(Remarks by Bishop Wohlrabe at an event marking the release of the recommendations of the Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota, delivered at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Moorhead on January 21, 2009.)
Thank you for being here this afternoon. Thank you, not just for making time in your busy schedules…thank you not just for your politeness in listening to the words and pondering the presentations that will be shared here…..but thank you for caring about your neighbors, especially those among us who are dogged by poverty and its effects…..thank you for standing alongside your neighbors this afternoon and committing yourselves to the cause of ending poverty in our great state of Minnesota.
I confess that when I first heard of this effort I was a little put off by that language about “ending” poverty. It struck me as being “over the top”…promising more than we can probably deliver….too lofty, way beyond what mere mortals can achieve. I expect that poverty will end one day, but only (truth be told) when Christ comes again to usher in God’s new creation.
But as I have learned more about this effort, as I have read the Common Foundation on which it is based, as I have become aware of the diligence and creativity and passion of the Legislative Commission on Ending Poverty in Minnesota….it has slowly dawned on me that we need audacious language like this. We need to make it clear that poverty has no rightful place among us. We dare not seem to be “making peace with” or “tolerating” poverty in our great state…..so that anything less than aiming to END poverty—anything less than that simply will not do.
This unwillingness to accept poverty as a permanent state of affairs, this reluctance to continue allowing for or making room for poverty in our midst—it is grounded, we believe, in our deepest values, the values that come to us from the faith that is shared by most residents of our state.
When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the greatest of all, it might seem that he fudged in his response. Rather than reciting just one commandment from the Old Testament, Jesus articulated two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”….and then Jesus added a second: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus wedded these two great commandments and melted them into one—like two sides of one coin.
I take this to mean that we never can have God all to ourselves. We cannot have God, that is, without having our neighbor as well. God will have it no other way. If we want God, if we long for God, our neighbor inevitably is part of the deal. We cannot separate them—God and our neighbors are as one—both of them laying claim to our allegiance and our highest regard.
This is the basic grounding our faith tradition gives to us for caring about the poor in our midst, the neighbors who lack the food, the clothing, the shelter, the health, the transportation, the work and the wherewithal to enjoy the abundant life God intends for all his people.
So this effort to end poverty in our state by the year 2020 AD…this effort began with impetus from the faith communities of Minnesota. Appropriately enough, today we gather here in this house of God, and we consider this effort to be a “God thing.” We realize that only as we get in touch with the transcendent ground of our being, only as we ponder what it means to belong to a God of abundance, who never gives his gifts stingily, and only as we claim God’s power and direction and enlightenment….will we do justice to an adequate response to the grievous reality of continuing poverty in a land of plenty.
So this afternoon we mark a milestone in this process, as the legislative commission concludes 1-1/2 years of study, hearings, discussion and deliberation….and as we, the citizens of Minnesota now receive their recommendations. What are we to make of this report? And how shall we respond?
There are three things that have impressed me about this effort to end poverty in our state:
1. First, I have been struck by the bi-partisan nature of the commission, its work and now its recommendations. We have before us a vision for ending poverty in our state that people of goodwill, regardless of party affiliation or guiding ideology, can get behind and support and give themselves to. I am so grateful that the legislative commission has moved us beyond the tired old partisan rhetoric….and beckoned us toward recommendations most of us can affirm and embrace.
2. Second, I am grateful for the comprehensive nature of these recommendations. The legislative commission truly is inviting us to “dig deeper,” to get below the surface level, to move beyond band-aid approaches to ending poverty. We have here a vision that recognizes the central value of meaningful work, for which adequate compensation must be provided. We have here a vision that recognizes the need for all citizens to have a shot at building up assets. We have here a vision that recognizes that the vitality of our citizens is intrinsically tied to the vitality of our communities and the values that we share.
3. Third, I am hopeful about the prospects laid out in these recommendations—the prospect of putting together a structure for moving this vision forward, the prospect of building ways to monitor our progress, and the prospect of holding ourselves accountable as we undertake the most critical part of this journey—the implementation of these recommendations in the years to come.
Of the conducting of studies and the writing of reports, there is no end. Creating roadmaps and blueprints are, in a way, easy things. It is the traveling of the road that matters. It is in the building of the house, that we prove our mettle.
So as delighted as I am that you are all here today, and as grateful as I am for your presence….we and the poorest among us will be most thankful for your ongoing commitment to move this agenda forward. The legislature can’t do it alone. State government can’t accomplish it all. The poor themselves can only do so much. As surely as we all have a stake in the common good and the bright future of our state, so also we are all now called to receive these recommendations and commit ourselves to their timely implementation. Each of us has gifts to bring to the table—whether we come out of business or government or non-profits or the churches—it will take all of us, and God will use all of us, to move one day soon from the good words of this report to the good deeds that will make poverty in Minnesota nothing more than a dim memory.