Who Is Responsible For The Poor?

America Magazine | June 8, 1964

So it is time, as it has always been time, for us to lower our shields, and to see the sacrament awaiting us beyond the altar rail, outside the campus gates. It is this mission to which we are sent, when we leave the chapel that stands at the heart of this campus. "lte missa est" does not mean our trivial translation, "It is finished, you can go." It means, instead, "Go and fulfill your mission."

These remarks were prepared for but never delivered at the Georgetown University commencement exercises on June 8, 1964. Just as Mr. Shriver started to talk, a heavy thunderstorm intervened. Excerpts from the talk were published in America Magazine, with whose permission they are reprinted here.

Soon three thousand of our first Peace Corps Volunteers will be home. They have learned about the world, not in an abstract way, not in books, but in service-in service of the poor; the poor in education, the poor in health, the poor in spirit. They have learned how to serve. They have learned responsibility. They are coming home feeling responsible for their own country. They now feel responsible for poverty in America. But why should they? Why should you? Why should I? Who is really responsible for the poor?

Is Georgetown University responsible, even for the poor of the nation’s capital, the community in which the university was born and has grown to international eminence? Its primary responsibility is surely to its students and to the educational process. Our academic gowns remind us of the high educational purposes of the university. Is it fair to ask it to distract itself from these purposes?

Is this faculty responsible for the poor? Surely, the task of educating young men and women should be practically all- consuming. Are the students of this university responsible? What time do they have to spare when they should devote themselves fully to their studies, to the academic excellence this nation needs and this school must require?

How responsible for the poor can you be while embarking on commendable pursuits and professions? A lawyer's first responsibility is to his client. A doctor's is to his patient. A businessman's duty is to make profits for his stockholders, his partners, his family. So, then, who is responsible for the poor?

That leaves only the poor themselves. But they can't all be responsible for their poverty. One-third of today's poor are children. Can anyone claim they got to be poor because they are lazy, shiftless, drunken, or profligate? They were born poor. And most of their parents were born into poverty. You will find millions of American children who are the third or fourth generation of poverty in their families. We cannot hold these children responsible.

Many of the poor are Negroes. They are born with a legacy worse than just poverty. They are born with the mark of slavery and discrimination, with skin that for five generations has shut doors to them. A Negro cannot be held responsible for the color that God gave him.

You can point to me and say, “President Johnson made you responsible." But that makes me feel like Mrs. Astor on the sinking ship Titanic. As the iceberg crashed through the ships walls, she said, "I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous."

Poverty is like an iceberg. Although submerged, cold, and impersonal, it can crash into our lives. When a professor is attacked on a city street, when a gang holds up a subway car, when a bystander is killed in a riot, when little girls are bombed in a church, we suddenly feel one cutting edge of poverty.

Poverty is like an iceberg because it chills us, it freezes our hearts, it makes us cold and impersonal. It is so frightening that we turn our eyes away from the human constituents of poverty, the people who are drowning in the sea of poverty-the men without jobs, the mothers without a man, or money, the children on the streets. These are the ones who feel the sharpest edge of poverty.

The worst news story of the year was about the murder of a woman in New York who could have been saved by onlookers. But not one of thirty-eight witnesses carne to her aid, not one raised a hand, not one even uttered a cry or called the police until it was all over. No one was ready to go out into the night! No one felt responsible! When we reach this pit, this bottom, there can be no way but up. This kind of irresponsibility is the great pitfall of our complex, modem civilization.

The way up is not easy. But if any graduating class should know it, if any university should teach it, it should be here. For among the books you read, among the words you ponder, are some ancient ones: "For what is a man profited, if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

For what will it profit you or me if we reach the height of our professions, and we find ourselves indifferent and our lives narrow? For what will it profit this university if, after all its good education, it graduates its students into irresponsibility?

I wonder what kind of education the Good Samaritan had. I suspect that those who passed by that miserable man who had been .thrown among robbers probably had college degrees. Certainly they were busy with their professions-too busy to take responsibility for someone who was dirty, half naked, and half dead.

We all raise shields against the poor. Then we say that poverty is invisible. What President Johnson is asking us to do is very simple, but very hard: he is asking us to lower these shields. He is confident that once we see what needs to be done, we will do it. The President's task force on the War Against Poverty is going to do its part. Are you going to do your part? Are you who are graduating today going to graduate into responsibility? Are you who stay on to study and to teach in the years to come going to practice responsibility right here at Georgetown? Or are you going to turn your back on the hungry and the poor and the strangers on our streets here in Washington?

If you on the faculty tell your students that their only responsibility is to their academic studies, if you tell them to think: of themselves solely as students, then you are laying the pattern for a lifetime of irresponsibility.If today students are taught to use their books as shields, tomorrow they will find their professions or their family obligations just as effective shields. That is what I mean by graduating students into irresponsibility.

