The Church and Preferential Options for the Poor

Name: Florence Naisoi Smyth

I.D: 14046S


Tel: 0723 464 664

Tangaza University College- Catholic University of Eastern Africa

Institute of social Ministry in Mission – ISMM


In an effort to explain the foundations of social ministries in Kenya and elsewhere in the world, this paper addresses the Catholic principle of the church and preferential option for the poor.

The option for the poor or the preferential option for the poor is one of the basic principles of the Catholic social teaching of growing significance towards the end of the 20th century. It sprung out of the social teaching of Vatican ll which placed an emphasis on the laity and the hitherto neglected important position of the laity within the Church. Accordingly, this doctrine implies that the moral test of any society is “how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Christians are called to look at public policy decisions primarily in terms of how they affect the poor.

 This preferential option for the poor and vulnerable includes all who are marginalized in society, including unborn children, persons with disabilities, the elderly and terminally ill, and victims of injustice and oppression. The principle of “option for the poor” was articulated by the  HYPERLINK “” o “Latin American Episcopal Conference” Catholic Bishops of Latin America (CELAM) at the influential conferences in  HYPERLINK “,_Colombia” o “Medellin, Colombia” Medellin and  HYPERLINK “,_Puebla” o “Puebla, Puebla” Puebla, as well as by several popes, particularly Pope John Paul II.

In its origins, the concept was connected with the liberation theology movement of the mid-20th century. As a developed theological principle, the option for the poor was first used in S.America by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez,  HYPERLINK “” o “Ordo Praedicatorum” O.P. in his landmark work, A Theology of Liberation (1971). Gutierrez asserts that the principle is rooted in both the Old and New Testaments and claims that a preferential concern for the physical and spiritual welfare of the poor is an essential element of the Gospel.

In the contemporary world, positive signs in regard to the Catholic religion include a growing awareness about solidarity efforts among the poor, their increased efforts to support each other, as well as public demonstrations on a social scale; the latter happening without any recourse to violence. The poor have both the right and an increasing ability to present their respective needs to the often inefficient and corrupt public authorities. The need to study the church and the preferential options for the poor is very essential especially given the contemporary social economic conditions facing poor and vulnerable individuals in our Kenyan society.

Kenya is among the many countries in which the poor are victimized by various factors such as social discrimination, neglect by the government and other authorities, economic difficulties, and other major problems; including Christian religious leaders who take advantage of their poor condition to rob them of the little they have in the name of performing religious miracles. This aspect is completely against the Catholic principle of preferential option for the poor. Instead of finding ways to solve their problems by linking them to the advantaged society, all leaders rely on their poverty to get economically better. If at all such individuals could consider the implications and the important of the principle of preferential option for the poor, they would do something about the difficulties faced by the poor people in Kenya. Certainly, such evil practices have contributed to the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor in the country.

To understand the principle as a basis of the Catholic doctrine, defining who the church is very crucial. It is also critical to understand who founded the church and the reason behind it. By virtue of evangelical duty, the Church sees the importance of taking a firm stand beside the poor. This happens with a view of discerning the justice of poor people’s requests as well as helping satisfy them, without losing sight of the good of groups in the context of the common good.

As Christians, people are challenged by the option for the poor. In this case, the preferential option for the poor entails creating conditions for the marginalized voices to be heard, defending the defenseless and assessing lifestyles, policies, as well as social institutions regarding their impact on poor people in the society. The option for the poor hardly implies to pitting a given group against another group, however, it calls Christians to strengthen the whole community especially through assisting those who are vulnerable in their immediate society. Pope Benedict XVI (2009) pointed the same regarding the same principle by saying that,

“If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, ‘the minimum measure’ of it, an integral part of the love ‘in deed and in truth’ to which Saint John exhorts us” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2009).

In his words, the pope seemed to point out that love is important among Christians and that Christians can depict their love and commitment to the poor by giving charity to them. In Kenya this seems to be the other way round because pastors like Pastor Kanyari take money from poor Kenyans in the name of performing miracles that would get them out of their difficult situations. This pastor among other pastors could instead earn money by encouraging the poor to take the right path in achieving success and contributing the earned money to charity in order to reach more poor people in the society.


Who is the Church?

According to the way the question is framed, the Church is not the building where Christians worship God. The word “who” definitely reflect people. This means that the Church is the regenerate people of God saved by the power of God for the purposes of God in this world. In this case, Christians do not stop being the church when they walk out of the building on a worshiping day. Everything Christians do, they do it as the blood-bought church of God, for the fame of Jesus, everywhere. Thus, the church refers to the group of people, not even the gathering or event, leave alone the building.

