This week we begin our observance of Lent, the 40 days leading up to the celebration of Easter and the Paschal mystery. The number 40 is used repeatedly in Scripture. There is the story of Noah and the great flood, where it rains for 40 days and 40 nights (Gn 7:4,12,17; 8:6). Moses stayed with God on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights (Ex 24:18). The Israelites wander in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land (Nm 14:34). Jesus fasts in the desert for 40 days and nights before beginning his public ministry (Mk1:12-15); his ascension into heaven occurs 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3).
So I was struck by a chart heading I saw in The New York Times last weekend: Motown No. 1 on the Poverty Top 40. Under that headline was a list of the 40 cities of more than 250,000 with the highest poverty rates. Detroit’s poverty rate topped the list at 37.6 percent. The 40th place - a four-way tie among Greensboro, NC, Corpus Christi, TX, New York, NY, and Tulsa, OK -- had a poverty rate of 20.1 percent. No region escaped the list, a clear, tragic demonstration of how widespread poverty is in America.
Given the coincidence of this list of 40 cities with the advent of the 40 days of Lent I thought we might “think and act anew” about our Lenten observance. As we reflect on the meaning of our baptism let’s include these “neighbors” in our thoughts and actions. Here are some ideas:
1. St. Augustine said, “True prayer is nothing but love.” Say a special prayer for the people of each city, one per day for 40 days. Contemplate how our actions as individuals and as society resulted in poverty in each city.
2. “Adopt” a city and support one of its food banks, so those who are poor do not go hungry.
3. Contribute 40 items of clothing and other household goods to a church or community organization that is not in your neighborhood.
4. Save $40 by giving up that morning cappuccino, or potato chips at lunch, or a diet soda) and donate it to an organization that works to reduce poverty in one of the 40 cities.
Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during the 40 days of Lent allow us to enter into a special state of grace. Could we widen that circle to include the other, the unknown, the one who is in need?
Do you live in one of these cities? Share with us the challenges facing those who are poor in your community. What ideas do you have for Lenten observances? Post your comments below or join the discussion on our Facebook page.