Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Churches, Poverty and the Inner City

Church leaders often remark to me, "What can we do to really be involved in the work you are doing? We don't want to just write a check."

I understand and appreciate the sentiment behind the question, at least I think I do.

Of course, there are some clear facts to consider in this discussion.

First, churches don't write many checks to support our work here in Dallas. We project, based on past experience, that contributions by churches to Central Dallas Ministries during 2007 will total a good bit less than 5% of our operations budget. So, you will understand that from our perspective, in view of the needs and opportunities we face every day, it is not a bad thing for a church to simply write us a check, or better yet, a check a month!

Second, getting churches involved in inner city neighborhoods can be a little tricky. For one thing, lots of church folks want to lavish lots of stuff on poor people. This can be useful at times, if we are talking about the right stuff, delivered in the proper manner. But for the most part, free stuff is not what is needed or even best for our communities.

For example, putting low-income persons in a position to control the process of, say, hunger relief or clothing distribution, may be much better than having church folks from outside the community deliver the goods directly to the poor.

If your goal is community and human development, you look for ways to avoid the creation of dependence or a neo-colonial approach to relief and compassion efforts. If the community senses that it is being assisted by its own members, things seem to work better and lead somewhere beyond the venue and limitations of charity. Churches that are mature enough to entrust resources to inner city leaders and community organizers without the demand to be involved in the delivery process usually are doing much more than they realize to promote health in distressed communities.

Third, churches from outside the inner city can make a big difference if they are willing to simply work on developing authentic friendships. Churches may want to "adopt" a neighborhood, not to shower it with material gifts, but to come to know it, the environment, the challenges and its residents. As relationships form around various projects and meetings, friendship will lead naturally to joint action.

Such an approach takes time and commitment that includes and goes beyond check writing.

One of our best supporting churches is in the process of adopting the community formed by one of our apartment complexes. Church members have spent weekends painting and repairing apartments. They have had picnics and they have erected a much-needed fence around the front yard to protect the children who play outside from their rather busy street. I know his group plans to stay with it and get to know the people who live there.

Such an approach is key to really being involved in a way that goes beyond checks to friendships and community connections. The benefits are mutual and reciprocal. Both groups benefit from one another. This is key.

If an action does not result in reciprocal benefit for both groups and everyone involved, it likely should be reconsidered or redesigned. Including neighborhood folks in any planning for such activities will be a step in the right direction from the get-go.

Not every church is ready for such a commitment. That's okay.

Checks placed in the hands of community and ministry leaders are crucial to our continued progress. If more follows on from the financial commitment, well and good.

Please though, don't underestimate the importance and power of simply writing a check!


Shannon A said...

I am part of a group in Gresham, Oregon who are making plans right now to start a small 5-6 family transitional housing ministry for some of the many homeless in our community. Much of our passion and desire for this ministry has been fueled by this blog and the comments on your blog entries. We watch from afar the things CDM is accomplising. In addition to that, I am a small regional builder (with some development experience) and so the part of your minstry that provides affordable permanant housing interests me greatly. Do you have a "replication" contact person that we can visit with that might be able to give us some guidance in our planning and dreaming? I would very much apprecaite a chance to talk with you or one of your associates. If this works, I can be reached at Thanks for being an example and a motivator to folks 2000 miles away.

Larry James said...

Shannon, thanks for the post. I received another email today from your group and hopefully we will work out a time to visit in early March here in Dallas. You should feel free to call me any time you find it convenient. I sent you an email. Thanks for your encouragement. I look forward to watching your progress in Oregon.

DJT said...

I heard two different people who are and have worked in Uganda talk about how one key thing is to learn to suffer alongside people. It is an important part of developing the relationship that you spoke about. I said "have" because one who was there doing business as missions was killed in a car accident in early January.

It is interesting to me how God keeps bringing this subject up to me again and again.