Church’s anti-poverty program: Giving the poor a voice for 50 years

Legislators, community activists, and BRIDGE Maryland, Inc. leaders gather on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis, Md., April 8, 2021, for a news conference to encourage the Senate to pass the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act that the House had already passed. (CNS photo/courtesy Rev. Marlon B. Tilghman)

By Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service

CLEVELAND — When the Rev. Marlon Tilghman learned that any Maryland juvenile taken into custody can be questioned by police without a parent being informed or without an attorney present, his thoughts turned to his teenage granddaughter.

“God forbid if she got pulled over and got interrogated and she said something she wasn’t supposed to say. I would be terrified,” said Rev. Tilghman, pastor of the Ames United Methodist Church in Bel Air, Maryland.

Rev. Tilghman has been working for the last year with dozens of partners in faith communities that belong to the grassroots organization BRIDGE Maryland to change state law, which observers have said is one of the most regressive in the nation. They cite cases where a child has felt pressured to admit to something he or she did not do.

New legislation became a priority of the group’s Criminal Justice Task Force, which Rev. Tilghman co-chairs. The death of George Floyd, who died nearly a year ago while pinned to the ground by a former Minneapolis police officer, is a motivating factor, he said.

Ministers and congregation members mobilized around the legislation. They assembled online town hall meetings and coordinated a news conference. The events gave them the opportunity to use the skills in community organizing, personal empowerment, communications and relationship building they have learned with the help of a series of national grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. CCHD has funded the group since 2017.

In this case, BRIDGE Maryland member congregations and its partners were instrumental in building support for the Juvenile Interrogation Protection Act, which was introduced in the Maryland legislature last year. The measure passed in the state House but failed by a narrow margin in the Senate. Currently BRIDGE Maryland is building statewide support for the bill since its reintroduction in January.

The organizing and educational efforts by BRIDGE Maryland members are examples of the kind of grassroots work CCHD has supported since several influential U.S. church leaders established the anti-poverty campaign 50 years ago.

Originally known simply as the Campaign for Human Development, the program took shape in the late 1960s following rioting that erupted in response to continued racial and ethnic hostility in many American cities.

The U.S. Catholic Conference, as the bishops’ public policy arm was known as then, wanted a program that would address the causes of poverty. Church leaders realized that charity alone was not enough to stop poverty and that a program that raised up the voices of people living in dire circumstances would lead to systemic change.

After months of meetings and discussions among bishops, Cardinal John F. Dearden of Detroit in July 1970 announced the formation of the anti-poverty campaign. The first collection occurred in November that year and has continued annually the weekend before Thanksgiving since.

Individual dioceses receive 25% of the funds collected to support local efforts. The remainder is allocated to larger programs after a thorough review of applications to assure they fall in line with Catholic Church teachings, said Ralph McCloud, CCHD executive director at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell of Los Angeles, co-chairs the bishops’ subcommittee overseeing CCHD. He said he has seen the value of the kind of work CCHD supports since the late 1980s when he was a pastor in South Los Angeles, a poor community with a large minority population.

He said faith-based community organizing can help people realize they have the power to make necessary changes in institutions that perpetuate injustice.

“I love the work of the organizing,” he said. “I love to have seen over the years that people think about themselves in a different way because of the work of the organizing. They begin to see themselves as leaders. They see that they are not victims. They think about (the question of) ‘How do we have some relational power here to turn things around?'”

In Baltimore, Rev. Tilghman and task force co-chair Linda Watts are working to broaden their coalition so that when hearings on the bill they have dubbed as the “Protect Our Minors Act” are scheduled, more voices can become part of the legislative process. With more people involved, more influence can be demonstrated, they said.

“It makes a difference if you have lots of people who have been adequately trained,” said Watts, a member of Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson, Maryland, longtime member of the organization.

BRIDGE Maryland is part of the Gamaliel National Network, which has 43 community and faith-based affiliates in 14 states. Named for Gamaliel, a Pharisee doctor of Jewish law who trained St. Paul and is mentioned in the New Testament, the network’s mission is to “empower ordinary people to effectively participate in the political, environmental, social and economic decisions affecting their lives.”

The Rev. Gayle Briscoe, a community organizer who is the lone BRIDGE Maryland staffer, said CCHD support has allowed the group to widen its work in strengthening public education, improving public transportation on which low-income workers depend, and boosting affordable housing alternatives.

The training helps people understand their own self-interest and why it’s important to come together in unity for the sake of justice, Rev. Briscoe said. “Everybody can’t do everything, but everybody can do something about something,” she said.

St. Vincent de Paul Parish in downtown Baltimore, is among the two dozen interfaith partners that are part of BRIDGE Maryland. Father Ray Chase, pastor, said the congregation recognizes the importance of people organizing around critical issues, especially those surrounding children.

“This attitude of the arrest of children and what their rights should be illustrates the disenfranchisement of children and we need to be very powerful advocates for their sake,” he told Catholic News Service.

BRIDGE Maryland’s work is an extension of the Pope Francis’ invitation to the faithful to go to the margins of society and build relationships to better understand the needs of others, Father Chase added.

“One of the things which BRIDGE is in support of is the breaking down of ‘we and them.’ Because when there’s ‘we and them,’ there always has to be a diminishment of one side or the other. That’s not a formula for gaining insight or being as productive as we can be,” he said.

“Every voice has a right to be heard. If we don’t believe that, then we really have to chuck the Catholic social teaching of the dignity of every being.”

Throughout its history, CCHD has helped hundreds of local organizations like BRIDGE Maryland, many of them rooted in faith communities.

Msgr. William Burke has led the Baltimore Archdiocese’s CCHD office since 1972. The 87-year-old pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in the city said the program has supported grassroots efforts to reverse poverty in line with Jesus’ call for upholding human dignity.

“We know that charity is fine. It answers immediate needs. But to change the situation in which people find themselves impoverished is the ultimate goal. That’s what CCHD does,” he told CNS.

Msgr. Burke, who will retire July 1, has worked with an archdiocesan committee that assesses proposals from community groups for funding. Glyndon Bailey, who has chaired the committee for 35 years of its 49-year history, said he and his now-deceased wife became involved at Msgr. Burke’s request in 1975.

“We felt that was something we wanted to do because living in a suburban parish (in Catonsville) we didn’t get hooked up with too many people in the city. We thought we would like to do that,” he recalled.

“Our projects we support embody the spirit of the CCHD movement,” Bailey said, describing how he visited low-income communities throughout the Baltimore Archdiocese to learn about neighborhood safety, the need for affordable housing, growing hunger and the lack of jobs over the years — all concerns that were going unaddressed.

CCHD funding has enabled community organizations “to identify needs and develop leadership to address those needs,” he said.

Now 98, Bailey will step down as committee chairman when Msgr. Burke retires. He said he will continue to advocate for CCHD whenever he can.

“CCHD,” he said, “has carried out the Gospel to help people improve their lives. They have to speak for themselves because they have nobody else to speak for them.”



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