Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Overwhelmed by the Poor

The past two days I have been in Abilene, Texas. I was involved in the annual lectureship program at Abilene Christian University and made a presentation yesterday dealing with poverty, compassion, justice and faith.

The "jumping off" place for my speech was Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the national response to the tragic storm.

After I spoke, there was a time for questions and discussion. It turned out to be quite lively.

One young minister from the Dallas-Fort Worth area stood out.

He described all that his church was attempting to do among working, low-income families who came to his church again and again for assistance.

"The people we are serving out of our food pantry come to us time after time--the same people," he explained.

"Our volunteers are asking me, 'Why do these people keep coming back? They use us as a grocery store.'" he continued.

"We are paying lots of utility bills and providing rental assistance to many families," he went on.

"We are asking ourselves if we are really doing anyone any good," he said.

As he expressed his concerns, a couple of things became clear to me.

First, this church regarded its ministry to the poor as primarily a compassion ministry to be utilized in acute situations. The church's food, assistance funds and benevolence was there for people in times of emergency.

What this church discovered in the community was something far different than acute or emergency needs.

The needs of this community were chronic and deepening.

I tried to encourage my friend to reframe the effort for his church. Possibly regarding their food pantry as an alternative community grocery store was not such a bad idea. Working people in his neighborhood simply don't earn enough to make ends meet. Their need is chronic and it is not going away anytime soon. The church's ministry is likely to be literally holding families together and keeping them off the streets.

Second, and more troubling, this church cannot continue at its current pace. The need is too great.

As the minister said at one point in great frustration, "A church could easily go broke like this!"

Of course, he is correct.

The situation facing this fine young minister and his church is very, very instructive.

As federal and state lawmakers and executives continue to cut funding from the budgets of programs designed to serve and to lift the poor, they often tell us that the work they are eliminating from public obligation should be done by the church.

Such expectations are naive at best and based on a cruel and knowing deception at worst.

The fact is, the church cannot bear the burden of the poor in America alone.

The church has an important role to play.

The church could and should do more.

But, the scale of the problem is far too large for the church. The vast majority of churches today are not equipped to handle the need in terms of volume or complexity.

It is simply not true to continue to say that the plight of the poor in America can be managed by the church without the involvement of public, government institutions.

It is just not true.

And, promoting this deception helps no one.


Chris Field said...

Sorry I missed you this week, Larry. Are you still in town by chance or have you already left? I came to your class Monday but you had not made it in yet, and then I had to work on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings. Hope to catch you soon.

Brian Slusser said...

the whole food pantry, clothes closet issue is one thta is big in my church right now as well. After moving to North Lawndale 2 years ago, I started volunteering with the food pantry. Initially I thought it was a great thing. I see now, my positive early observations were fueled in large part by the good warm feeling I got by "doing my part". But the same questions this young man at your conference had soon emerged.

Weren't we somehow fostering dependency and stealing the dignity of some of these people? Were we putting them into a position somehow detrimental to their innate potential. So about a year ago we started making some changes. Then one of our elderly ladies, that we had talked into driving to CCDA with us, went to a workshop their on food pantries. This lit a fire under her, and we started brainstorming in ways that we could move this food pantry from a work of mercy/compassion and charity and move it to community development. Its still a work in progress, but we now have the the 2,000 pounds of food picked up, sorted, distributed ect. by member's of the community that used the pantry. We have a list of volunteer jobs that our neighbors can do. And more often then not they are more the willing to do it. We also let people make a donation towards our food bill from the food depository. We have started support groups within the food pantry. things aren't perfect and we still are going to be moving towards more changes.

Eventually we too, would like to move more to a grocery store type business, which offered employment ect. along with a few other ideas out there. But I do know that as a result of the changes so far, there is less tension at our food pantry services, there is more interaction and relationships being formed between church members and staff and community members. We are better learning our neighbors needs.

I guess I just struggle with the whole issue of when is somthing charity or just community the expense of community development or leadership development. i've leaned heavily on the writings of Bob Lupton in this area now. But still there has to be times for acts of mercy right? how do you know when the Spirit is telling you to give some charity?..whether it be help paying a bill, a bus pass, food, clothes ect.

Larry James said...

Brian, thanks again.

No magic formulas here.

But what you describe is exactly what we have going on in Dallas. Everything we do these days has come from that community center with all of is chaotic interaction!

Still, we must organize to change systems because the major issues are too large for us without public policy that is sound and just.

Chris, sorry I missed you. The ice delayed me. I am back in Dallas today.