Who founded the Church and for what reason?

The church was basically founded by Jesus Christ. This is one of the many reasons why the church is referred to as the Church of Christ. Matthew 16:18 points out what Jesus said to Peter regarding building the church. Jesus said, “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Fulford, 1981). This passage depicts that Christ is the builder/founder of the church according to the New Testament implication of the church, and that He calls the same church his church (Fulford, 1981). According to Fulford (1981), “Any church founded by someone other than Christ is not Christ’s church.”Even David in the Old Testament confirms this claim regarding the Jesus as the church founder by saying that “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Fulford, 1981; Psalm 127:1). Jesus founded the church as a house of God. He founded the Church to teach, govern, sanctify, and save all men.

It might also be said that Jesus did not actually found a “Church” but tasked the Apostles to spread the Good News and to love God and all others, regardless of their race and creed; rather a prescription for ministry and life, rather than a “Church” as many might understand a “Church” today. So we might say that Jesus founded a ‘church’ of like-minded, enthusiastic, principled ordinary people to bring love to the world and especially the poor, sick, ‘sinners’ and rejected. Therefore Jesus was the originator of the church’s ‘preferential option for the poor.’

Personal Understanding of Social Ministry

From a personal understanding, Social Ministry entails the responsibility of the church to carry out the work of Christ, which includes spreading the word of God, participating in charity activities, and helping the poor and the vulnerable in the society. The vision of a Social Ministry is to observe the well being of the society where necessary/possible. With this regard, the first and perhaps the most important responsibility of the church is social ministry, which would largely involve visiting orphans and widows and working in solidarity to help them solve their troubles (Maldonado, 1999 ). According to the Immaculate Conception Church (2009), “Parish Social Ministry is an extension of the public ministry of Christ. Social Ministry is not only the right, but the responsibility of all parishioners, and the calling comes directly from Christ’s teachings. He frequently reminds his followers to care for one another, to support those in need, and to give preference to the poor” (Immaculate Conception Church, 2009).

Relevance of Social Ministry

Social ministry is very critical in Kenya, especially in the contemporary socio-cultural, economic, political, and environmental environments. Looking at the political context for instance, the country has been heavily shaped by historical domestic tensions and contestation that are mainly associated with centralization and abuse of power, including ( Institute of Development Studies, 2014). Besides, high levels of corruption, a more than two decades long process of constitutional review and post-election violence gives a basic reason for the relevance of social ministry in the country. Nevertheless, the approval of the new constitution in 2010 and relatively peaceful elections in March 2013 are milestones constituting steps forward in Kenya’s transition from political crisis (Institute of Development Studies, 2014). Social issues are however being witness throughout the country; another reason why social ministry is relevant in Kenya.

Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa and with also most diverse economy within the region. Yet, the gap between the rich and the poor is still very high. Despite a decline of the country’s absolute poverty rate in the past few years, wealth has not been distributed equally. Kenya continues to remain a highly unequal society in terms of income, gender differences, and geographical location (Ministry of State for Planning National Development and Vision 2030, 2012). The government has not been able to reach the most vulnerable people in the society. Nevertheless, social ministries, through funding by various NGOs, have tried to reach some affected people in prone areas such as arid areas of Kenya and within the country’s city slums. Some regions are completely left out in the case of economic development and social welfare (Ministry of State for Planning National Development and Vision 2030, 2012).

Social ministry has played a major role in reaching some of these areas although the resource capabilities by the ministries cannot adequately meet the needs of such individuals. Through the principle of preferential option for the poor, some individuals sacrifice their time and money to offer free food and services to such people. Social ministries sometimes discover these individuals and enhance their support by increasing the help offered and facilitating funding. The role of the faith-based communities is to contribute or participate in social projects to enhance social transformation.

Why Does SM Matter To You?

SM matter a lot to me because it helps in solving social problems that seems to be neglected by the national government or other authorities. Some problems cannot be brought to light without the intervention of SM. Social problems/issues/needs excavated by SM provides incentives for the government and NGOs to take action by either taking full control or contributing through funding or service delivery. I must admit that SM has reached me in one way or another through its advocacy regarding various issues facing the society in general. We live in a peaceful community today; thanks to the SM, since calling for peace is one of its major objectives.

