This past November, I had the chance to visit the Columbans serving on the US/Mexico border. While I was on this trip, I met a woman who had previously worked in a maquila, a factory in Mexico operated by a foreign corporation. The company paid her less than minimum wage, and required her to work over 40 hours a week. One day at work, she was badly hurt and needed medical attention. Instead of helping, the maquila fired her so they didn't have to pay her medical bills. That maquila makes components for cellphones.
This shocked me. As I fiddled with my own cellphone later that day, I realized how my decision to purchase it perpetuated the system that made this woman suffer. Did my other purchases enable similar wrongdoing? When I returned home, I wanted to know what else my purchasing decisions and my money made possible, and to explore the ways I could use them more responsibly.
When I went on my trip, though I'd owned my cellphone for almost four years, I had no idea what really went in to making it.
What's it made of? Who extracted the materials? Who made the component parts, and who assembled them? How did it get to the store? What would happen to it when I eventually threw it out?
Those questions overwhelmed me. But it was important that I answered them, because (I learned) my stuff – whether it’s my coffee or my t-shirt or my cellphone – often comes with a backstory of waste, corruption, and exploitation.
I knew this was true, vaguely. I'd heard about sweatshops in Taiwan or massive factories emitting pollution, but I'd never really pieced together the whole story.
To help me begin to understand the bigger picture, I watched The Story of Stuff. It’s free, short, and a good introduction to the issue. No matter how you choose to educate yourself, to begin creating a more fair and just economy first we have to learn how the current one works.
My Catholic faith calls me to “be [my] brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9). Before visiting the border, I had never really thought about how using my money could be an opportunity to do just that.
Is the person who stitched my shirt paid a livable wage? Are my coffee beans grown in an ecologically responsible way? If it’s not, what are my alternatives? (More on that later.)
Columbans missionaries have demonstrated how important it is for us to know the people who make our stuff - it's so we can ensure that our choices don’t make their lives harder. To help us get to know some of these people, the Hope Workers' Center in Taiwan, a ministry of the Columbans, created a project called the “Migrant Worker’s Face.” Through this project, we can all come to appreciate the unique beauty of migrant workers' lives, and begin to realize the profound struggles migrant workers often encounter.
When I pray, I try to create an intentional space where I can listen to God - to try to make the time to contemplate how I can better follow God’s call.
Scripture offers me a lot of wisdom about how to think about money, and how to use it well. For example, in Luke 12:15, Jesus tells the crowd: “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
The parable that follows is even more striking. A “rich fool” has spent his whole life accumulating stuff. One day he decides to tear down his barn and build an even bigger one, so he has a place to store it all. But God has a different plan for him. That night, God demands the fool’s life, and his possessions are left to rot away.
“Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself,” Jesus concludes, “[that person] is not rich in what matters to God” (Luke 12:21).
One of my favorite ways to pray is lectio divina, a Benedictine way of praying where you read a scripture passage several times in one sitting, each time drawing out a deeper layer of meaning. Some other verses you can use this technique with include James 5: 1-6 or 1 Timothy 6:10.
WHERE YOU PUT YOUR MONEY
As I witnessed firsthand when I visited the Columbans on the border, my money can enable unjust institutions to harm others. In addition to my cellphone, there was my coffee beans. Because small coffee growers can’t compete against corporate agriculture, in order to access the international market they are forced to sell their product to a middle man, who pays them less than the cost to grow their beans. This can push small farmers into poverty or trap them in a cycle of debt.
But financial decisions beyond purchasing goods can cause suffering too. I learned that banks invest my money – through the checking and savings accounts I open with them – in fossil fuel projects that do not meet rigorous environmental standards, and which forcibly remove communities from their homes. The money I give a bank or another financial institution in the form of a mortgage, a credit card, or a retirement plan can be used to finance projects that don't live up to my responsibility to care for others and the environment.
I can control where I put my money. I can be sure to purchase goods that are “Fair Trade Certified,” for example. Catholic Relief Services has an “Ethical Trade Shopping Guide” that helps me make faith-informed purchasing decisions.
I can also put my money into more socially responsible institutions like a credit union or a community development bank. A "B Corp" bank is a third kind of institution you can consider. "B Corp," like "Fair Trade," is a certification which signifies to consumers that an institution has met a certain threshold of ethical standards. You can search for "B Corp" banks here.
It's important to remember that our faith isn’t intrinsically against money or business. What it's deeply against is when we make money or business so important that we neglect our relationship with God and the wellbeing of our sisters and brothers and the Earth. Our relationships are our most valuable possessions. As scripture tells us, God rebukes those who would “hand over the just for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; [those who] trample the head of the destitute into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way” (Amos 2: 6-7).
Government policy has a role in how our economies work. Trade and debt agreements have human consequences.
Trade agreements tend to favor transnational corporations by making it more difficult for governments to enforce labor rights and protect the environment. As a result, vulnerable communities are pushed to migrate, poverty gets worse, and the environment is badly damaged.
Similarly, wealthy nations and institutions force developing nations into usurious debt arrangements. Developing nations must pay off these debts at the expense of providing their citizens with access to clean water, adequate housing, and basic health care.
An example of this is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This agreement between the three nations of North America encourages companies to abandon workers in Canada and the United States to move to Mexico, so they pay Mexican workers less and get away with polluting the environment - all in the name of greater profits.
Fr. Bill Morton, a Columban priest who's spent many years living on the US/Mexico border, has seen firsthand NAFTA's consequences. He explains some of them here:
Christianity calls us to simplicity by reminding us that stuff and money are not what’s most important. What is most important is that everyone can have life, and have it more abundantly (John 10: 10). Ultimately, that is the principle we should build our lives and our economies around.
When someone with a lot of stuff and a lot of money asked Jesus how to gain eternal life, this was Jesus’ reply: “Sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19: 21). This man walked away from Jesus sad because he loved his stuff and his money more than he loved life.
I have been this man, and sometimes I still act like him. The best way I’ve found to fight against this impulse is with a question. If I’m going to buy something, or if I have a financial decision to make, I ask: “Does this thing bring me closer to God? Does this decision support fair and humane practices?” If the answer to either question is “no,” then I search for the alternative that let’s me say “yes” - the "yes" to life.
Weekly Reflections on Justice & Columban Spirituality is produced by the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach. We hope these reflections help to guide you on your own spiritual journey working toward justice, peace, and the care of creation.
Wesley Cocozello is the "Communications and Programs Coordinator" for the Columban Center for Advocacy & Outreach. He visited the US/Mexico border for the first time in November of 2017.
Copyright © 2019 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.