Seattle, Wash., Nov 22, 2016 / 04:50 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The stories of poor people — and the need for Christians to help them — are the focus of the Washington state bishops’ newest pastoral letter.  

“When we stop and look into the face of poverty, we recognize that ‘the poor’ are not strangers. They are our sisters and brothers, members of our human family,” the state’s bishops said in their Nov. 17 pastoral letter. “Hunger, homelessness, illness and broken dreams shatter the bonds of community that hold us together, bonds that contribute to civic peace and stability,” the bishops added. “As people of faith, our relationship with God brings us into relationship with every other person, and the needs of others call us to share the gift of love we have received from our loving and merciful Father.”

The pastoral letter “Who is My Neighbor? The Face of Poverty in Washington State” reviews the stories of people in poverty, recounts Christian teaching on the need to help the poor, and considers the role of individuals, private institutions, and government in fighting poverty.

“Poverty has a face, and it also has a voice. But that voice often does not penetrate the wall of fear, misconception and prejudice that can separate people who are poor from those of us who have what we need,” the bishops said. “The voice of poverty can be drowned out or ignored in the halls of government, where other legitimate demands for resources also resound.”

The Washington state bishops recounted the story of Linda, from the Diocese of Yakima, who is out of work and raising a family. She also suffers stage four cancer and has limited health care access. “But Linda is a fighter who has overcome drug addiction and homelessness, and now she’s helping raise her grandchildren,” the bishops’ letter said.

And Karla left her abusive husband with her toddler-aged daughter, now 11. She is raising four children in all, but they are homeless and often sleep in their car. “She used to sell her blood to buy food; and once, when one of the children was sick, she had no money for medicine and stole some Tylenol,” the letter said. “As a result, Karla has a police record and worries that no one will hire her and wonders what kind of a future her children will have.”

Sophia, an immigrant farmworker, relied on home remedies and over-the-counter drugs to treat a serious illness that hospitalized her. With no insurance, she faces a $14,000 medical bill she could not pay.

Jonathan, from the Archdiocese of Seattle, grew up in a middle-class home, had a good job and an education. He suffered from depression and began to abuse drugs and alcohol. He lost his job of 11 years, became sober, but then lost his housing after he began to use drugs again. His family disowned him and he found himself homeless. “I couldn’t understand how someone who came from where I came from could be homeless,” he told the bishops.

For the Washington bishops, these stories require reflection and action. “Our listening sessions convinced us that the plight of those living in poverty in our state is reaching crisis proportions. At the same time, we grew in awareness that providing just a little help can make a big difference,” they said.

“We heard in the voices of people who are poor both a plea for mercy and a desire to participate fully in the life of their communities,” their letter continued. “Reflecting on what we heard, we recognize the urgent need for action to alleviate the suffering that has become epidemic in every city, town and community in our state.”

“In our conversations, we learned the sad truth that many simply accept insecurity and suffering as an inevitable condition of daily life,” the bishops continued. Many of those who suffer severe poverty also strongly desire to help others experiencing similar problems. “If we believe the faith we profess, how are we to respond to so many of our neighbors who do not share the benefits of our state’s economic wealth?” the bishops asked.

They noted the various complex social and economic factors affecting people in poverty. To address hunger, homelessness, and chronic unemployment, they said, Catholics must form their consciences well and then “take direct action that demonstrates concern for our sisters and brothers.”

“Jesus assures the least among us, whom he counts among those who are blessed, that the kingdom of God is theirs. And he assures us, as he assured the rich official, that when we share with them, we will have treasure in heaven,” the bishops continued. Christ calls people into a relationship with their neighbor, which is “a much greater challenge” than simply solving a problem.

“The dignity of human life, the common good and solidarity are more than mere words and phrases. They are the foundation stones of our values and actions as faithful Catholic citizens,” the bishops continued. “When we acknowledge the inherent dignity of the human person, we definitively answer the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ with one word: Everyone.” Actions for the common good must recognize everyone’s right to life, to work, to basic health services, and to basic education.  

“Solidarity with our neighbor begins with listening and leads to action,” they said. “Acting as sisters and brothers to those who are poor and marginalized, we journey with them as they seek solutions to their problems, address their challenges and take their rightful place in our communities.” Scripture and Catholic social teaching, which affirms public officials’ authority in pursuing the common good, can help guide advocacy, the bishops said.

“Some things are best addressed by individuals, families, churches and charities; but when problems such as homelessness, hunger, drug addiction and mental illness are common to every community, it is a just and reasonable expectation that society will act cooperatively to address these problems,” the bishops continued.

Their listening sessions repeatedly heard of the need to ensure basic health care access, as well as the need for decent wages and educational opportunity. These needs require initiative from public entities, the bishops said, They voiced gratitude for services and programs to help those living in poverty, but they lamented that these are among the first to face budget cuts in times of revenue shortfall.

For Catholics, justice means “a special concern for people who are poor” and for the imperative to secure economic justice. The bishops have created study materials for parishes and individual Catholics to help them confront poverty in Washington state and to explore “ways we can act as a community of faith to alleviate suffering and advocate for change.”

“Pray for those living in poverty. Pray for the individuals and organizations who reach out in charity to the hungry, the homeless and all who lack basic necessities and are denied full participation in society,” their letter encouraged Catholics. “Pray for those who advocate to break the cycle of poverty. Pray for our public officials, who bear the daunting task of establishing true economic justice for the citizens of our state.” “It is our hope that through prayer we will be inspired by God to act in solidarity with our neighbors who do not share fully in the blessings of life,” the Washington bishops said.

Their letter closed with a prayer asking that God “open our eyes to see those living in poverty as you see them.” “Embolden us through your Holy Spirit to seek genuine encounters with our neighbors in need. Inspire us to act as a community of faith to alleviate poverty and advocate for change that strengthens the human family.”