Personal Focus on SM

My personal focus on Social Ministry is the principle of the church and preferential option for the poor. This area of focus is highly important especially in the contemporary Kenyan society where the poor are suffering from their disadvantaged conditions. Nevertheless, instead of helping them out of their social-economic problems, political and religious leaders take advantage of their disadvantages to better their own lives. The principle of preferential option for the poor seems to apply to only a few people in the elite society.

My motivation to study the church and preferential option for the poor is the recent trends among some Kenyan pastors who have been enhancing their economic status at the expense of poor Christian followers. The likes of Pastor Kanyari, who was caught performing fake miracles to earn money from poor Kenyans, could be many in the society, but it may take Kenyans a very long time to discover their malicious tricks. However, this conception cannot be generalized on all Kenyan pastors since pastors like Pr. Prophet Owuor left everything including his prestigious medical career to serve God by reaching the needy in the society. His religious miracles are certainly real. More interestingly, he does not derive his wealth from his congregation (BuzzKenya, 2014). Many religious leaders derive part or all their wealth from the church in exchange for their services or even, the malicious ones deceive the church into getting more from them in the name of giving more to get God’s blessings. But in the course of striving to get such blessings through increased offerings, the church end up becoming misused and full misled. Prophet Owuor does not accept donations or even buy church merchandise. Other than miracle a crusade, the pastor spends much of his time giving talks and taking part in social ministry forums (BuzzKenya, 2014).

I was also motivated by an article by Mefferd (2013), which exposes the secret methods used by some specific pastors in Kenya to get rich off God’s people. This includes how how some pastors start a church and then become wealthy living in flash houses and driving luxury cars. Their main objective is to start a church from which they can earn from the congregation by extracting money from them to fund their lifestyles.

I am basically inspired by the Catholic doctrine and Dorothy’s spirituality as well as the historical background regarding the notion of trying to help the needy and vulnerable in the society. Dorothy, who was born in Brooklyn in 1897 from a middle class family, chose to live among the poor in order to help them as much as possible. She gave up her middle class family for deliberate poverty in order to reach the poor in the society. Her time was full of many problems especially given the Industrial Revolution that prevailed (Coles, 1987). It was a time when people gained respect based on their family background and wellbeing, but she sacrificed all these for the poor. In her attempt to enhance the principle of preferential options for the poor, she worked from the basis of initiating direct services where she helped the poor and through social actions in which she often focused on the root cause of any social problem, policy, or systemic approach that she was trying to attain (Coles, 1987).

Regarding the principle of preferential options for the poor, my mission is to act in the best way possible to help the poor and the vulnerable in the society. This may not be achieved directly as an individual, but becoming a member of a social ministry or an organization with similar motive would be highly helpful. Starting a social ministry could be more helpful, although it may be challenging given the ill practices observed among some pastors in Kenya. Success in either of these two options would open a chance for my contributions either through fund rising or through offering of services and motivational talks. The poor and the vulnerable need not only to be helped materially but also though word of advice and encouragement.

Personal Approach

The approach of my MS would involve various strategies and steps aimed at reaching the poor in the society. The first step is to gain education about the problems since there ways in which poverty is linked to aspects like reproductive rights, workers’ rights, and environmental justice (ojha & Maluniu, 2014). Seeking the right education will enhance the MS’s ability to figure out where time and energy will be best spent while helping the impoverished such as how they can gain the skills and power necessary to help themselves (ojha & Maluniu, 2014). This would also involve intensive research in order to gain a broad scope of the poverty problems.

At the root of this would be a structured effort at ‘conscientization’ within the given community. This will create the necessary awareness for the local people to tackle their own problems in solidarity, always facilitated by social ministers whose only aim is the betterment of society.

The second step would be initiation of donations. Once needs are identified and strategies decided donations would be highly important. The SM may make donations to both local and global organizations that would help reach the poor in various geographical environments. Most of the organizations dealing with social issues rely on donations. Donations could be in the form of money, food, toilet items, clothing, old furniture, books, toys, local shelters, or even programs (ojha & Maluniu, 2014). The donations will assist the targeted community especially in straitened circumstances.

Volunteering will be another aspect of my approach. In this case, I will looks for volunteering programs at the local religious organizations and within non-profit organizations. This will give me a chance to help the poor community through direct action. I may choose to work with different groups including the poor, children, and the elderly in the society, the mentally ill, the homeless, and women among other vulnerable groups in the society. In this case, I would prefer working with the poor in order to enhance the principle of preferential option for the poor through my ministry (ojha & Maluniu, 2014).

