Br. Yoshiba Hiroaki, SJ


Organizing Assistance to the Poor

A year has passed since the Social Committee of the Catholic Bishops' Conference made a special appeal. The Committee, stressing the need to confront the situation of the unemployed and the high number of suicides, issued an urgent call to the Japanese Church to further cooperation with other organizations assisting the poor and to take action in order to meet new needs.

Despite this public appeal, action taken by Japanese Catholics has not come up to expectations. St Ignatius Church is no exception and, although there are some pioneer action groups, the general attitude is one of hesitation, often fearing the risks involved in getting committed. Some will complain: "If homeless people start gathering here, won't sanitary problems arise? Won't some parishioners criticize such activities? Homeless people will start lying and cheating us. Once they get their food, won't they loiter around the Church and behave improperly? Isn't providing them with food merely a way to encourage laziness?"

Through the initiative of the pastor of the parish a special group called "Appeal Committee" was established to answer the official appeal of the Bishops and to search for ways to answer the needs of poor people. This initiative became a unique move, determined to look for new ways of approaching people in disadvantaged situations, and not merely to worry about the possible risks involved in taking action. Special efforts were required not only to address parishioners who were already doing things for the poor, but also to urge participation by the apathetic as well as by the foreign communities attending Mass in the parish.

The 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus chose "working together" as one of its main themes. In fact, Jesuit members of the parish Appeal Committee had the opportunity to learn many things from non-Jesuit participants.

In less than a year the Committee took up the following tasks: (1) Campaigning to raise funds for activities with the poor. (2) Directing activities for the poor, like helping with the distribution of food already provided at the church, a Christmas party with poor people, establishing a consultation office for them, haircut services and collecting rice to supply food for them. (3) Initiating educational programs to deal with issues concerning the poor and the trend to suicide.

The Appeal Committee, aware that nowadays offices assisting poor people are filled with people seeking advice, decided to establish a consultation office at the church and recommended coordinating and supporting such work. I was sent last April to St Ignatius Church to help staff the new consultation office because of my training in social welfare. In fact, the steering committee of the church has been very sympathetic to the establishment of such a new office.

The Inauguration of the Public Assistance Office and its Activities

The new office started operating in September last year. Its official name is "St Ignatius Public Assistance Office." This name brings to mind St Ignatius, himself a pilgrim, who became deeply involved with those who in his days were discriminated against by society. The staff consists of six volunteers, three of whom have degrees in mental health and human services as well as in social welfare. In this way our specialization in social welfare is guaranteed.

Formerly the Office concentrated on supporting applications for public social security. But we soon realized that public welfare offices, all too intentionally, did not provide suitable information to help fill out the application forms properly and at other times made things very difficult in order to discourage people from applying for public welfare.

One day I accompanied a homeless person to a public welfare office and the official in charge strongly advised the homeless to go immediately to the government office near his residence to apply for the fixed amount of monetary relief that was due to expire that same day. It was all a mere lie, but cheating the powerless with dreams of easy money is quite common.

In order to protect the rights of poor people, it is very important to accompany them to public offices. The officials change their attitude when they face knowledgeable persons that support powerless people.

To tell the truth, we never thought that the new office established at the church would be such a popular spot for consultation. Nevertheless, to our surprise and in spite of the few people who came at the beginning, the number of people looking for advice increased so notably that in 3 months we had more than 50 persons calling on us.

About 70% of them belonged to the group coming to the church on Mondays for their weekly supply of food. The rest were people with some connection with the church or those who visited the parish's main office convinced that they would be welcomed there. In addition, there were also people who learned about us through the Web.


People Socially Rejected


Things I have learned at the New Bureau

As a result of the consultations, our staff immediately realized that people cannot recover their human dignity merely by applying for public assistance. I previously worked as a volunteer in another organization and somehow experienced the same thing there, but this time it beggared my understanding.

First of all, the social system continually rejects powerless people. Sick and disabled persons, foreigners, and those without much education fall into situations of poverty in ways difficult to understand. It was clear to me that unskilled people, unable to sell any talents, confront inhuman situations of survival.

Many among the homeless are cheated or have to bear debts incurred by other people. Sick or disabled persons or those who have experienced rejection tend to become overly dependent and sensitive towards others. They then display very weak attitudes and refer to imaginary debts in order to attract pity.

Many suffering from mental illness become poor and, concomitantly, their situation of poverty makes their mental illness practically incurable. Mental problems often occasion discouragement in people and when such a situation continues, they start assaulting themselves to the point of trying to commit suicide. Their view of life remains narrow, as if everything is against them and there is no possible salvation. The result is that they despair and lose the courage to react positively. Many remain in that state, and it becomes impossible to open them up to any future.

