When I was 16, I spent my spare time helping out in a soup kitchen for children in a very low-income area of Washington, DC. The 40-year-old employee in charge was completely burnt out and ready to quit. Three years later, when I discovered ATD Fourth World, one of the things that most struck me about its approach to overcoming poverty was how much attention is paid to making it possible for each person to sustain her or his motivation over a lifetime.
At the same time, finding words to speak about this can be challenging. The very word “burn-out” is one that ATD avoids because of its association with privileged people trying to work on behalf of others. We need words that speak about the struggle against despair for all people, including those born into deep poverty. As this issue of the Revue Quart Monde points out, some people feel sustained and strengthened by religious beliefs; while others, who may not identify with any religion, may draw strength from an existential philosophy, or from beauty and culture, or from a non-religious form of spirituality focused on the principles that they hold most dear, and that are the driving force in their lives. Here, too, however, words are treacherous. Trying to translate into my native language the title of this publication makes me think of one friend’s poetic expression about her work with ATD Fourth World: “This is what makes my heart sing!” However, another friend, equally engaged in ATD, but more prosaic in nature, is not comfortable speaking about the question of what makes anyone’s heart “sing.”
Religion can be a source of discord, as described by Janet Nelson, an ally of ATD who grew up in the Congo. She remembers that the children she played with there — who practiced three different religions — often named those differences, telling those who did not practice the same religion that they were condemned to damnation. Janet says, “Although all major religions espouse some of the same principles — of compassion, peace, etc. — people too often get caught up in the details that form their group’s identify and forget the most important values. What can best bring all people together are international human rights tools. Negotiated by every nation in the world, I think that human rights agreements are based on the principles of dignity, respect, equality, and a decent standard of living for every person.”
Most social justice groups fit into one of three models. Some are completely secular, often based on human rights. Others specifically unite believers from a single religious tradition. Still other groups are inter-religious, aiming to foster dialogue among the adherents and leaders of two or more different religions. Because ATD Fourth World does not fit any of those models, there is no road map for its approach. ATD’s founder, Joseph Wresinski, reached out to all those who felt as he did that it was crucial to come together with the people living in deep poverty in the name of our common humanity. The people who responded to his appeal by joining him happened to hold a diversity of beliefs, both religious and secular. ATD’s members and friends today include Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, pagans, and secular humanists.
This diversity gave a direction to ATD. While Wresinski’s vocation as a Catholic priest remained important to him personally, he stepped outside that tradition to develop a broad movement around the most disadvantaged people. Wresinski did not aim for ATD to remain somehow neutral on the question of spirituality and religion. Instead, he invited each person, whatever their own beliefs or religious practices, to conduct their own search for meaning and spirituality in light of the lives of people in extreme poverty. The essential points for him were: understanding that people living in deep poverty aspire to something greater than their own personal happiness; and that ATD should honor each person’s fundamental right to this aspiration, respecting the wholeness of human identity, including aspects that may be spiritual or religious.
When asked about what is most important to them, people living in poverty often speak about religion. Some speak about the great importance in their lives of their local religious communities. One feels that her church is the only place where she is able to break the silence around many of the challenges her family has faced over the years. Others see in religion a hope for their teenage children to find the strength to break free of drugs and gangs. These religious connections can make an enormous difference in the lives of both people living in extreme poverty and others who are part of their congregations.
Other people in poverty do not feel that religion brings them hope. They may have been told by a religious leader that their own suffering must be due to their own sins. One woman who was unable to save the lives of her sons, caught up in despair, drugs, alcohol and violence, asked, “How can I ever face God when I could not save my children?” Another woman, feeling that every effort she made in life had been doomed to failure, asked, “Have I been cursed by God?”
Still other people in poverty see religion as a point of contention. Religious charity can be linked to coercion, manipulation, and extremism — or simply to making its recipients feel unworthy of it. Lenore Cola, an ATD Fourth World activist, said about her former neighborhood of Harlem, New York:
Religions put pressure on people. “We can do this for you, but you have to do this.” When you go to church as a donor, you sit up front proud, bragging about what you did. Your name is all over it. [...] The Jehovah’s Witnesses come to your door to force their beliefs on you. One person started doing that at the Fourth World House. We argued every time. So we just had to stay away from the subject of religion.
