What can you do for 'the least of these' this Lent?

Several weeks ago, I attended a pre-screening of the Independent Lens Black Panther documentary because I knew next to nothing about the Black Panthers — just that they were militant and violent in their mission to promote "black power." If you've seen the documentary (or just know more about the Black Panthers than I do) you can probably guess that the film blew my mind. If you haven't seen it, I emphatically recommend that you do; it’s both thought provoking and incredibly well done.

One aspect of the film that I greatly appreciated was the care taken to show the expansiveness of the Black Panther's mission. I, for one, had no idea that in 1969 they started a free breakfast program for the children in their community. What the what? Who knew the Black Panthers were focused on addressing poverty and income inequality? (Well, probably plenty of people, but I wasn't one of them. This says something about the generation gap between people who lived through the 1960s and those of us who did not, as well as what gets taught in schools.)

In the United States, we're eight months out from a presidential election — in case you weren't aware of the fact, given the lack of theatrics and media coverage — and so a lot of politicians are doing a lot of talking about poverty, the middle class and income inequality. The fact of the matter is, nearly 50 years after the Black Panthers first started making breakfast for poor children, our country is still failing the lower classes. Case in point: millions of children still depend on free and reduced meal programs at school in order to be adequately fed, and the most recent statistics show that the number is only growing.

During Lent, many of us turn inward — reflecting on our own mortality and sinfulness — but it can also be an opportunity for us to look outward and lament with the "least of these." For example, NETWORK, Social Service Sr. Simone Campbell’s D.C.-based lobbying group, has put together a Lenten reflection guide on income inequality (you can sign up for it here), and U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking recommend this reflection guide on human trafficking.

Obviously these aren’t the only two Lenten reflection guides focused on our marginalized brothers and sisters — but I think they are good examples of how we can use this season to think about our personal relationships with God, yes, but to also think about the institutional sins pervading our societies.

What are you reflecting on this Lenten season? If you’re focused on performing corporal acts of mercy, as Pope Francis suggested, be sure to follow the National Catholic Reporter's new Instagram account, where we're sharing our readers' experiences as messages of hope to the world. This week's theme is clothing the naked, so be sure to share your images and story with us!

[Dawn Araujo-Hawkins is Global Sisters Report staff writer, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @dawn_cherie]