What churches can do about poverty

Larry James directs City Square, one of the best anti-poverty, direct services organizations in these United States.  He wonders why most churches aren’t seriously engaged with the poverty issue.  (I am pleased to report that my church, Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth, is a blessed exception.)  As Larry explains below, his comments prompted a natural rejoinder: “Okay, so what should we be doing?”

His response to this question should be required reading for every pastor in America.

 Churches and Poverty

So, I “popped off” on Twitter the other day, making some statement like, “Churches could take a huge bite out of poverty, but most are too busy with religion to even notice the poor–most, thankfully not all.”

Predictably, a number of my young, smart preacher buddies called me out on my statement, but very kindly. They all asked if we’d put together any materials on what churches could actually do to sit at the table where poverty might be consumed, never to rear its ugly, discouraging head again! I love these young guys! They give me hope for the future, even more for now!

So, what can churches do to enter the battle, the war on poverty? Here are a few beginning ideas/suggestions:

1. Appreciate the power of money. Years ago in a Pogo comic strip, Pogo related to another character, “The reason for poverty is clear: lack of monies.” Laugh if you will, but it’s true. And, what is true for individuals is true for organizations devoted to attacking the poverty that ravages so many of our neighbors. Every church should have line items in their annual operating budget reflecting support of efforts like CitySquare. I don’t apologize for being a shameless beggar for the poor in Dallas. Groups that insist on volunteering (often on their own terms) rather than or before investing capital resources don’t understand the enormity of the problem. Don’t be afraid to give money to help stand poverty down!

2. Make overcoming poverty a central “value proposition” in your church’s theology. Seriously explore the dynamics of poverty, including its affects, its causes, the systemic realities that entrench it in our society. Open the Bible and teach and preach about poverty. Ministers and teachers will find thousands of texts with which to work. Congregations that join the battle do so from a strong theological/biblical position. Work hard to have an educated congregation when it comes to poverty and what it does and doesn’t do in the lives of your neighbors. Don’t be afraid to apply what you learn in the real world of action, service and public policy.

3. Form lasting partnerships with organizations that exist to stand with “the poor.” Going beyond the checkbook or the occasional volunteer opportunity will require that the church go deeper with one or, depending on the size of the congregation, just a few organizations. Research the organizations where you have an interest or questions. Get to know the leaders. Invite them into your church. Ask if you can tour and learn and relate on an on-going basis. Dont’ be afraid to inquire about outcomes and measurements for success/progress. I promise you’ll be received with open arms by any legitimate group. Fast, enduring partnerships between faith communities and anti-poverty non-profits can be game changers in poor neighborhoods or around a constellation of issues and problems.

4. Make sure that volunteer opportunities result in genuine benefit to the group with whom you want to work and, even more, to the neighbors who may be involved as the supposed recipients. I know a national non-profit leader who talks about “the wall to paint” in his shop. It seems that volunteers enjoy painting things. Even though nothing really needs painting, this leader has a long wall where he sends painting crews again and again to paint! He finds this easier than explaining there is no need for painting crews. A better approach is to simply deal with reality. If there are legitimate jobs for volunteers, then bring them on! If not, just say so. Even more important, community organizations have an obligation to protect poor neighbors from well-intentioned, but misguided outsiders.

Gerald Britt tells the story of a church who entered a neighborhood on a mission to work on houses that needed painting and repairs. The church volunteers worked hard all day, but noticed that none of the neighbors seemed very interested or impressed. All day long they worked. No one in the community pitched in to join in the work like usually happened on work days like this one. At the end of the day, one of the outsiders’ leaders asked a neighbor why no on helped them out. The answer came as a big surprise. “Well, you see, this house you’ve worked on all day is a drug house. We’ve been trying to get rid of it for years. Ya’ll came in without a word and started fixing it up. We would have told you, but no one asked. And we figured you knew what you were doing.” Dignity, respect and community development must be seen as more important and a higher priority than making volunteers feel good.

5. Invest the time and energy necessary to create real, lasting friendships between and among everyone involved. Over the years I’ve come to believe that friendship changes everything. Friendship takes time. Its development can’t be forced, rushed or orchestrated. Church folks and their inner city hosts, both organizations and neighbors, need to relax, forget any agenda and just get acquainted, have some fun and devote enough time for long conversations to result. Once folks become friends, the world changes.