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June 7, 2009

Parish leaders learn how to help people hurt in the recession

By Pam DeFiglio


One by one, speakers at a workshop on the recession and social justice ticked off startling facts: The average age of a homeless person in Chicago is 13. A Southwest Side homeowner in a neighborhood ravaged by foreclosures found his property value dropped from $250,000 to $80,000. And on a global scale, nearly 4 billion people live near extreme poverty.

Leaders of parish peace and justice ministries from around the archdiocese have their hands full trying to help people get jobs, stave off foreclosure and survive the recession. To become more effective, they gathered May 30 for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s Justice Day program, “Today’s Economy through the Lens of Catholic Social Teaching.”

Speakers at the day-long workshop, held at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Little Village neighborhood, gave them everything from an overview of how economics works to take-away tips they could use to help people in their parishes.

Marc Hayford, a Loyola University professor and chair of the economics department, said average incomes have tripled since 1955, but the United States has been hit several times by recessions in that period. In recessions, we collectively decide to spend less, he said, usually in response to an event such as the housing collapse.

Popes and bishops since 1891 have been critical of capitalism because of recessions and because the system leaves the poor out in the cold, said James Burke, assistant professor of theology at Lewis University.

Pope Benedict XVI wrote earlier this year that everyone should be outraged at the injustices of economic distribution, Burke said.

“The Christian community is recognizing we’re called to change the economy,” he said. “Christianity is about washing one another’s feet. We’re equal. None of us has the right to dominate one another, politically, economically or socially.”

Burke suggested that the Catholic community work toward sustainable and equitable development as one of the ways forward from the recession. Another way forward is to work to prevent climate change, he said, which will hit the poor soonest and hardest.

Hayford suggested one of the ways parishes can fight the recession is to ask parishioners who are knowledgeable about financial planning to counsel others about mortgages and predatory lending practices.

The housing collapse has hit some neighborhoods particularly hard, including the Southwest Side area served by the Southwest Organizing Project. Dave Mc- Dowell, senior organizer for SWOP, which works with three Southwest Side parishes and other neighborhood groups, has been helping large numbers of residents fight foreclosures. It has enlisted U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s help in getting meetings with banks and lenders, and has developed a three-page plan to encourage banks to shoulder more of the pain from foreclosures. The plan also would keep families in the houses rather than letting them sit vacant in a slow real estate market.

While homeowners have been hit hard, Tim Bell, former executive director of the Chicago Workers Collaborative, told the group that Latino laborers who work for temporary staffing agencies were the first to be cut when the recession started. Hundreds of thousands are barely surviving, he said. The collaborative is trying to give some of them work in an eco-friendly, worker-owned cleaning service.

Anita Jenke, executive director of the Career Transitions Center of Chicago, said her agency sees many people with college degrees and 20 years of work experience who are a paycheck away from losing their homes. The center, which is based at Old St. Pat’s Parish campus, provides career counseling and coaching to these job seekers.

Many parishes have formed support groups for job seekers. Peter Buttitta, pastoral associate at St. Gertrude on the North Side, said his parish has formed a job seekers’ accountability group which meets every Monday morning.