by Jeremy Sierra
On September 17, 2011, shortly after I finished graduate school, I joined the first big Occupy Wall Street march in Lower Manhattan. I don’t particularly like marching. I don’t like holding up posterboard signs or shouting slogans. Still, I felt about the march like I sometimes feel about prayer: I couldn’t tell you exactly why or what effect it would have, but it was something I needed to do.
You have probably felt something like this at some point, too, the last time you watched the news or passed a man on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign and a paper cup: like the world is broken in some daunting and complicated way and something needs to be done. But what do we do in the face of an overwhelming problem like economic inequality?
Our knowledge of the enormous scale of the problem can lead us to action or it can cancel out all our good intentions and leave us feeling paralyzed and inept. A recent study by psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon showed that when people were presented with statistics about the large number of starving people in the world, they were less likely to help a starving person than people who were merely asked to help a single individual without knowing the magnitude of the problem.
So what do we do in light of this?
Hafner was one of several people I spoke to about how to approach large and complex problems. She, like others, offered this advice: start small and remember that we are part of something larger.
“Any great social movement is the product of many different people’s actions over many years that have laid the foundations for ultimately enormous change,” Hafner says. “I remind myself that I’m working to lay a foundation.”
Her point reminded me of author and activist Parker Palmer’s notion of standing in the tragic gap, the gap between what is and what we know is possible.
“No one who has stood for high values—love, truth, justice—has died being able to declare victory, once and for all,” he said in an interview in The Sun. “If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.”
Effectiveness must be secondary to faithfulness, Palmer says.
A few months ago I marched again, this time with 400,000 other people, down Central Park West and through Times Square. The march was organized by Bill McKibben’s environmental group, 350.org, and was meant to spur world leaders to action against climate change.
Not long after I started working at Trinity, I interviewed Bill McKibben. I asked him if he ever feels overwhelmed by the problem of climate change.
“As people of faith,” he said, “we’re not compelled to believe that we have to do it all 100 percent on our own. If we do everything we can, then perhaps forces larger than us will meet us halfway. That’s not faith as an excuse for not doing anything, it’s faith as an excuse for not completely despairing while you do everything you can do.”
Despair is perhaps the greatest temptation in the face of problems like poverty.
Sometimes the knowledge of what we can’t do keeps us from doing anything at all. These moments of despair are normal, but to succumb completely to this kind of apathy is to make God small.
“It’s one of those bizarre situations where you focus on the inequality and you never get to the problem,” says Mike Bowling, pastor of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. “It doesn’t matter so much what we think needs to be done. What is God doing?”
Englewood’s work grows out of the fact that its members are part of a community. As a community, how can they let their neighbors go hungry or homeless?
This helps them avoid the trap of confusing efficiency for faithfulness, losing sight of people inside the system. Now Englewood provides child care for 170 children. They have more than sixty units of housing for low-income people. The church itself has only about two hundred members.
The Rev. Mark Stevenson, Domestic Poverty Missioner for the Episcopal Church, also recommends an asset-based approach. Ask yourself what resources, gifts, and talents you have, he says. “Start with your congregation, then branch out to people in the neighborhood.”
He recommends tapping into existing networks, of which there are many, such as Jubilee Ministries and Episcopal Relief and Development. When he feels angry or overwhelmed, seeing the ministry others are doing gives him hope.
“The church is alive and well,” he says. When you are working alongside the poor and the oppressed, you are meeting Jesus in a tangible, sacramental way. “God is going to be doing the hard work as you go.”
I also spoke with Cassandra Agredo, Director of Xavier Mission in New York City. Xavier is a nonprofit associated with the Church of St. Francis Xavier, a Catholic church in Manhattan, and it runs a soup kitchen, food pantry, and shelter. It also provides skills training and financial assistance.
“You have to break it down into manageable steps,” Agredo says. “The Xavier Mission is not going to solve hunger.” But it can help the people who come to the doors. It can educate their members and advocate for better policies.
She says she feels better when she meets with other people.
“I am not the only one who is working on this,” she says. “If we can coordinate our efforts what we’re doing isn’t so small.”
As Episcopalians, we remind ourselves of this every Sunday morning. We gather in a world so big that we barely understand it, and we lift our voices to a God we cannot completely comprehend. Our prayers are a faithful surrender to our own smallness in the face of big problems. Our prayers are like helping one hungry person, like sending one letter advocating for better policies, like joining a march. I am small, but I can do this thing. I can step out, and the others at my side give me a hope that I am part of something larger than myself. I can stand in the tragic gap.
For more videos and discussion about economic equality, the subject of the 2015 Trinity Institute Conference, click here.