David Lapp: A Poor Church for the Poor. How can we serve our neighbors in Need?

David Lapp: A Poor Church for the Poor.  How can we serve our neighbors in Need?

David Lapp addressed that question on Thursday, November 5, 2015, at the opening of the Stein Center for Social Research Second Annual Conference, “Reimagining Care for the Poor.”

The title of Lapp’s keynote address, “A Poor Church for the Poor: How We Can Accompany Our Neighbors in Need – and Save Our Souls in the Process,” took its cue from a spontaneous statement Pope Francis made to the press shortly after his election to the papacy in 2013. “That formulation—a Church that is poor and for the poor—is exactly right,” Lapp said. “And it’s the key to understanding how we, as followers of Jesus, can accompany our neighbors who find themselves living in poverty.”

Lapp’s address was divided into three sections: first, he shared his own story; second, he answered the question “Who are the poor in America?” through the stories of two people he has met; and third, he concluded with nine practical points on how we can accompany our neighbors in need.

I. David and Amber Lapp: Co-Investigators for the Institute for American Values’ Love and Marriage in Middle America Project

Lapp and his wife, Amber, began researching Natural Family Planning (NFP) after they got engaged their senior year of college. The more they learned about NFP and the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, the family and social doctrine, the more they were attracted to how it called attention to the whole human person. They were struck with how the Church taught that just as “we can’t reduce a person to a means of sexual pleasure through contraception…we [also] can’t reduce the person to a means to the end of profit when we are talking about the economy,” Lapp explained. In 2012, he and Amber entered the Catholic Church.

In the meantime, Lapp and his wife had been sent by the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project at the Institute for American Values to live in a small town in southwest Ohio and investigate the state and perceptions of marriage in middle class America. There in Ohio, the Lapps encountered firsthand the marriage divide that Charles Murray writes of in his book Coming Apart (2012). Lapp and his wife moved to live among the people in “The Valley”; the stable college-educated families lived in the subdivisions on “The Hill.” These two communities, they found, were almost entirely segregated, and there was little organic interaction between the two. “I don’t think,” Lapp said, “that we were prepared for the stories that we were about to hear… There was so much suffering there.”

After spending some time investigating, Lapp and his wife felt called to take action. “We were researching a problem,” he explained, “but then after a few years we started asking ourselves… how could we actually help? How could we actually come alongside young people and empower them to achieve the stable families that they want?” Lapp and his wife understood that humans learn by example, and that the young people they encountered in “The Valley” lacked examples to follow.

In answer to their dilemma, the Lapps partnered with I Believe in Love, a project of the Chiaroscuro Institute that invites ordinary men and women to share their stories for finding lifelong love.

II. Who Are the Poor in America?

David and Amber first “met” Tyler at 1 o’clock in the morning, when they overheard him shouting on the phone across the street. As the Lapps grew to know him better, they learned about his difficult past, marked by abuse and addiction. It was his encounter with the unconditional and supportive love of a woman, Jazmin, which pulled Tyler out of his addiction and helped him to work to provide a stable environment for his family to grow. On the I Believe in Love website, Tyler shares his story about considering marriage and how fatherhood changed his life.

Another person whom David and Amber have encountered is Lance. Lance has been married for seven years, he has three children, and although he and his wife work hard, they are still barely able to make ends meet. They are “economically fragile,” Lapp said. It isn’t a matter of working harder, or of finding a better job. “They are basically responsible, hard-working people, but they are struggling to get by.” Lance shares his story with I Believe in Love here.

Who are the poor in America? They are the men and women who are denied the dignity of meaningful work, because, Lapp explained, quoting LaboremExercens, “a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.”

Who are the poor in America? They are, Lapp again answered, quoting Centesimus Annus: “[N]ot limited to material poverty, since it is well known that there are many other forms of poverty, especially in modern society—not only economic but cultural and spiritual poverty as well.’”

When we speak of the poor, we are speaking of those on the margins of society—be it on account of old age, sickness, economic difficulties, stereotypes based on race or appearance, familial instability, struggles with addiction, emotional turmoil, etc.  

So, as followers of Jesus, what can we do to help the poor? 

III. Nine Ways To Accompany Our Neighbors in Need

Lapp concluded his address by offering nine practical steps we can take to come alongside those who are in need.

  1. Be intentional about where you live. Truly encounter the person in need; thank those that serve you, and greet them with a look of love.
  2. Don’t judge. The real tragedy is not the possibility that the stranger might take advantage of you, but that you would harden your heart in distrust.
  3. Respect blue-collar culture. The sense of community and the deep valuing of family relationships are things to respect.
  4. Advocate for the worker. We need to recover from ideologies the unity of Catholic teaching on the dignity of the worker.
  5. “Waste” time with people. Real conversations happen when you shoot the breeze.
  6. Honor the suffering. In the words of Gregory Boyle, we should stand in awe of what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment of the way in which they carry it.
  7. Look for redemption. No matter how messy a person’s life, there are places where God is at work.
  8. Discover mutuality at the margins. As Mother Teresa said, we need the poor more than the poor need us.
  9. Discover your own poverty. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, in a Christmas Eve homily, reminds us that Jesus calls together all who are marginalized; none of us can say that we are not marginalized.

Lapp closed with the words: “A Church that is poor and for the poor—that’s the way of Jesus. And as followers of Jesus in the richest country on the planet, that is our way too. … If we sincerely honor the person and their story, then we can build that bridge of trust with them. … In a nation coming apart by class…we can become the sign of contradiction that Jesus wants his Church to be, the Church where the shepherds and the wisemen are both journeying together to follow Jesus, a Church where the working-class schlep St. Peter and the highly educated St. Paul are both seeking Jesus together. … Let’s become that Church.”

David Lapp is Research Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for American Values, and Contributing Editor at the I Believe in Love Project. He and his wife, Amber, are writing a book based on their interviews with over one-hundred young adults about how young adults are forming families and thinking about marriage. 

The Stein Center for Social Research at Ave Maria University’s Second Annual Conference, “Reimagining Care for the Poor”, facilitated discussion on the development of new, Church-based solutions to poverty in the United States.