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Soul Searching

Tom Saretsky


Poverty: the challenge to walk a day without shoes

Poverty isn’t restricted to a lack of material possessions. You can have all the money and possession in the world and still be poor. Poverty is emptiness and it has many differing faces. Sometimes the loneliest people in the world are those who have every advantage and luxury available to them. A marriage can be a place of poverty when a couple has fallen out of love and the home falls apart. War is a poverty of sorts. It isn’t simply a militaristic campaign or an absence of peace. War, too, has many faces — homelessness, mental illness, hunger — that’s war; that’s poverty.

In 1967 Pope Paul VI issued his social justice encyclical, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples). The encyclical can, essentially, be summarized in one sentence: “No one in the world should have two pairs of shoes until everyone in the world has one pair.”

This is not easy to live. It is a challenge that speaks directly to the many excesses we have in our lives. While millions of people don’t have the basic necessities for life, we have more than we need, and really, more than we could ever want.

Our Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops felt the same way when they organized the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P) 50 years ago. “Development,” they declared, “is the new word for peace.” This is why they responded to Pope Paul’s encyclical. They responded to the challenge and the call to work toward developing a more equitable, a more just and a more peaceful world.

What would it mean to take this challenge literally — to go barefoot until everyone in the world has one pair of shoes? Especially in our Canadian climate, living this would be next to impossible. We need shoes to protect us from the elements. We need shoes to protect us from disease and injury. We need our shoes for proper podiatric health.

We “need” our shoes to co-ordinate with our clothing. We “need” our shoes to display the latest fashion. We “need” our shoes because we like a certain colour and style. Shoes are a necessity, yet we also have the luxury of owning many pairs. 

There are people who could only dream of having one pair of shoes. In some developing nations children must walk for miles to find food, clean water and to seek medical attention. This is their reality, but it would be much easier to do this . . . if they only had one pair of shoes.

Millions of children do not attend school because they aren’t allowed to go barefoot . . . if they only had just one pair of shoes. In Ethiopia, for example, over one million people are suffering from disfiguring and debilitating foot disease caused by walking on volcanic soil. This disease is 100 per cent preventable by wearing shoes . . . if they only had one pair of shoes.

There is a worldwide movement called “One Day Without Shoes.” In my former high school I had a student who took the challenge, literally, and walked to school with no shoes on her feet. She went the entire day without any shoes because she had a burning desire to bring her friends and her school community to a greater awareness of those issues pertaining to world poverty, injustice, inequality, and wastefulness. 

Canadians of all religious beliefs have a responsibility to help the world’s poor and disadvantaged, either by urging governments, corporations and others to implement change, or by donating time or money to support development efforts.

I’m blessed to be a part of a school community that has a close partnership with Development and Peace — Holy Cross High School. Our school is truly a development and peace school through the history it has had with seeking ways to help people of all faiths in the Third World break the cycle of poverty through community-based, sustainable development initiatives. The funds generated through the passion, commitment and desire from both staff and students at Holy Cross have been sent abroad to support grassroots organizations run by people who know, first-hand, the issues facing the developing world.

There is a tremendous thirst for equality in the world today, especially among young people. They have a hunger for justice, as the cry for help gets louder each day.

There is much we can do if we educate ourselves to what is going on in the world. Perhaps we will better understand what we can do to help. Ours, for example, is not a reality to walk around barefoot in solidarity with those who have no shoes — although for one day that might not be such a bad idea. However, if we can’t walk around barefoot, perhaps we could walk around in another person’s shoes so we can better empathize with what others go through on a daily basis.

If we actually managed to walk around in another person’s shoes for even one day, we might discover how much we like the fit of our own shoes better.

Saretsky is a teacher and chaplain at Holy Cross High School in Saskatoon. He and his wife, Norma, have two children, Nathan and Jenna.