Yuasa Makoto, of the organization "Moyai," uses the concept "Tame" to symbolize that situation. Poverty is not only economic deprivation. It implies a situation where people have been deprived of their latent abilities. Yuasa explains that, besides being deprived of education as well as of industrial, family and public welfare services, they have been socially marginalized in such a way that they are no longer able to protect their own dignity or even to realize how important that loss is to them.

It can surely be said that they are heavily influenced by their social exclusion. There is practically no meaning in criticizing a person's lack of eagerness to do anything when that person is subjected to such exclusion.

We tend to connect mental problems with job loss, suicide, frustration, too much talkativeness, etc., but persons manifesting these symptoms often blame themselves, believing it is all their own fault.

Normally, people who find themselves in such situations tend to solve their problems by talking to friends or family members, and when they are not able to find immediate solutions, they at least try to cope with their problems by laughing them off. But poor people are often totally isolated. They have, maybe at most, one or two persons they can talk to, but usually there is no one around who can be trusted and they cannot overcome their mental worries.

Miyamoto Taro of Hokkaido University affirms in his book Life Security (Iwanami Shinsho, 2009) that modern poverty is the result of losing places for survival. His view is that people receive recognition and consideration from those living around them and that, by trying to imitate others they find meaning in their ordinary life. Nevertheless, job fluidity, family and community have lost the important role they should play in people's lives, and all social relationships become closed off to them. Society has become individualistic. As a result, there is greater freedom, but when people cannot earn any income because they are rejected from job opportunities, they can only survive by clinging to something and thus lose their autonomy. Here human relationships, not patriotism, Miyamoto explains, are essential for preserving human dignity.

I feel that individual welfare assistance is not enough. Public welfare personnel instruct people with mental problems to go look for jobs in public offices, without any knowledge of their concrete situations, and they fail to realize that these people are in difficulty because of their disabilities. The result is that they do not get any assistance and in many instances are robbed of opportunities to receive help. One often hears abusive language and fantastic stories in public welfare offices. The officials make deceptive monetary offers, as explained above, and when we accompany poor people to these offices, we ourselves sometimes encounter sarcastic remarks, like "Bringing the homeless here may make you feel good, but you’re disturbing our work." In fact, this is a sign of their own lack of confidence in their job.

This is not meant to accuse welfare offices or their personnel of laziness. It is rather meant to point to the stark realities faced by the staff, such as their lack of technical training or their lack of sufficient personnel to assist with such consultations. I feel it is important to come up with suitable forms of cooperation in order to build up a healthier society.

A Vision for Future Action

At our consultation bureau we are convinced that, besides welfare assistance, spiritual support is also needed. At present we are doing our best either to pay home visits to the persons consulting us or to meet with them at the church in order to know their situation.

Mr. Miyamoto stresses that, although knowing the place where people live plays a very important role in giving them recognition and consideration, many poor people lack such a place. His analysis has given direction to our work. In the future we shall have to set up a meeting place where those who do not have anything to do and those who suffer from despair can come to us and receive help for their worries. In fact, the friendly atmosphere of our office serves as an oasis for those who come with their worries as well as for our staff.


A Challenge for the Church: Aiming at Social Commitment and Rehabilitation


One homeless person told a volunteer at our Christmas Party with the homeless: "I liked very much the present and the food, but it meant more to me to be allowed to enter that big church building." Since the volunteer had been more interested in knowing how satisfied the homeless were with the Christmas presents and the delicious food, she felt some disappointment. Most probably that homeless person, realizing he was welcome in the church building which he had thought he was off limits to him, felt he was considered important. This attitude symbolizes an expression I consider very important, "the preservation of human dignity."

Our societies, by enforcing divisions to make work more efficient, make it easy to accomplish certain tasks, and by lifting up some kinds of people from the lowest social strata are able to protect them, but, as a result, other people are rejected. Globalization has accelerated this trend. The 35th General Congregation noticed that the Jesuit tradition is to build bridges at the front lines. St Ignatius and his companions made special efforts for reconciling enemies.

Food distribution in our parish neither raised sanitary problems, as some people had feared, nor resulted in making some parishioners leave the church. These claims simply arose from a distrust of the homeless. Though we feel our own limitations in confronting the suffering of persons living difficult lives, we do our best to help them participate as full members in the society that has rejected them and to provide hopeful opportunities to stand together with other people of different backgrounds. This issue will continue to confront us.

"God has created a world with diverse inhabitants, and this is good. Creation expresses the rich beauty of this lovable world: people working, laughing, and thriving together are signs that God is alive among us." (35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Decree 2, no. 22)

"God has created a world with diverse inhabitants, and this is good. Creation expresses the rich beauty of this lovable world: people working, laughing, and thriving together are signs that God is alive among us." (35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, Decree 2, no. 22)



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