody should have equal amounts, but that the poorest have human rights for the basic necessities to survive.

“We respect the dignity of all but also have a preferential option for the poor,” said Eckert, “even if it means that we have to go out of our comfort zone so there can be enough for all of us.”

A video was shown of a poor woman who had no insurance, and after losing her trailer in Katrina, she had to move into a relative’s small, two-bedroom apartment and her child with autism no longer received needed instruction at his now-closed school.

“She had no way to replace what she lost,” Eckert said. “There are persons across the country who don’t need a hurricane to make life that tenuous.”

Another video showed one of many projects to empower the poor that CCHD supports in which employees from a restaurant in the World Trade Center joined together to support each other and form a new cooperative model restaurant in Greenwich Village.

When the Hawaiian youth came to the stage, Inafuku spoke about the misconceptions that homeless people deserve their plight or are lazy, as she said they learned that many can’t find jobs and they struggle with basic things like childcare or having an address or phone number to give when applying for a job.

“They have hopes and dreams like we do, but they don’t have the same opportunities to realize these dreams. In a country as rich as ours it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “This is just one way we can work for social justice. The important thing is to make this part of our daily lives, to pray for our brothers and sisters and to make this teaching our own. We hope it will encourage others not only to think about these issues but to change the way our families, churches and communities handle the problem of poverty.”

Teens stood to applaud.

After the presentation, Inafuku said that they were saddened as they confronted the reality of poverty in their midst and interviewed homeless women. They were also surprised that there was a “huge waiting list” for public housing and that officials “were not trying to make it better.” And residents were afraid to complain out of fear of being kicked out. But the teens realized that they could actually do something about it after talking with their representative. While they were delighted to win, they realized as they spent some 35 hours editing nearly 10 hours of footage for the 10-minute video that there was much more work they were called to do. They will now travel to parishes around the state and describe their petition drive their representative will help them create in support of a state legislative effort to improve housing conditions and to end homelessness. They hope to collect 20,000 signatures to present to the governor at the start of the next legislative session in January. Honolulu Bishop Clarence Silva plans to use the DVD to launch a social ministry religious education and confirmation education effort throughout the diocese.

As the competition called groups to look at the root causes of poverty, “that’s what we set out to do, to stand in solidarity with poor people,” Inafuku said. She had teens approach her following the talk to say they were inspired by their work, and she hopes it will encourage other youth to realize that they too are God’s hands and feet to transform society through their work.

“It’s cool to get it out there and make other people think about it and want to do something of their own,” she said.

One of the Hawaiian chaperones and the parish secretary Susan Bender spoke about the growth they saw in the teens through the project.

“They grew with it. They learned a lot with doing the research they did. They have so much more awareness of things they’ve seen. It’s not just a homeless person.”

Teen Eli Plaskett from the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, who wore a T-shirt with a crucifix and the Scripture “he who loves me must deny himself, pick up his cross daily and follow me,” said that for him social justice is more of an outlook on life.

“I’ve always looked at service as something you need to do and looked at helping people as something you should do,” he said. “I’ve always looked at social justice as doing what you can … when the opportunity provides itself.”

Longtime youth ministry volunteer Joseph Fraser of the Youngstown Diocese, wearing a “called to serve” baseball cap, said that the youth raised their own money to come on the trip and that while some come along just to socialize, “a lot of these kids I think when they go home will be a lot different than when they first came … They are going to want to do more and be involved.”

Lynn Feldmann and Hillary Leicht from the Diocese of Covington, Ky., found the session inspiring as they work to alleviate suffering. As members of the Beta Club they are involved in service projects such as building houses and serving at soup kitchens where they can be with the poor. Poverty can’t be ignored “or else it’s going to keep on growing,” Feldmann said. The program “was great. It showed teenagers can get involved and do care about poverty.”

Leicht believes service projects open one up to the needs around them and the call to become involved.

“Some people are really sheltered and don’t understand what’s out in the world and when you get out there you learn more about the world and (the need for) really helping.”