The Two Feet of Social Justice

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To walk forward, we place one foot in front of the other. The walk toward social justice in the world requires the same effort.

Two feet are needed for this movement: one is “Direct Service” and the other is “Social Change.” Both are needed to achieve justice, both are needed to stay balanced.

Direct Service addresses the needs of people here and now. When a person is suffering, when he or she is cold, hungry, or homeless, we cannot tell that person to wait. Sr. Mary Elizabeth, the founder of the Joseph House, once said, “If a man comes in and tells you he has no job and hasn’t eaten in two days, you don’t give an in-depth analysis of his socio-economic hang-ups. You give him a bag of groceries and a dollar if you have it. If you don’t have a dollar, you keep asking people you know until someone gives it to you.”

There are many ways we can directly serve the needs of the poor. Here are a few examples that call for our support:

  • food drives and food banks
  • community gardens
  • homeless shelters
  • weatherization projects
  • instruction on tenant rights
  • thrift shops
  • transportation for the sick and elderly
  • literacy programs
  • job skills training
  • youth programs
  • after-school care

Social Change involves changing structures and removing the causes of poverty and other social problems. This type of work seeks to educate people and bring them together. Its action must be non-violent; otherwise, there is the risk of replacing one oppressor with another.

Here are ways to work for social change:

  • read about and critically evaluate the issues
  • register to vote and then vote
  • through letter writing and boycotts, change corporate policies that hurt the poor
  • participate in peaceful protests to help give voice to the voiceless
  • write to legislators on behalf of the poor and marginalized
  • use public forums (letters to the editor, social media) to educate others about the needs of the poor and the reality they face

The goals of social justice are to reduce poverty, protect human rights, and promote peace. We can only make this journey using “both feet.” In all that we do, the advice of St. Paul will serve us well: “Conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)

The photograph shows the sandals that belonged to Sr. Mary Elizabeth. She left them pretty worn out in her work for justice.

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