Interfaith community leaders gathered together Tuesday evening to discuss the ways their faiths drive them toward a common goal of alleviating poverty.
Penn Democrats, the Muslim Student Association and Hillel Tzedek Social Justice hosted a panel called “Poverty Through the Lens of Religion” to examine the various religious outlooks on this issue.
"Now more than ever interfaith dialogue is crucial,” Tzedek Co-Chair Hannah Deutsch said, referring to vandalism at a Jewish graveyard in Philadelphia on Feb. 26 and recent anti-Semitic activity elsewhere in the country.
This panel discussion featured Penn Newman Center General Director Adam Ureneck, Penn Hillel Senior Rabbi Ilana Schachter, former Director of the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives Malcolm Byrd and Muslim Student Association Chaplain Patricia Anton. Deutsch said these guests "have been outspoken about their commitment to poverty despite their different backgrounds.”
The panelists found common ground regarding the first question: How people can reconcile differences among religious views on poverty? Each discussed the importance of charity as a means to gain personal spiritual fulfillment.
Anton said that “generosity is ultimately a judgement of heart.” She went on to say that charity allows wealth to become permissible and even a blessing to someone.
The panel was also asked how abstract religious texts can be translated into concrete action to serve the poor. Their answers varied, suggesting political and individual action.
“We want to materially improve the conditions of indiviuduals,” Byrd said. To achieve this, he recommended both direct service like feeding the poor and more symbolic action like “advocating on Capitol Hill for justice and policies that are fair and sensitive.”
Ureneck continued this policy discussion. He pointed out that the poor are often left out of policy decisions and that in his Catholic faith he “acts as if a homeless person is there” when thinking about public policy. He suggested that the poor be given an opportunity to represent themselves.
“Walk past a homeless person, look at them in the eye and say hello,” Ureneck said, adding that he believes simple acts like these can also give humanity back to those in poverty.
Schachter brought up a metaphor that seemed to resonate with all the panelists. The metaphor compares the load a donkey carries to an individual bearing the weight of poverty. When a load falls off a donkey, it is nearly impossible to put it back in place. Likewise when a person falls into deep poverty, it becomes much harder to help them. The panelists agreed that action to combat poverty should focus on prevention for this reason.
After the panel, Penn Democrats President Rachel Pomerantz said she thought the discussion helped students think about how personal choices and government action affects poverty.
Schachter said she believes charity helps people strive toward spiritual wholeness.
“If we stop chasing after justice then we're not actually living our fullest lives as people of faith,” she said.
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