Minding the Gap

By Danielle Kurtzleben ’05 and Jan Senn

As America’s poverty rate rises and the gap widens between the rich and poor, what is our moral obligation as citizens of this country? We asked Carls how their various religious beliefs inform their personal responses to income disparity.

America is getting poorer. According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans—nearly one in six—live in poverty. And 2.6 million of them slipped below the poverty line in 2010. That is the largest increase we’ve seen since the U.S. government began calculating poverty figures in 1959. America now has the highest poverty rate

(15.1 percent as of 2010) of any major industrialized nation, and many experts believe it could get worse. Median household income (adjusted for inflation) has declined to 1996 levels. The last time the concentration of wealth in the upper 1 percent of the country was as high as it is now was 1929.

As people take to the streets in protest, Americans look at the sobering statistics with growing frustration—and even fear. Despite the poverty figures, political leaders are pressing ahead with cuts to federal programs. And for the first time in 15 years of being surveyed on the question by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans oppose more government spending to help the poor. At a time when government seems unable to provide answers, the questions grow more personal: What is the compassionate response when many of us have less discretionary income? How do we decide whom to help and in what way? Where do we find hope and a moral compass? Every faith tradition has teachings on wealth and poverty, so we asked Carls of various faiths to fill us in on how they grapple with these questions.

Ajahn Chandako ’84 (neé James LaBresh Reynolds)
Abbot of Vimutti Buddhist Monastery; Auckland, New Zealand

It is very American to frame a spiritual discussion around how much money people have or do not have. From the Buddhist perspective, less is more: fewer burdens, more happiness. There is no external reason why people cannot be happy living with less. I have been a forest monk now for 22 years, and it has prepared me well for an economic crisis. Forest monks eat one meal a day, sleep on the floor, have one set of clothes, live in tiny huts, and have no personal funds. We are trained to be content with little. The only problem with people having less money is a craving to have more, a memory of having more, or an assumption that it is their right to have more. Wealth lies not in the amount we gain, but in the reduction of our desires.

I think it might be a somewhat painful but beneficial adjustment for Americans to learn to live more simply, more frugally, while developing a greater appreciation for the preciousness of resources. Change itself can be painful, and maybe the system needs a change. When the attitude shifts from ‘what I want’ to awareness of suffering, expressions of compassion flow naturally. Economic depression can then be viewed as a wake-up call to get realistic about the unreliability of the material world and to see that happiness and freedom are qualities that are mainly independent of how much money one has.

Mark S. Diamond ’76
Rabbi and Executive Vice President,
Board of Rabbis of Southern California,
Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

As a society, we are judged by how we care for the disenfranchised in our midst. The Torah’s oft-repeated exhortation to uplift the stranger, orphan, and widow is a call to action on behalf of those in need. We are told to perform these mitzvot (commandments) because our ancestors were strangers in the land of Egypt. 

Jewish tradition teaches that there is no shame in accumulating wealth. However, our Creator, faith tradition, and community expect us to share our resources through tzedakah (righteous philanthropy) and gemilut hasadim (acts of love and kindness).

We must honor and respect the dignity of the recipients of our charitable endeavors. During the height of the Argentine financial meltdown, I brought a delegation from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires. There we heard the story of a prominent businessman who was a leader of the Jewish community but lost his job and his savings in the crisis. When he appeared at a soup kitchen run by the Roman Catholic Church, the priest asked why he had come to the church for assistance. He explained that he was too ashamed to stand in line at the synagogue, where his friends and neighbors would know what had befallen him.

In the current economic crisis in the United States, we witness a similar phenomenon—middle-class and upper middle-class individuals have lost their jobs and fallen on hard times. Meanwhile, the daily struggles of the poor to acquire food, clothing, shelter, and health care intensify. It is our sacred obligation to help them, and to do so with generosity, dignity, and compassion.