Like Janet Nelson, I was raised to think of secularism in public policy as the ideal way to respect each person’s dignity, equality, and human rights. Since then, however, I am less sure of what a harmonious secular society should look like. I lived for several years in France where the state’s strict interpretation of secularism troubles me. In a few towns, it has been used to justify requiring all schoolchildren to eat pork during lunch. It was in the name of secularism that a teenage friend of my daughter’s was suspended from school for having donned a hijab as she was leaving school, but in between the two gates, instead of after having stepped completely only the sidewalk. How does it serve a diverse society to penalize a child who was in fact trying to respect the rule against any religious symbols in schools? Even more disturbingly, a French government commissioner considering the citizenship application of a Moroccan immigrant “approvingly noted in her report that this woman was treated by a male gynecologist during her pregnancies.” Other French policies ban burkinis on the beach and floor-length skirts in school, or mandate shorts over bare legs for physical education. This legislation against female physical modesty is sexist and intrusive.
Prof. Adam Seligman, director of CEDAR (Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion), makes three arguments against secularism:
First, he says that it displaces substantive differences by making no room to recognize and speak of them. He asks what it means to declare that a country believes in “equality” when in fact many individuals and religious groups would not define that concept in the same way. These substantive differences are underscored in the wake of acts of terrorism which often spur hate-mongering in the name of religion even within secular and supposedly cohesive communities.
The secular model of government is based on an assumption that once everyone in the world finally subscribes to secularism, things will be perfect. Is this realistic in a world where more than 80% of the population identity themselves as religious? Adam also sees this model as arrogant, and not so different from the assumptions made by colonial missionaries. It is a model based on assimilating cultural differences. While these differences never justify violating human rights, many cultures have rich and valuable traditions that can be lost through assimilation.
Although secularism claims to be neutral with respect to all religions, it is in fact based on the Protestant model that each person can distinguish right from wrong on their own. But many people do not believe in moral autonomy. Does secularism provide a common moral framework for people who believe that laws about moral behavior come only from God and that it is wrong for individuals to each make their own decisions?
All of us, whether we identify more strongly with secular traditions, religious ones, or a blend of both, have grown up in communities where some people are excluded and disrespected because of extreme poverty. How can each of us take responsibility for trying to change this, side by side with policy makers, ordinary citizens and also with religious leaders? While some religious leaders may judge the worst off, we know that in every religion there are also some leaders who go out of their way to stand with people living in deep poverty, like a pastor in a very low-income district in the Central African Republic who strives to ensure that none of his neighbors feel excluded by any others, or like a rabbi in France who asked, “How can a person who is excluded from employment live a day of sabbath rest? The true sabbath gives value to the responsibility for work that can make a person free and return his dignity.” It is important that these and other religious leaders have the opportunity to think together with people living in extreme poverty.
Society does not pay much attention to people living in extreme poverty. Who knows what they are struggling with? Who knows what aspirations they carry in their hearts? Who sees them as people who can inspire others? Moraene Roberts, an ATD activist living in poverty in London, practices pagan worship and rituals. To answer the question of “what it feels like to be a pagan,” she quotes Sun Bear, an author born on the White Earth Indian Reservation in 1929:
"When humans participate in ceremony, they enter a sacred space. Everything outside of that space shrivels in importance. Time takes on a different dimension. Emotions flow more freely. The bodies of participants become filled with the energy of life, and this energy reaches out and blesses the creation around them. All is made new; everything becomes sacred."
To me, that description of sacred space where each person can draw energy and bless creation evokes what many of us experience every year on the World Day for Overcoming Poverty. When we gather to mark that day, we are showing each other that people in poverty contribute something deeply meaningful to the world. We are resisting exclusion and stigmatization by creating a sense of belonging for all people. We can also create sacred space by looking to the vision of beauty that people in poverty have. Poverty often damages health and bodies, and puts people in situations that are out of their control. Together, we can collaborate on the physical creation of music, art, theatre in ways that enhance each person’s sense of agency, identity, and intuition. This too can feel like a way to bless creation.
People living in extreme poverty deserve to be joined by those of all beliefs; it is also important for people of all beliefs to have the opportunity to think together with people living in extreme poverty. At ATD Fourth World, we may have no road map for our approach. But our roots and our soul are in building links with people who have been excluded from many aspects of life: sometimes school, sometimes decent work, sometimes citizenship, and sometime from the places that society deems sacred. People who may never before have felt a sense of belonging anywhere can help transform society by creating new sacred space where all people can draw strength and feel sustained.