Manhattan lesson

The social gospel without the gospel does not work

Issue: "Enron's collapse," Jan. 26, 2002

Now that New York City, we hope, has left behind its year of terrorist assault, it's also time to leave behind a century of theological assault. Sad but true: The "social gospel" from 1900 on so emphasized material improvement for the poor that it tended to ignore the need for spiritual improvement as well. Some ministers tried to combine the two with the goal of helping both body and soul, but that was relatively rare.

From the 1910s to the 1960s the dueling emphases faced off most clearly in upper Manhattan not far from Grant's Tomb, where the conservative Broadway Presbyterian Church on 114th St. held off the onslaughts of nearby, very liberal Union Theological Seminary. Broadway ministers preached about salvation, while seminarians frequently called for economic and social revolution.

That civil war ended with a victory for the Union. From the 1960s to the 1990s Broadway brought in liberal pastors, and membership declined from 1,000 to 120. The church, with Union seminary students, established a massive feeding program for homeless folks. When one Broadway pastor announced his homosexuality, new battles ensued. (He eventually resigned.)

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Amid all this, some of those involved in poverty fighting faced reality, rethought their methods, and set up in 1992 a new outreach, Broadway Community, Inc. When I visited BCI last year, executive director Chris Fay recalled for me its founding: "I was working with the poor and was burnt out. We saw the same people coming for food, year after year. We saw very few breakthroughs. The people who volunteered for the soup kitchen didn't know anything about the individuals who ate there. We were doing it to feel better about ourselves."

BCI started as a way to offer challenging and personal help that can change lives: effective compassion, in short, rather than affluent guilt relief. Participants develop clerical skills and basic computer literacy, and are trained for food service, custodial, and security jobs. I met individuals who worked in BCI microenterprises such as StreetSmart, a mall-cleaning group. Crucially, they had monthly contracts and frequent evaluations.

Since local employers have come to value the judgment of BCI instructors, BCI can offer guaranteed job placements for those who meet all the goals of the program. Graduates need to have shown uninterrupted sobriety and passage of random drug tests for a year, as well as reconciliation with family. With an awareness of how easy it is to relapse, BCI requires random drug testing and training in how to identify and fight habits that lead to lost jobs.

The challenge to work and the policing of behavior are too much for nine out of 10 of those who start the program. Mr. Fay notes that their average age is 40 and they've been using drugs for 25 years. He adds, "They won't work until they've lost everything and have no alternative." But three out of five of those who stick it out for a month graduate, because they can achieve much once they get their minds in gear. Mr. Fay says, "I rarely meet anybody who is incapable of working. Many have gotten used to government funding: They have no work emphasis and no purpose in life."

The job training could be dismissed by some as merely improved social gospel, but the striking change over the past 10 years has been the return of Christian witness. A decade ago there was practically none. Mr. Fay says, "We even argued about whether to give thanks at meals. Union seminary students were the biggest opponents. They said the clients would resent it."

The reality was the exact opposite: "When we did start, the clients responded, 'We never understood why you weren't saying grace.' They wondered whether we were embarrassed by Christ." I saw, sitting in on one discussion among clients, how the new teaching was sinking in. Participants spoke of their own sinful tendencies: One woman said, "I always had to be in the driver's seat. But now I've learned that what's good to me isn't good for me." A man said, "It's not what we want to do that's important, it's what we have to do."

Participants also knew the good news about God's centrality. One man said, "If we ask God for spiritual things, the rest will come." A woman said, "I write a little note to God every night saying, 'Thank you, God, for giving me another day.'" The meeting backed up staff member Moira Ahearne's contention that, "The clients like talking about Jesus. We [staffers] are the ones who were confused."

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