This post originally appeared as a guest column in the July 1, 2017 issue of Catholic Health World.
Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the largest homeless shelter in San Francisco.
As I ate lunch with some of the clients, they shared how dehumanizing it can feel to be homeless. “People avert their eyes when they see you on the street,” one gentleman told me. “You feel ostracized,” said another.
Yet all the individuals I met were as authentic and human as it gets. Spending time together was a powerful reminder that we are all connected and responsible for one another. One social worker at the shelter put it this way, “We are them, and they are us. We are all in this together.”
As Catholic health care providers, we are called to see the dignity in every person we encounter and remember that we are one human family. We do not have the option of averting our eyes to social injustice, and we must speak up for those who are ignored by society simply because they are not wealthy or influential.
In these uncertain times, it is our responsibility to build bridges through our faith and help everyone cross the chasm with us, making sure no one is left behind.
As Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics said in his book “Fully Alive,” we often make the wrong assumptions about who is strong and powerful and who is weak and vulnerable. Those who live in poverty or face serious disability or illness often have the most to show us about the true meaning of strength. By facing adversity with grace and gratitude, they demonstrate the incredible capacity of the human spirit. That is why, “We must be a voice for the voiceless and the healers of the breach,” Shriver said.
Undoing Medicaid is unacceptable
Today, speaking up for forgotten and marginalized populations is more important than ever. Think about the 22 million people who are in danger of losing access to health care if the current health care proposals becomes law.
Many of them are among the most vulnerable people in our communities, including children, low-income seniors, individuals with disabilities and hard-working Americans struggling to make ends meet. They do not necessarily represent an active voting block and are not the most vocal constituency.
So my question is, who speaks for them? It must be us.
Seven years ago, we thought we finally made health care a right in this country, not just a privilege. The Catholic Health Association, under the leadership of Sister Carol Keehan, was instrumental in passing the Affordable Care Act, the landmark legislation that expanded Medicaid and other essential benefits. Undoing the progress we’ve made is unacceptable, especially when it comes to the poor and vulnerable.
The mental health and addiction crisis
We shouldn’t be talking about going backward at a time when other critical issues need our immediate attention, including the growing mental health crisis and the alarming rates of opioid and other drug addictions in our country. We cannot forget about the one in five Americans who struggle with some form of mental illness or addiction, or the 23 veterans committing suicide each day.
In every community I’ve visited, mental health and substance abuse are identified as the most urgent local concerns. We cannot let this crisis persist, and we must a be voice for families and individuals who are struggling with these issues but have no where to turn for help.
We also cannot forget about those who come to this country seeking a better future. More than 1 million immigrants move to the United States legally each year to contribute to our society and give their families a better future. Another 11.4 million are undocumented, forced to live in the shadows. Our ministries must continue to be a sanctuary for them, and we must be vigilant about the dangers they face, such as discrimination and human trafficking.
Healing our planet
Our responsibility for one another extends beyond our borders. Climate change disproportionately affects some of the poorest nations on the globe. As operators of hospitals that produce emissions and waste, we must do everything we can to minimize our impact on the planet and function more sustainably. We must be a voice for Mother Nature and the developing nations most affected by a warming planet. As Pope Francis said so beautifully in his encyclical on climate change, “The cry of the earth is the cry of the poor.”
Serving the whole person
Lastly, we cannot forget about the role of faith in the healing process. What makes Catholic health care unique is that we carry out the healing ministry of Jesus by caring for the whole person -- mind, body and spirit. We support our patients' faith, whatever it may be, as an important part of their healing.
At a time when the world can feel like it’s in chaos, our faith will compel us to lead with compassion. It will also inspire us and give us the fortitude to never give up and never forget the most vulnerable among us.