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Defending the Rights of the Poor

Editors Note: This reflection was delivered as part of a Reconciliation Mass at the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia highlighting those impacted by systemic poverty and Mass Incarceration.

Hello! My name is Lacie Michaelson Fischley and I am the executive director at Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor, or A.D.R.O.P. We’re an Augustinian non-profit right here in South Philly at 21st and Snyder. We run a free health clinic, support educational enrichment at St. Anthony of Padua and the surrounding area, and offer a number of services for folks formerly incarcerated and their families. 

When Fr. Jeremy first asked me to speak today about poverty, it took me a moment before saying yes and agreeing to participate. This may sound strange as I work for Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor… but that’s because, I think, as Christians and particularly as Augustinians, we are called to see poverty in a different way.

Poverty – as in the lack of income to be able to support oneself or one’s family – is indeed an issue here in South Philadelphia. As many of you are well aware, I’m sure. Many of our neighbors face the looming threat of so-called “gentrification” each and every day. As members of this community, we feel for our brothers and sisters and mourn the pain and hardship that they face in their lives. Yet, the issue is more insidious than that.

We call ourselves “Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor,” because St. Augustine himself saw it a duty for his community to be just that. In a 2004 Augustinian Secretariat for Justice and Peace document, we learn that “The life of Augustine himself shows that a poor person could not become a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher without the generosity of a rich patron” known as a “defender of the rights of the poor.”[1] 

Note the difference here. We’re called not simply to just be concerned with issues of hunger and access to basic needs, but also to a fundamental lack of flourishing in our communities. In Augustine’s community, Church members not only worked to feed one another, but also to provide the opportunity for bright minds to pursue careers in medicine or law – or, in Augustine’s case, to one day become their Bishop. 

“You give bread to a hungry person; but it would be better were no one hungry, and you could give it to no one. You clothe the naked person. Would that all were clothed and this necessity did not exist.”

Saint Augustine (Tractate 1 John 8, 8)

Poverty is a problem not only for those people who suffer from a lack of access, but for the community at large that suffers from a lack of what might have been. I think that one of the greatest mistakes when people think about organizations like A.D.R.O.P. that serve the community, is the idea that our participants are the ones who gain all of the benefits from our services. In fact, we do what we do because we believe that each and every member of our community has something to offer, to contribute. The flourishing of one person is flourishing for us all.

One of the best examples of poverty to flourishing that we’ve seen at A.D.R.O.P. involves a man who I am going to call Tim. Tim spent much of his young adult life suffering from his own addictions which eventually led to a period of incarceration. As he went on a journey of recovery from addiction, Tim found Jesus and realized that he wanted his life to have a new, renewed focus. Soon, Tim found our Adeodatus prison meetings and became a regular attendant. After that, he began bringing friends and family members to the meeting; eventually, Tim began his own half-way house to support others on their own journeys. Tim’s own path towards flourishing pulled up others around him and created a true ripple effect of good.

In Fr. Jeremy’s booklet for today, you can read about the connection of poverty to incarceration. He references statistics that suggest a “poverty-to-prison pipeline.” There is clear connection between a lack of resources and a greater likelihood of incarceration. In this way, as a society, we are not “defending our poor.” A severe lack of resources, education, and opportunity to succeed for all children has left us with a poorer society at large.

What great “Augustinian like minds” have we ignored because of our system? That is true poverty.

[1] Augustine’s Option for the Poor: Preaching and Praxis, T.J. van Bavel OSA, Curia Generalizia Agostiniana Roma 2004, 7.

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