“Put community above chaos”

“For all Americans who feel politically powerless, here is something you can support: We must put the poor above politics. We must put community above chaos. We must put self-giving above self-service.”
Sargent Shriver |South Bend, IN| February 7, 1968

Our Quote of the Week suggests that we can empower ourselves by focusing on something larger: service to our communities and to those more vulnerable than ourselves. By empowering others, we commit fully to our society and strengthen our own sense of citizenship.

In 1968, Sargent Shriver addressed a student assembly at the University of Notre Dame, where he spoke these words. At the time, he had been leading the War on Poverty as Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity for almost four years. He spoke of the “crisis” the country found itself in, with an escalating war in Vietnam and civil and political unrest at home. It was in this context that he made his call to service.

In his remarks, Shriver reflects that the most difficult challenge that people in poverty deal with is … us.

“We are the hardest thing the poor have. We are the cause of poverty. Because right now, poverty in the United States is a completely solvable problem. [...] We could simply give [people in poverty the] money needed to solve poverty. We have the money to provide a handout to every poor person and family in America. I’m not saying we should end poverty this way. In fact, I’ve always been against … a handout program. I’m using this [example] just to show that American poverty is not so huge a problem. [...] But most of us don’t want to give up the money. We want things to stay as they are; or better yet, we would like to receive a tax cut. We have tuition to pay. Our parents have mortgages to pay. And debts. Most of us think we’re broke. Well, we’re not. We’re rich. Compared to the rest of the people of the world …”

He also goes on to say:

“Money alone can’t destroy poverty. That’s why I have always opposed a handout program. We have something deeper than a dollar problem. We have a human problem.”

He then tells the story of how Peace Corps Volunteers made themselves useful in the Dominican Republic in 1965, to the point where, even when a civil war erupted, they were asked to remain where all other Americans were asked to leave the country. People in the barrios of Santo Domingo who had interacted with the Volunteers had voted unanimously for all of the Volunteers to remain. Shriver recalls that one Volunteer had said:

“‘The people liked us because we lived with them and knew them. A Dominican friend of mine put it this way, When we were hungry, you were hungry. When we walked in the mud, you walked in the mud.’”

Sargent Shriver’s words remind us that we have the financial resources to tackle poverty, and, when we want to, we have the compassion and emotional intelligence to tackle poverty. All we need is the will to do it. However “powerless” we may feel as we perceive crisis or uncertainty in the country, Shriver suggests that we use our energy and our time to serve those around us who have less power and privilege than we have. When we focus on a larger purpose and we use our skills and our time to empower others, we create a positive cycle that can only benefit all of us.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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