When your own resources are limited, help others with your heart, mind, and hands. Serve meals at a soup kitchen. Tutor a child struggling to learn how to read. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Mentor someone looking for a job. There are myriad ways to demonstrate compassion that utilize your time and talent, but not necessarily your wallet.


Joe Chrastil ’78
Lead organizer at IAF Northwest (Industrial Areas Foundation, a national community organizing network); Seattle

The real struggle is learning how to be in partnership with people, rather than just doing something for them. It’s the idea of teaching people to fish instead of just giving them a fish. How do we partner with people, not patronize them?

We should act collectively, because we’re more effective that way. Get involved in the decisions being made in the public arena that structurally affect issues related to inequity.

Over the years, I’ve become more clear about both the challenge and the need for people to act corporately instead of individually. I used to think that it was enough for the church to be a place where people got renewed and then went out to act on their own. Now I believe that our society needs religious communities that will take up the responsibility of helping citizens become engaged in public life after a careful examination of their values, what those values mean, and how they translate into public policy and public action.

Faisal Mohyuddin ’00
English teacher, Highland Park High School; Highland Park, Illinois

Zakat is the pillar of Islam in which you give 2.5 percent of whatever income you don’t need for your daily expenses to the poor. Islamic tradition teaches that you start with your family, whether it’s immediate family or extended family, and then you look out for your friends and neighbors, and after that you look beyond your community.

We have family back in Pakistan—a third world country with a lot of poverty, a lack of medical care, and a poor job market. My mom tells me she feels overwhelmed by the needs in Pakistan. A hundred dollars might not do a lot here, but it goes a long way over there. So she’ll send an extra hundred dollars over there to help out in the short term.

Recently, however, I’ve focused my giving on my local community in the Chicago suburbs. There’s a lot of poverty here, too. People who have lost their jobs are struggling. That’s part of today’s economic reality.

Presidential Seal

“We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure. . . . We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, January 11, 1944
State of the Union speech, sometimes referred to as the “Second Bill of Rights”

Anne E. Patrick
William H. Laird Professor of Religion and the Liberal Arts, Emerita;
Silver Spring, Maryland

I believe that great differences in people’s material circumstances cannot be what God wants. The question for me always has been: What can I do about this?

Half a century ago I joined a Catholic religious community, choosing a life of voluntary poverty with the Sisters of the Holy Names, whose ministries are undertaken with a special concern for the materially poor and disadvantaged. The community provides for my basic needs, and my earnings help subsidize ministries of direct service to those who suffer from injustice, as well as ministries aimed at changing unjust systems. But I don’t feel this basic commitment lets me off the hook. So I do the small things I can with my limited expense allowance, such as purchasing fair-trade products, tipping service workers generously, and paying dues to Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded 40 years ago by nuns in the United States.

In addition, much of my writing involves an effort to awaken Catholics to their obligation to respond to the cries of suffering neighbors. My recent book, Women, Conscience, and the Creative Process, opens with the story of Jacqueline Novogratz, who started the Acumen Fund, a venture capital fund to effect real change in the lives of the poor. Novogratz believes that we need to develop our moral imaginations so that we can put ourselves into someone else’s shoes and act accordingly.

I also remind my readers of the passage about the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew (25:35–36) in which the identification of Christ with the neighbor in need is made clear: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” In our time, I believe that direct service is still needed, but creative efforts to change the unjust systems that cause suffering are even more important.

When I was teaching religion at Carleton, I shared with my students that the tradition I taught had positions on social justice beyond certain well-known dogmas and moral teachings. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for instance, states succinctly: “The equal dignity of human persons requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities. It gives urgency to the elimination of sinful inequalities.” 

The unequal distribution of access to health care has been a personal issue for me ever since I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in late 2002, and it is both humbling and upsetting to know that without the state-of-the-art treatments available to me as a well-insured citizen, I would not likely have lived this long. I am now in my fifth year of intensive and expensive chemotherapy.

