Encouraging a Culture of Encounter: Ways to address poverty as a college student
It’s a lovely fall day outside: the auburn leaves spiral to the ground and the air is only slightly chilly. The bells of the basilica ring out across the quad as I reach for my jacket and wallet, heading off for dinner with some friends off campus. On the way into the restaurant a man asks for some money, and while we all express sympathy, we say we have no money to give.
Moments like these happen all the time. They remind me of an article I read recently in my ethics class for the Program of Liberal Studies: Peter Singer’s “World Solution to Poverty.” In the article, published in the New York Times in 1999, Singer proposes a utilitarian approach to ending poverty. He argues that Americans are obligated to give money to the poor, globally speaking, until the sacrifice becomes too demanding.
Singer states: “then, if we value the life of a child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will know that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life—not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction.”
At first, his argument appears convincing—how can I buy an expensive dinner when a child halfway across the world is dying of hunger? Yet Singer fails to take happiness, “human flourishing,” into account. According to him, a cold check of $200 sent overseas will spare a child. But who can guarantee that child doesn’t fall prey to hunger again? Who will be there to ensure the child has full meals everyday, goes to school, and lives in a stable home? It is clear the issue requires more than donating money.
Moreover, Singer discusses justice without acknowledging the role of charity. In fact, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI points out in Caritas in Veritate that justice is inseparable from charity. He says that everyone must strive to uphold the common good and practice charity “in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the [state]. This is the institutional path—we might also call it the political path—of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly.”
Unlike Singer’s all-encompassing demand for a certain donation of money, Benedict XVI emphasizes the differences in vocation and influence for each person. He recognizes that each person must evaluate, according to their status and calling, how to best help their neighbor. Moreover, Christianity calls for all people to help each other because we are all made in God’s image and likeness and share an inherent dignity. So while there is an obligation to help one’s neighbor, that obligation is not fulfilled by simply donating a certain amount of money and checking off the box. This ignores the reason why one gives to another. Beyond the impracticalities of everyone sending in a minimum donation, Singer’s argument fundamentally misses the mark in its utilitarian world-view. Life consists in more than survival, and money or material possessions do not guarantee a flourishing life. One gives to another in need not to feel morally satisfied and content, but out of a genuine concern for that person’s well-being.
All these general concerns raise the question for a college student with limited financial resources: how can I help those in need, especially knowing all the suffering around the world and at home?
This is a question I ask myself and find especially difficult when busy with studies and responsibilities. Here at Notre Dame we are surrounded by beauty and affluence. Food is remarkably easy to get (too easy), the landscape is perfectly pruned, and our stadium just announces prosperity to all who see it.
More than that, people always speak of the Notre Dame “bubble,” in which students are cut off and sheltered from the real world. Yet there are plenty of opportunities for students to engage with the local community. While money might be a limited resource, as college students we can give our time (although that too is limited).
I asked my PLS ethics professor, Clark Power, if he had any recommendations for college students wondering how to help those in need. He said: “take this opportunity while you are at the University to become informed about the scandalous inequality in our country and around the world” and “get know people who are struggling to get by. If you haven’t participated in the Urban Plunge, sign up. If you have already had a Plunge experience, volunteer. We are called to become a community; we belong to each other.”
As students at Notre Dame, South Bend is our community and there are so many ways we can become more involved. I’ve visited Cardinal nursing home in South Bend a few times, and every time I’m surprised by the cheerfulness of the residents. I may think I’m going to help them, but they also help me, reminding me that I can’t go in with this condescending attitude of “I’m going to help the elderly now.” I should rather say, “I’m going to spend time with some elderly folks.” Last year I went with a friend, and after talking with the residents for a bit, they all burst out singing “Yellow Submarine” when I asked if they liked the Beatles. They love telling stories about their families and smile when asked about their children. Despite their difficult situations—many suffering from illnesses and separation from loved ones—their joy always surprises me. Not all of them are so cheerful, but they do light up whenever visitors come.
At first visiting the nursing home can be awkward—at least it was for me—because you are trying to talk with complete strangers who are struggling in their situations, and you can end up fumbling over the right words of positive encouragement. But Pope Francis calls us to create a “culture of encounter” with all people, even complete strangers. In a homily given last year, Pope Francis describes this culture of encounter as a way to fight our current culture of indifference. He pointed out that “we are accustomed to this indifference, whether it be when we see the calamities of this world or when faced with the little things. We limit ourselves to saying: ‘Oh, what a shame, poor people, they suffer so much,’ and then we move on.”
This doesn’t mean we agonize over the sufferings of the world. Rather that we engage with those around us in a meaningful way so as to better their lives, corresponding to our vocations and degrees of influence. College students can visit those who are poor and spend their time volunteering on service trips. But we can also do little things everyday to help those around us. Maybe smile and say hello to the housekeeper in your dorm. Or thank the dining hall staff. Or if you notice a fellow classmate struggling, offer to help. Spontaneously leave a note for a friend. Hold the door open for someone.
Maybe we don’t always need to leave the “bubble” of Notre Dame to make an impact. We can change the way we act here on campus and so promote a culture of encounter. Time is indeed a precious resource, but if we recognize that it is ultimately a gift from God, then we may be more willing to give “our time” to someone else each day.
Sarah Ortiz is a junior studying classics and PLS. She recently discovered a secret room on campus and can be persuaded to reveal it with several bars of chocolate. If would like to engage in such barter, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.