I definitely think that my approach and method is appropriate in helping solve poverty issue in my community because it incorporates various forces to execute charity tasks. As earlier mentioned, it could be difficult for me if I chose to operate as an individual. Some people may not trust my actions if I stand to help the poor as individual. I will definitely require the power of God and the assistance of a church ministry to do this. The main idea is to gain trust and pull more people in to the development programs facilitated by myself.

I would first of all need to train local leaders to facilitate such development in their own areas. This could be done through the DELTA program. (Development Education Leadership Training in Action)This program is well established in Ngong Diocese (my home area) and local people could really benefit from attending the short workshops they provide to encourage social development. Typically, even helping a single individual can make some change despite that fact that is of a small magnitude, but helping to educate local leaders in facilitating community development adds greater impetus to the possibilities of social transformation. The SM would be in a better position to understand a wider scope of the root causes of the poverty problem after which, through the education and research program, a solution is reached (ojha & Maluniu, 2014). This aspect is typically enhanced by the tradition of SM that all church members share a common ministry, which is mainly social including all the related aspects. This means that the church is always ready to get involved in involved in social ministry, which enhances the prosperity of my personal approach.

Tools & Skills

The most important requirement in carrying out my SM work is knowledge. I will require adequate knowledge and skills that would enable me to understand the social problem that I need to address. Regarding knowledge, I will require team management skills so that I can provide guidance and leadership service to the people/group with whom I will be working. Typically, it is highly difficult to work with people whom it is difficult to control. Since, I have great hope in my approach I would always expect that a solution is reach regarding any social problem in the course of the social ministry programs/missions. I hope that my current studies will adequately equip me to institute such developments and gain adequate skills to handle the existing group dynamics.

Reaching the poor in the society would require a thorough research. Adequate resources would be required to carry out such research. These will include data collection tools, recording and storage tools, and analysis tools. Modes of transport need to be available in case long distances would be covered. Such requirements will be challenging, but with much dedication and focus on the main objective, it will be possible to deal with the targeted social issue.

So far, knowledge and skills are not among the many challenges the SM might face. The social ministry would incorporate people with different social, managerial, and problem solving skills (Maldonado, 1999 ). Besides, funds are available to cater for transport costs and the costs of the required tools and equipment. It will however require the development of skills about foreign cultures especially where the poor community is from a foreign culture. Language translator may be required. With knowledge about the foreign culture and ability to understand their language, it would be possible to interact with the people as we try to solve the social problems facing them.

Conclusion & Way Forward

Generally, SM is based on many principles including the principle that members of a given church share a common ministry. Social goal is the key ministry in this case together with all its aspects. Other than bringing people closer to God, SM attempt to enhance the social wellbeing of people in the society through various ways. Such ways include bringing people together, enhancing cultural interactions, understanding other people’s problems, and solving social problems among the affected individuals within the community. It is however important to note that the goals of SM can be attained by incorporating all the requirements of a successful ministry.

The problem would be identified first. The community would use various tools in collaboration to identify pressing problems and the steps needed to sole them as well as who might be responsible for each part. This is all laid out in the DELTA formula, which allows free discussion and focuses on personal action or community action, rather than @what the Government should be doing.”

This would require the right skills and knowledge as well as the will/motive to find and solve the problems. In the case of trying to solve poverty in a given community, the preferential option for the poor would be a perfect guiding principle. The next step would involve determining the required resources and their availability. This would include the willingness of people to help by donating resources and services. The SM will then encourage people and willing donors to take part in the program. Inadequacy of resources would be solved by calling for help from various organizations and even involving the government if need be. Nevertheless, one of the main ideas would be to make the problems known to the government authorities for a better solution.

Generally, people can do mighty things if they have the will and unity to do so. Contributing to the betterment of the poor would only require a little sacrifice, which may have no significant effect on ones key resources such as wealth and time. Such sacrifice can actually save a disadvantage child who cannot access healthcare, education, shelter, or clothing, or rescue a poor widow from starvation! What further reward would one want than the satisfaction of such events? Through SM, the poor may gather the skills, courage and knowledge to get out of their impoverished situation.


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BuzzKenya. (2014). 10 things you didn’t know about Prophet Owuor. Retrieved from

Coles, R. (1987). Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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Mefferd, J. (2013 ). How Pastors Get Rich. Retrieved from

Ministry of State for Planning National Development and Vision 2030. (2012). KENYA SOCIAL PROTECTION SECTOR REVIEW. Kenya Social Protection Sector Review | June 2012, 1-172.

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Pope Benedict XVI. (2009). Catholic Social Teaching on Poverty, an Option for the Poor, and the Common Good. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.

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