I know I am no more deserving of these excellent treatments than any other person with cancer. This makes me want to do all I can to see that everyone who is suffering from conditions like mine has access to similar care. Thus I am an ardent supporter of the Affordable Care Act, which I would like to see made even stronger in the direction of justice for all.

Mouhamadou Diagne ’12
(New York) Student chaplain associate

I was born in Senegal, West Africa, which is 90 percent Muslim. Everyone in my family is Muslim, but my own religious convictions didn’t develop until I came to Carleton. I needed something to remind me of my overall purpose in life. Here I owned my faith, practiced it, and strengthened it.

One of the five pillars of Islam is zakat, which means giving a certain percentage of your money to the poor. It can be financial, if you have the resources, but sometimes even just smiling at someone can be a form of charity. Whenever there’s an opportunity on campus to donate the [monetary] equivalent of a meal, I sign up for it. I gave money recently to a charitable organization that works with famine victims in Africa. I have spent a couple summers working for nonprofits that provide aid to under-resourced communities. One summer I taught English at a government-run vocational school in Ecuador, mostly to young professionals in their 20s and 30s. It was my first time teaching and things didn’t always go smoothly, but I did what I could.

Islam stresses that we should lead by example. I try to be the best Muslim, the best human, that I can be. I’m always trying to think about the other, the oppressed, and the marginalized. That comes in large part from my faith, but it also makes me feel good. We all have a choice either to sit back because something doesn’t affect us personally or to get involved. As long as there’s oppression anywhere in the world, no one is free.


Rebecca Herst ’06
Outreach and Engagement Programs Coordinator; Temple Israel; Boston

After Carleton, I moved to Boston and participated in the Jewish Organizing Fellowship (JOF), a training program for Jews in their 20s. Each Friday we met to learn community organizing skills and explore the connections between Judaism and social justice. During the week we worked in unions, community development corporations, and other nonprofits. JOF changed my life. I began to feel like a whole person. I was no longer living on two parallel tracks: activist vs. Jew.

I came to understand that the experiences I had around class and race while I was growing up fueled my commitment to work for justice. At the same time, my experiences in a strong supportive Jewish community gave me hope for a better society.

I learned that Judaism has a lot to say about justice. On Passover, we remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and that we must not let ourselves get complacent and forget the chains of bondage. On Yom Kippur, the Prophet Isaiah admonishes that we are not fasting as a ritual but as a reminder of what it means to be hungry. During Sukkot we are commanded to live in temporary shelters to remember what it was like when we were wandering in the desert. Our tradition reminds us what it feels like to be in need; it tells us to have compassion and work for justice.

Currently I’m working as a community organizer at a synagogue, focusing on how we can address the rising cost of health care. In 2006, because of community organizing, the Massachusetts legislature passed landmark legislation that became a blueprint for national healthcare reform, and we’re trying to take it a step further. What would it mean for our system to be a true health care system rather than a sick care system?

The synagogue where I work is a member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which is a group of about 45 congregations that are thinking strategically about how we can work together to improve the quality of life for our communities. We have meetings where 10 to 15 people from our congregations come together and talk about issues that concern them. In doing so, we hear stories from our neighbors and friends that they may not have shared otherwise. In the larger group, we identify common themes, and from those themes we figure out priorities for policy change.

Community organizing not only results in more justice in the world, it also leads to a deeper congregational community. I’m able to develop relationships with people and to see their humanity. And that feels like sacred work to me.


  • April 1 2012 at 10:22 pm
    Sister Rose Theresa

    I too am a Sister of the Holy Names.  I am 93 years old and thrilled to hear these beautiful testimonies of so many different faith groups of God's work being done for His much-loved poor and disadvantaged. I ask His special blessing and wisdom on each such effort especially toward legislative solutions. Everyone can help. I am 93 and can and do my little at a Center for doing just such acts and at a newspaper which shares the good news of all the good people and works that are done in our area.

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