Inspiring Big Changes in How We Address Poverty: What I Take Away from Pope Francis’ Visit

By Tom Salyers

Most mornings, I walk past St. Matthew’s Cathedral where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass this afternoon. I see homeless people out front seeking pocket change from parishioners leaving Mass and—on Monday mornings—receiving food, clothing, and toiletries from the church’s homeless ministry.

For me, the take away from the Pope’s visit is not a religious one.  Rather, we should all take away a sense of momentum. We should commit to truly seeing the homeless and poor people we’re accustomed to walking past, as well as pursuing large-scale changes that help the most vulnerable.

Welcome Pope Francis

One of my first experiences with social change came in my 20s when I was a member of an urban Atlanta Catholic parish with a very active social justice ministry. In addition to serving people who were hungry and homeless, the church was a pioneer in the early stages of the AIDS crisis with its outreach and support to those afflicted with HIV and AIDS. I became actively engaged in the life of Joseph, a man with HIV who lived in public housing and used a wheelchair. What began with my providing him weekly transportation to Mass blossomed into a friendship that lasted more than a decade until Joseph’s untimely death from complications of AIDS. As a young adult with a corporate job, and still in the process of finding myself, this taught me the value of seeing real needs up close and participating in a community committed to making a difference.  

Even though I moved away from regular church attendance, that early experience showed me the importance of understanding the lives of poor and vulnerable people through their eyes, in their own words and experiences—and the importance of contributing to substantial and positive change. 

Since leaving the corporate world for nonprofit social change organizations 20 years ago, I have seen those two principles—understanding the reality of low-income people’s lives and staying committed to large-scale, systemic change—motivate the work of passionate people who bring a wide range of faith and secular perspectives.  At CLASP, our talented team works every day to understand vulnerable people’s lives through both individual stories and the power of data and research to bring many stories together. At the same time, we stay focused on the opportunity for large-scale policy and systems change that can improve the trajectory of many people’s lives at once, however discouraging a particular day’s policy or budget news.  (For example, just last week we analyzed new data from the U.S. Census Bureau to shine a light on those most affected by poverty as well as public policies like the Affordable Care Act and the Earned Income Tax Credit that are making meaningful positive changes in people’s lives.) Our emphasis on facing problems head on while also insisting on solutions is what makes us an effective voice for change. And as CLASP’s communications director who is responsible for bringing to the public the depth of our knowledge about data and solutions, I relish the good stories we can tell in the face of an otherwise despairing situation where even one person living in poverty is too many, let alone the 14.8 percent of Americans who are poor.

So, when I peer down the block today at the excitement surrounding the pope’s visit to St. Matthew’s, I will channel that energy into a renewed enthusiasm for effecting change, building on the inspiration I gained many years ago through my early experiences with social justice, brought to life for me through Joseph.