When Brian Fikkert of the Chalmers Center near Chattanooga, Tenn., tallies the number of people his Christian development organization has helped in Rwanda, he speaks of “hundreds of thousands.” (The work includes a Bible-based curriculum that helps poverty-stricken families save money and assist other community members.)
But when Fikkert, executive director at Chalmers and an economics professor at Covenant College, considers the number of poor people the group has helped in Chattanooga since he founded the organization in 1999, he says the figure drops dramatically: “I can count it on one hand.”
Why the gap?
While Rwanda has a violent past and far worse poverty than the United States, Fikkert says it also has something else: “The churches in Rwanda are churches of the poor. ... They are full of the poor.” In Chattanooga, he says, churches are often “full of people who don’t have relationships with the poor.”
It’s not just a problem in Chattanooga. It’s a conundrum for many Christians across the country who want to help the poor in their own communities, but aren’t sure where to begin. Fikkert, co-author of When Helping Hurts, admits he struggles with such problems as well.
That’s not because there’s a lack of poverty in America. A Sept. 12 report by the U.S. Census Bureau found the poverty rate in the United States hovers around 15 percent—the highest level in almost two decades. The rate barely changed from 2010 to 2011. It means some 46 million people in the United States live below the official poverty line—about $23,000 for a family of four. (The poverty rate calculations don’t include certain government benefits like earned income tax credits or food stamps, which would lower the number of those living below the poverty level.)
When it comes to children, the numbers are especially startling. The report found the poverty rate for children raised by single mothers was 40.9 percent. (The rate of poverty for children of married couples was 8.8 percent.)
The problem will likely grow worse: Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute noted that out of 1 million children likely to be born into poverty next year, nearly three-fourths will be born to single mothers.
For years, politicians have debated the best way to help poor Americans, and the winner of November’s presidential election will face the same question. But as politicians struggle with the government’s role in poverty relief, Christians also continue grappling with their own responsibilities to help the poor.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic, says that’s particularly important as conservatives call on the government to curtail runaway federal spending. During a pro-life event filled with Christians at the Republican National Convention in August, Santorum told the group: “If the government is going to do less, we’ve got to do more.”
What that looks like varies widely among cities, Christians, and churches. For the last seven years, WORLD has featured examples of Christians seeking to help needy populations by applying biblical principles to addressing material and spiritual needs.
Each year, we profile a handful of worthy organizations nominated by readers, and ask our readers to vote for a winner online. On Oct. 18, we announced the winner of WORLD’s 2012 Hope Award for Effective Compassion: The WorkFaith Connection, a Houston-based group that helps some of the city’s least employable men and women find jobs.
It’s one example of many groups working to do more to meet deep needs. In this report, we’ll review some of the past winners, examine some of the historical context for Christian poverty fighting, and look at ways that Christians can start small to do more.
For men and women looking for jobs after serving time in prison, starting small can seem like a huge task.
Sandy Schultz, CEO of The WorkFaith Connection, talked about helping people with troubled pasts start over during the Hope Award’s dinner in October. “For so many of the men and women we are serving, putting the truth on a [job] application can be painful,” she said. “But God uses The WorkFaith Connection to remind them that they are a new creation in Christ, that the old is gone. They are living proof, bright lights in the world. They bring Scripture to life.”
Other groups seek to bring Scripture to life for needy populations in other cities. In 2006, the first Hope Award recipient was the Christian Women’s Job Corps in Nashville, Tenn. The group began in 1997 as a program of the Woman’s Missionary Union, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The group offers computer and GED classes, job skills counseling, one-on-one mentoring, Bible study, and childcare to women struggling with difficult circumstances, including addiction and poverty.
Six years later, executive director Becky Sumrall is still leading the group, and spoke in a phone interview about the organization’s growth. Significant changes include adding an ESL class for international students and a jobs program for men. (When the group advertised for a GED class, 75 percent of the respondents were men.)
With the poverty rate reaching 16.5 percent in Tennessee, a weakened economy has brought more people seeking help. Sumrall has joined Nashville’s poverty reduction committee to serve the city in looking for ways to help needy residents.
The growth at the ministry has brought more challenges, including maintaining enough volunteers to meet the needs, says Sumrall: “The hardest thing has been that we can’t serve as many as walk through the door.”
Sumrall says the group has stayed at a size it can sustain, and keeps the spiritual component at the forefront: “Our model is still working.”
Each of the other Hope Award recipients continues its model as well: The Arkansas Sherriffs’ Youth Ranches (2007) provides a home for hundreds of abused, neglected, and homeless children.
A Way Out (2008), a Memphis, Tenn.–based ministry, rescues women from the city’s prostitution, stripping, and drug culture. An intense program includes Bible studies, counseling, and Bible-based classes on subjects like sexual addiction, depression, and maintaining boundaries.
Forgiven Ministry (2009) is a Taylorsville, N.C., ministry that still provides day camps for prisoners and their children. The program includes biblical teaching on fatherhood for the inmates, and gives children a day with parents they rarely see. The group has added more camp dates and additional staff.
