On Wednesday, the same day Pope Francis was in Washington, D.C., meeting with President Barack Obama and many American bishops, the World Meeting of Families was held in Philadelphia. Michael Gilhooly, assistant director of the Response to Love Center in Buffalo, attended one of the workshops held there, entitled "In the City: Concerns of the Urban Family," which addressed the concerns that plague many urban families whose members end up caught in a cycle of poverty and violence.
The World Meeting of Families and the papal visit were part of a huge, international event, with people from all over the world flocking in droves to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
"There are a lot of people. It's a very diverse crowd - people from all over the world are here, different colors, different languages. It's very electrifying. The whole city has turned out - there are posters everywhere, signs and billboards everywhere welcoming the pope," Gilhooly remarked. "The newscast last night, half of the newscast was about the pope's visit. This is the biggest event that's happened in the city."
The Response to Love Center, which offers food, material and spiritual support to many low-income families in the Diocese of Buffalo, sees the results of urban poverty every day. In Philadelphia, Gilhooly attended a breakout session where Rev. Terrence D. Griffith, pastor of the First African Baptist Church in Philadelphia, spoke about the challenges of urban families, who are often minorities.
Rev. Griffith, whose church is 205 years old and is the oldest African-American Baptist church in the state, spoke about how since crime rates are higher in urban areas, children experience and witness crime from very young ages, and therefore they see crime as an inescapable way of life. In many cases, people need to address and meet their most basic material needs before even considering spirituality.
Rev. Griffith touched on the fact that with homelessness, one cannot cultivate a family without their own home to live in. People's basic human needs have to be taken care of before their spiritual needs can be met, and the fear of crime, feeling alone, having no jobs and no money will often create a seeming justification to commit crime and enter the cycle of violence themselves. Poor health is also an issue.
Contributing factors include pollution because of traffic and a lack of healthy food that stores well due to the fact that healthy foods are more expensive than fast and processed foods. This results in poor diet and health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Since industrial contamination sites are also common in cities, this often results in clusters of areas with high cancer rates.
"(There are) no places to exercise, like safe parks; lack of supermarkets with fresh fruits and vegetables; poor housing stock - cold in the winter, plumbing not working, bad windows, lead poisoning, asbestos, no security, utilities being shut off - and even something just as simple as the aesthetics of decrepit housing foster a bad 'I don't care' attitude among kids," Gilhooly recalled of this presentation.
In urban settings, children often see drug houses and prostitution is a normal way of life, he added, and education is lacking, leading to teens dropping out of school and "propagating the cycle of poverty, generation after generation," Rev. Griffith said. Additionally, public transportation often does not provide a reliable means of transportation from cities into suburbs, where jobs are often concentrated. However, he emphasized moments of family life can still be found and religion has a place in bettering life.
"He closed by saying families need to attend church - not just the kids, but the entire family needs to worship and pray as a family. People need to understand their worth in Christ - once they do, they will demand what everyone deserves and improve the quality of their own lives," Gilhooly said.
According to Gilhooly, many families in inner cities experience things middle and upper-class families cannot even imagine, and as a result, people turn to security via gangs, alcohol and drugs, which Gilhooly said creates more of a reason for people to retreat to the comfort and safety of the Church.
"The devil convinces people to abandon God's ways with instant gratifications. They're all lies that separate us from God," Gilhooly said. "This separation from God causes hope to evaporate and a sense of having to fall into the bad habits, finding false idols and not caring about each other, even so far as our own family: our wife, our children. This can result in a person's family becoming a burden instead of a blessing."
The culture of death has become part and parcel of this way of thinking, Gilhooly noted, and the unique challenges of urban life can result in a self-centered way of thinking. This does not mean there are not both good and godly families in the urban setting, but it takes strong faith and dedication to overcome the plight of urban families, which in many cases has continued for generations without ceasing.
In order to find hope and break out of the cycle of poverty, it is possible to bond as a family and find a sense of hope, even when things are hopeless, he added, and community programs such as the Response to Love Center offer material support and food so it is more likely for people to have a better quality of life, have access to nutritious food and consider the possibility of thinking about family life.
"Family is God's way - not necessarily blood family, but the family unit and love as family," Gilhooly said. "Our mission at the Response to Love Center is a community family. Our souls search for the family God intended. The urban family has been broken by circumstance: poverty, violence, addictions, evil, the absence of God and God's ways. People need a quiet and secure place to retreat to from the turmoil.