Humans should be more important than stones.

That’s what a Frenchman railing against poverty and workers’ struggles proclaimed to the Associated Press after rich donors pledged more than one billion euros to reconstruct Notre Dame Cathedral following the devastating fire on April 15. He was part of the so-called yellow vest protests in Paris.

Soon enough, the protester’s view was being echoed throughout the world:

Why are we so quick to repair a church while people everywhere, every day, live lives of abject deprivation?

Forbes reported that Thomas Pieters, the Belgian golfer, noted, “Kids are starving to death in this world and EU [European Union] wants us to donate to rebuild a building. I don’t understand.”

And the publication quoted the American best-selling author Kristan Higgins as saying, “Donate to help Puerto Rico recover. Donate to get the people of Flint clean water. Donate to get kids out of cages. Jesus didn’t care about stained glass. He cared about humans.”

It did not help when French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the cathedral in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics, seen “as evidence he hasn’t prioritized” protesters’ grievances, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Empathy with agony

What moves people to give money is layered and complex, said Laura Otten, executive director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University.

“When there’s a tragedy like a hurricane, and you can see an immediate crisis and agony, there is empathy,” she said.

“But if you are talking about an ongoing set of conditions," such as poverty, "it’s a lot harder for people to summon that empathetic response that leads to giving.”

She added, “It’s absolutely not surprising that people gave to Notre Dame. People’s hearts were breaking. We do well in response to crises.”

In 2017, charitable giving in the United States was around $410 billion (the first time donations rose above the $400 billion mark), according to the nonprofit Giving USA 2018: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2017. The report is researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Americans dispensed more of the total to churches and other religious institutions than to any other entities, according to the report — 31 percent, or about $127 billion.

Next came education, at 14 percent, or nearly $59 billion.

After that, Americans donated their dollars to people suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and those in poverty, as well as to community centers, women’s shelters, and other institutions performing human services: 12 percent, or $50 billion.

No anger here

Among the homeless in Philadelphia, there’s been no outrage over people flooding the French with checks to fix the 850-year-old Gothic monument in Paris, said Adam Bruckner, director of Helping Hand Rescue Mission. Along with the homeless, Bruckner ministers to residents of housing projects.

It doesn’t help people living in poverty to castigate rich donors, he added. “And guilting people into helping others is never the best path,” Bruckner said.

In Chester County, folks in poverty have exhibited “no backlash against people rebuilding the church,” said Ken Ross, board chairman of the Honey Brook Food Pantry. “This population has the opposite of entitlement,” he said. “No one’s complaining about Notre Dame.”

Sister Margaret McKenna and dog Patch at a New Jerusalem Now house.
YONG KIM / Staff photographer
Sister Margaret McKenna and dog Patch at a New Jerusalem Now house.

In North Philadelphia, Sister Margaret McKenna, founder of New Jerusalem Now, a nonprofit for recovering addicts, works with the poor by giving away food, some of which she grows in a large garden plot.

Holder of a Ph.D. in Christian origins from the University of Pennsylvania, McKenna once worked as an archaeologist at an ancient temple site in Israel. She’s as familiar with sacred buildings as she is with people in poverty.

On one hand, she said, Notre Dame is “only a symbol, and people are more important.” But, she added, she once considered writing a book titled The Seven Times That Beauty Made Me Cry, one of which was at the cathedral, whose beauty overwhelmed her.

McKenna said she believes that “resenting attention to the cathedral’s repair is kind of foolish.” It was, after all, “built by poor people, and poor people today have just as much capacity to enjoy it as the rich.”

She added, “The poor deserve beauty, too.”