In high school I was told a story that some of you may have heard before. The story was about a town on a river, and a man who, while sitting on the bank one morning, saw a baby floating along with the current. He immediately dove in, grabbed the baby, and brought it to safety.
The next day there were two babies, and then three. When the man realized what was happening, he organized the people in the town to form a rescue effort. They got up every morning to swim back and forth, rescuing as many babies as they could.
Many of these children were saved from the river, given medical care, and placed in loving homes. But many more of them drowned. It took a very long time before a woman in the rescue effort asked, “Why don’t we go up the river and investigate? Maybe if we find out why the town up there is sending all these babies, we could put a stop to it.” But the other people shut her down. They pointed at the babies floating on the river and said, “if we go to the next town, who will be left to save them?”
This story is meant to illustrate the “two feet” of social action, charity and justice. It is vital that we address the immediate needs of our brothers and sisters who are hurting. But we also need to look at what is causing them to hurt, and try to prevent the injustice from happening in the first place.
For instance, we can and should donate to food pantries; but we can also advocate for fair wages, so that people who work full-time don’t need to rely on food pantries. We can pray and attend protests for an end to abortion; but we can also sponsor pregnancy resource centers, so that fewer women feel compelled to have an abortion. We can sponsor a refugee family; but we can also educate people about the circumstances that refugees face, so that our society is more willing to allow them into this country.
Right now, most of what we’re able to do is charity; creating widespread social change takes a lot more time and effort than providing immediate relief. This is doubly true if you’re not old enough to vote. And that’s okay – remember, charity is important! But one thing that all of us can do is look into organizations that educate and organize, like Catholic Relief Services. While CRS puts a lot of effort into immediate relief, they also do things like provide farming supplies and support small businesses in developing countries, so that communities will be less dependent on them in the future.
Let us pray that while we continue to give with charity, we also push for justice that lessens the need for it.