Illusions and Realities: A New Way To Help the Poor

Sao Paulo, Brazil, is described by some as “the  multinational corporation capital of the world.” Dirty, busy, industrial, Sao Paulo smells and feels to a visitor a little like Pittsburgh or Detroit many years ago. Its surrounding hills are steep. Every few months, it seems, one barren hillside after another becomes suddenly overswept with a new shantytown, as desperate peasants stream in from the countryside and set up squatters quarters.

When it rains, the waters cut tiny canyons down the grey-black soil of the shantytown passageways. The wooden shacks, put together from crates and plywood, scrap metal and tarpaper, look like the worst of Pennsylvania’s mining towns circa 1897.

I visited one of those “towns,” which covers two hills and the valley between, where Padre Antonio Luiz has built St. Francis of Assisi parish. A nun from Argentina and an American lay worker from Connecticut (as I recall) were helping him.

Padre Antonio’s great recent accomplishment was to bolt a loudspeaker to the top of a “social center” in the valley, to which he could hook up a radio, so that his huddled people could hear music from time to time, and so community messages could be announced.

In another shack, where homewired electrical current has been brought in, Padre Antonio Luiz has helped a small group of women to install an oven. There they bake bread all day and sell it out the window. It is nourishing, of outstanding quality, and cheaper than commercial bread. They also make vats of special infant formula for young children.

The bread and “milk” do three things. They set a standard of high nutrition for the young. They keep a half-dozen parishioners gainfully employed. And they give to others hope for modest commercial self-sufficiency and community improvement.

Padre Antonio wants to train young men to pour concrete to work with cement, and to become carpenters and roofers. He wants to build a pharmacy. He needs a clinic and, especially, a place for maternity care. He wants to teach skills so that all able-bodied people can build up their new town, provide for their families, and begin to seek the educations that will spring their children forward.

He asked me to help him raise $2000 for a larger electric oven that could bake more loaves at a time. For everything he wants to do, he needs seed money — for tools, for an instructor, for materials. How could we unite local people in the U.S. with local people in parishes like that of St. Francis in Sao Paulo?

Two ideas seem practical. In the United States, there are 340,000 Christian congregations and Jewish synagogues. Could not each one of them link itself to a poor congregation in a barrio or favela in Latin America? If each religious congregation did it, there would be 340,000 poor communities in Latin America better off than before. We could begin with 10 or 20.

Possibly, an annual collection could be taken up — or a more modest monthly one — by the wealthier parish, on behalf of the poorer one. Perhaps letters could go back and forth between parishioners. Perhaps a few Northern travellers could one day make the trip to visit “their” Southern congregation. Perhaps a team of builders, a pharmacist, a nurse, could go down for six weeks or so.

The needs of the poor are sometimes very modest. A little can do a lot.

I have also thought that Americans who work for corporations that do business in Sao Paulo could form corporate “Poverty Action Committees” that would adopt a slum area there, and send small amounts of volunteered financial assistance. The recipient communities areas could be written up in the company magazine, photographs could be exchanged, volunteers might go down to help, the company might sponsor a clinic, etc.

Many liberals are good about wanting to help the poor. Many conservatives, who think government-to-government aid is a waste, are good in stressing personal contact and personal responsibility. Why not put these two humane impulses together? Better than country-to-country aid, congregation-to-congregation aid might actually give real people real help in their daily necessities.

The genius of the American people is voluntary association. Seeing a need, we form a committee. Desiring swift results, we take direct action. That’s why I think poverty action committees could work. I think of the program as Immediate Action for the Poor. No intermediaries, no middlemen, just help from people to people — pow! — directly though the mail.

You can ask overseas mission societies of your local church for the address of a parish or a community in need of help. Make your own direct contacts.

As a last resort, if you write to me (c/o the Brownson Institute, Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556), I will try to help make a contact for you. Through friends and associates, I am collecting a list of congregations with reliable leadership and in need of help. A name and an address will be gladly supplied to you.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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