You might say that I am wrong here, that the student of today will join the Peace Corps tomorrow. I hope so, for that is one way to put down your shields and serve your fellow man, full time, for a short period of your life. And when you come back home, you could join the War on Poverty.

But do we need this period of service abroad to learn how to serve at home? If we do, then we are in real trouble. Because the Peace Corps barely scratches the surface of our needs. Soon there will be ten thousand Peace Corps Volunteers. But there are half a million college graduates this year alone. There are over two million college and university students in our land. If ten thousand are to learn responsibility in the Peace Corps. and two million are to practice the irresponsibility of their specializations, then we are in deep trouble. If we don't commit ourselves to waging the War on Poverty, if you in our universities and student bodies and faculties don't commit yourselves to this, then the iceberg of poverty is going to bring real havoc to our cities, to our backdoors, yes, even to this university campus.

You of Georgetown have already taken a significant step in his direction. That is, three hundred of your students and faculty members have started on the road to responsibility. They volunteered to give their time, to give some time each week, to serve in twenty-four different social action projects in this city.

From an office under the staircase in Healey lobby, they go out to work in slum neighborhoods and schools. They go out to work with the children of the slums-those behind in school and those out of school and out of work. They do special tutoring, organize sports programs, assist in community organizations, serve in understaffed hospitals and settlement houses. They work Saturdays, on weekday afternoons, and throughout the summer vacation. They are learning the hard way, but the real way, who the poor are, and what poverty means. For them statistics take on faces. The sixty thousand faceless, functional illiterates of Washington have become people to them boys and girls they are teaching to read. Poverty for them has become something personal.

Is this all a distraction from their true work as students? Far from subverting the educational process, this program is helping to fulfill it. In accepting responsibility for poverty, and for the great social problems of our national life, these three hundred Georgetown volunteers are pointing the way to a new frontier in American education: the Frontier of Service.

By serving in this way these men and women will not only be better Americans; they will be better doctors, better lawyers, better businessmen, better Foreign Service officers. The very nature of a profession is service. But when do students learn this most essential part? Medical students are too busy with intensive studies in medical school. A course in professional legal responsibility is usually offered in the law school curriculum, but not required. But what can be conveyed there about a lawyer's or a doctor's duty to the poor compared with what these Georgetown volunteers are experiencing? These volunteers are learning the compassion without which no profession or person is complete, the compassion that keeps us from bypassing the poor.

Take Jules Clavadetcher, a Georgetown student who all this year worked five hours a week at All Souls· Unitarian Church with some hostile and potentially delinquent Negro children. So marked was the good effect upon the children that the Jewish women’s organization of B`nai B'rith awarded this Catholic student its yearly citation for enlightened civic action for youth. Jules learned a lot about the problems of race and poverty. Maybe he learned something about the Ecumenical movement, too.

The chairman of your own Philosophy Department, Dr. Jesse Mann, tells me, "I would much rather have students in my class of Philosophy 104 learning about the philosophy of man by working with underprivileged Negro children of this city than merely by reading dusty volumes in Riggs Library."

So these students who are passing up a beer party or a dance or a lazy Saturday afternoon in favor of this work are not subverting Georgetown. This program of university service is rather the extension of education, the broadening of education, the deepening of education which we must have if we are to find our way through the web of modem technology, through our technical specialties into our full responsibilities as human beings.

Fortunately, the needs of American education and the needs of our War on Poverty meet at this point. For what you have begun here is what we must launch on a vast scale, if we are to win the War on Poverty.

All of American higher education should respond, but there is a special call to all those colleges and universities which like Georgetown stand in the shadow of the Cross. For this war against poverty is America's Holy War. And if you fail to respond, you will deeply wrong yourselves, your country and your faith.

In our great sacraments, we see the love of God for man.

Because His word became flesh, we vow to try to make the word become flesh in our own inadequate lives. There is another "sacrament" that can help us learn how to do this, a "sacrament" that can give us the strength to keep on trying to do it. It is the "Sacrament of Service to Man-in-Need."

Christ considered this so important that He made our final judgment turn, not on the number of prayers we say, but on whether or not we are too busy to help Him when He comes to us in the garments of the poor. "I was hungry, and you gave me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in ... as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me."

So it is time, as it has always been time, for us to lower our shields, and to see the sacrament awaiting us beyond the altar rail, outside the campus gates. It is this mission to which we are sent, when we leave the chapel that stands at the heart of this campus. "lte missa est" does not mean our trivial translation, "It is finished, you can go." It means, instead, "Go and fulfill your mission."