One of the sad features of being poor in this country is that the poor are too often cut off from the "social capital" of relatives and friends who could serve to support them in many ways. Conversely, economically poor immigrant communities often do well because in spite of their lack of resources, the social capital of the community enables people to live decently and advance economically.
One example: child care. A single parent with nearby relatives and friends can get help caring for children when an unforeseen demand calls the parent away from the children. Since one feature of being poor is being at the mercy of impersonal bureaucracies which make unpredictable demands at inconvenient times, this is an important benefit, and can make the difference between a stable home for children and a chaotic and even dangerous environment for them. The chaos then contributes to future instability and psychological disabilities.
Once in a class I asked a student who had described herself as having been poor what it was like to be poor. She replied, "You move a lot." Moving a lot cuts social ties.
The economically poor are one of the most unchurched populations in our society. This is probably the result both of the "moving a lot" and of the social stigma of poverty that makes people reluctant to associate with judgmental religious people who they think will blame them for their poverty.
A church is a group of people who are involved with each other on the basis of religious beliefs and practices. If the church is based on the Christian Gospel, the involvement of the members will be loving--it will be characterized by passion, respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness. Such involvement models love for children as they grow up, which is probably why many new parents gravitate to churches when they are beginning to raise their own children. As they become involved in a faith community, they strengthen the social ties that provide them with social capital. The involvement has economic consequences.
But religious belief and moral custom need to be reinforced by physical realities. We are physical creatures, who enflesh our beliefs and customs in actions that are physically observable. In other words, we go to church, and we do things when we are in church.
What we do in church is greatly helped by a tradition that has people before us doing those things. When our parents have gone to church and sat and stood and knelt and sang and walked forward to receive Communion, it is easier for us to follow the same scripts. As we follow those scripts, hopefully we experience the same emotions that our parents experienced, and this shared experience cements our ties to the community.
But this cement has to be reinforced by social ties outside the church building. Here is where the U.S. Catholic community discovered that a parochial school can create social capital. The parents of children in a parochial school have to become involved with each other because they have to raise money to support the school. The bishops who mandated, back in 1884, that each parish should have a school, thought they were preserving their children from the Protestant culture of public schools, but what they did had the serendipitous result of making the entire parish community more involved with each other.
I don't want to minimize the down side of a strong religious culture. Too often parochial schools have served to amplify racial segregation and ethnic tensions. But all human institutions are sinful, and need redemption. We must always be critical of the institutions we create, and be open to correcting their deficiencies.
What we do in church can help or hinder loving involvement in a church community. What we do in church buildings we call "liturgy."
When I think of good liturgy, I think of a saying of a famous psychologist of an earlier generation, Erik Erikson. He was describing the behavior of a mother with her child, but his words fit a church community perfectly. What we do in church should be familiar enough not to be frightening, and innovative enough not to be boring. Liturgy should be familiar enough not to be frightening, and innovative enough not to be boring.
In a Catholic context, this means that liturgy should be based in authentic communal beliefs and customs--it should be familiar, but it should allow for modifications pleasing to the community--it should be innovative. If the community is African American, the community should find comfort in symbols that are familiar in that community. Thus parishes portray Jesus as Black, and feature the colors of Black liberation in their decorations. The music is based in Black cultural tradition--Gospel music as an example. A priest friend of mine pastoring in a Native American community described the "use of the drum" as a liturgical instrument because that instrument was important and traditional in his community. This same pastor demonstrated for us the burning of "sweet grass" as part of a parish ritual.
As I help out in parishes on weekends, I find some communities that are vital and thriving, the Masses filled with parents and children. Some of these parishes are pastored by priests from other countries such as India or Nigeria, but the communities continue to thrive. People in such churches strike me as comfortable in church. The church is not an alien place. It is home, their home. They own it.
One such parish had a pastor from India. A group of parishioners even visited his home in India with him. Church members in India made a set of vestments for use in his church here, complete with hangings for the altar and tabernacle pedestal.