(As originally published in the January/February 2012 issue of Faith Today)

Journalists, politicians and concerned Canadians have all recently struggled to learn the proper pronunciation of Attawapiskat, and to comprehend the deplorable conditions of this northern Ontario community suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. The severe poverty and critical needs for health, housing and sanitation are more reminiscent of conditions seen in the developing world a decade ago than anything we imagine our fellow Canadians facing at the start of a long, cold, 21st century winter.

The people of Attawapiskat are not the only Canadians lacking the most basic needs of human life. What has been declared a state of emergency is, sadly, indicative of conditions in other First Nations communities across Canada – and for too many Canadians living on the streets. Several hundred thousand Canadians live without homes, and increasing numbers are at risk of finding themselves homeless.

Jesus said, in Matthew 26:11 the poor would always be among us. What does that mean for us today?

Last spring the EFC participated in a multifaith forum on faith and poverty. This Parliament Hill event was one of several responses to a Federal Poverty Reduction Plan for Canada, a report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources (HUMA). The multifaith forum allowed us, along with representatives from other faiths, to speak to government and together share in the call for collective action to address poverty in Canada.

Members of Parliament from all parties had worked collaboratively on the HUMA report, making 58 recommendations for how the Federal Government could act to reduce poverty in Canada. Foremost was that the federal government take a strong, long term leadership role to address poverty in our nation. An earlier report from a Senate committee, titled In from the Margins, had drawn similar conclusions.

Regrettably, the government response to the HUMA report failed to directly address the recommendations. There has been little parliamentary movement with respect to a poverty reduction plan or housing strategy. Apart from a handful of private member’s bills, Canada’s federal government has displayed a reluctance to act.

To be clear, the Federal Government is not silent on poverty. There are much-needed and essential funds being delivered to support housing initiatives, shelters, and so on. But it’s time to move beyond what has been a piecemeal approach, one which is proving inefficient and insufficient. The Federal Government alone has the political gathering power to initiate a coordinated national action plan to deal with poverty and homelessness in cities, big and small, and on First Nations’ reserves from coast to coast to coast.

But is the challenge of poverty just for government response? Jesus’ words were for both church and government. Each has a unique responsibility and role to play in meeting the needs of vulnerable Canadians, and in finding solutions to poverty and homelessness. The role of each is so critical that the failure of either will mean that the crisis in Canada will continue to worsen. And, the failure of one does not excuse responsibility on the part of the other.

At the same multifaith forum on poverty, Greg Paul, author and Executive Director of Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, gave a talk entitled “Who is at the Centre?” He spoke from Matthew 26 and challenged us to reconsider Christ’s words about having the poor always among us.  

What if Christ’s proclamation was not a statement of the futility of seeking to eliminate poverty, but rather a vision for what the church is meant to be? What if Jesus said the poor will always be among us because they belong in our midst, at the very centre of our church communities? What if welcoming, including and sharing with those who are poor and excluded is to be central to who are as the people of God?

While Christmastime is typically a season marked by generosity towards people in our communities who are living in poverty, what is our role when the decorations are put away and the trees taken down? When the bleak cold days of January and February set in are they still among us? Are we among them?


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