Freedom for Youth (2010), a Des Moines, Iowa, ministry, teaches inner city kids how to break cycles of poverty. The services include a mentoring and tutoring program for elementary-school students, an after-school program for teenagers, and a residential house for adults.
Mark Nelson still directs the ministry, and says he’s seen similar growth that others report—and similar challenges—as the poverty rate has increased. “We’re seeing it at our rural sites,” Nelson said in October. “The kids are coming in very hungry. They haven’t eaten.”
More children means the need for more volunteers—something the ministry struggles to maintain. But the group has added three sites in rural areas, and a girl’s home for homeless young women.
“Ministry isn’t getting any easier,” says Nelson. “But when things get tight, that’s when our faith seems to grow the most. … It’s showing us there is even a greater need to give the hope that only Christ can give to those who are suffering.”
By 2011, a cooking school won the Hope Award: Victory Trade School in Springfield, Mo., provides a Christian discipleship program—and culinary training—for men who need help finding and keeping jobs. Young men apply from 15 different states, and many have gone on to successful careers.
This year’s Hope Award winner has a similar goal of training men and women to learn how to get and keep jobs by offering a Christ-centered approach that encourages a biblical work ethic.
The WorkFaith Connection has chosen not to pursue government funding so that it can maintain its Christian emphasis. That has cost the group grants from other sources as well, but CEO Schultz said: “We cannot make Scripture optional. Without connecting work and faith, we are not The WorkFaith Connection.”
The concept of connecting work and faith in poverty fighting isn’t a new idea. In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to take care of the poor, including providing opportunities for them to work.
In the New Testament, that teaching continued, as the early church took close care of its neediest members, and the Apostle Paul encouraged hard work from all Christians—a teaching that flowed from God’s creating Adam and Eve as workers in the Garden of Eden.
Christian care for church members—and outsiders—continued as the still-young church cared for the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and many of the sick during plagues that ravaged the ancient world.
By 362 A.D., the emperor Julian complained to the high priest of Galatia about the virtues and extensive system of good works by Christians: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
By the time of the Protestant Reformation, theologians began re-emphasizing the importance of caring for the poor. Indeed, John Calvin asked his congregation: “Do we want to show there is a reformation among us?” If so, he said, “There must be pastors who bear purely the doctrine of salvation, and then deacons who have the care of the poor.”
As a pastor in Geneva, Calvin developed a robust diaconal program in the church. David Hall, a pastor and the author of Calvin in the Public Square, calls the theologian’s diaconal work “one of Calvin’s contributions to Western civilization.”
Calvin helped form the diaconate as a response to refugees flowing into Geneva, but extended that care to widows, orphans, the hungry, and the poor. He even directed the deacons to make sure the public hospital was maintained so that the poor and needy could find good medical care.
All of these efforts were grounded in an expectation that those seeking help would also seek work. Calvin taught that begging without honest work (for those who were able) was incompatible with a biblical work ethic—a break from Roman Catholic almsgiving that had distributed charity more indiscriminately.
And diaconal assistance in Geneva came with biblical counseling from the deacons, and an expectation that recipients attend the local church.
By 1578, theologian and pastor John Knox was continuing an emphasis on helping the poor in his work as a leader in the Protestant Church in Scotland. Knox supervised a substantial system for deacons to visit the poor in local parishes and help tend to their spiritual and material needs.
Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish pastor in the early 1800s, revived this emphasis after it had declined, and became known as one of the most significant social reformers of his era. Chalmers directed deacons to help the unemployed find work, and help uneducated children find schools to attend through a meticulous home visitation system.
Chalmers also wrote extensively on poverty relief. Tim Keller, a pastor and author of Ministries of Mercy, notes Chalmers once said the church could do what the government could not: address the moral and spiritual roots of poverty.
Addressing the moral and spiritual roots of poverty remains the challenge for Christians today.
Back at the Chalmers Center, Fikkert says that the government does have a role to play in poverty fighting, including promoting a healthy economic environment that will create jobs and give people an opportunity to work.
Christians can help by teaching poorer people how to be spiritually healthy, he says, “So that they will know they are made in the image of God and called as His image bearers to work and be productive.”
And though specific programs and ministries are often critical, Fikkert says encouraging the poor to be part of regular church life is perhaps the most critical step: “Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that the ordinary means of grace—worship, preaching, fellowship, prayer, the sacraments—are a part of how God transforms lives. The poor need these too.”
That means considering how to do more in the days ahead will require Christians to think deeply about how to be involved in local ministries, but also how to involve the poor in the ministry of their churches. Fikkert says that’s a task that takes tremendous effort and “unbelievable intentionality.”
WORLD is now taking nominations for poverty-fighting ministries to be considered for our 2013 Hope Award for Effective Compassion. Please email June McGraw (firstname.lastname@example.org) with basic information about your nominee: Name, city, website address, and a paragraph on why you think it’s great. Criteria: Groups should be explicitly Christian, privately funded, and centered on offering challenging, personal, and spiritual help. The national winner receives a check for $25,000, and regional winners receive $4,000 each.