Helping People Find Their Voices

In my mind, one of the most powerful moments in The King’s Speech occurs during a heated exchange between the prince who is about to become king (Colin Firth) and his speech teacher (Geoffrey Rush). The scene is very emotionally charged and at one point, the teacher asks why he should continue to waste his time listening to the prince. Interrupting the teacher in mid-sentence, the prince exclaims loudly, “Because I have a voice,” to which the other quietly responds, “Yes, you do.”

Yesterday morning, I attended Mass at St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis. The Mass included a talk by Cathy Heying of St. Stephen’s Human Services, talking about the work of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development. I found her talk very powerful at a number of levels.

The most powerful stories she told relate to what moved me in The King’s Speech – those in which the people her group has worked with discovered their voice. She spoke of one woman who went from not being able to speak with them unless a video camera pointed only at her hands and not her face to testifying on behalf of the continuation of General Assistance Medical Care in Minnesota. She spoke of another, a marginalized woman with untreated mental problems, who was instrumental in getting the news to cover the St. Stephen’s work. She commented at one point that it was the relationship developed with such people – a relationship of trust and respect – that allowed them to use their voice in a way one could not anticipate or expect.

One of the incidences of poverty we don’t tend to talk about is the lack or loss of voice of those who experience it. Everything tells them that they have nothing to contribute, that they have nothing to say…certainly not anything anyone would want to listen to. And so they stay silent…marginalized…at the fringes.

Charity is not enough. Feeding people so they don’t starve to death is great. Getting the homeless off the streets so they don’t freeze in winter is wonderful. But it is not enough. We need to think harder about how to help those without one to find their voice. To become meaningful members and participants in the community of which we are a part. And that requires forming relationships with people and finding ways to bring them into community.

So an important question to ask ourselves, as we continue to be generous in our charitable efforts, is how we do we help others find their voice?

P.S. Although I’ve framed this in terms of those in poverty, because I think the problem is tremendous there (and because our charitable efforts can sometimes blind us to the need to do more), there are other people who are marginalized by things other than poverty about whom we should ask the same question. How do we help them find their voices?