This title is taken from the excellent book When Helping Hurtsby Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. It describes how churches frequently hurt the poor, and that was the subject of my last blog. This blog discusses our church’s poverty ministries.
My passion for this topic comes from the 15 years I spent living in Rochester’s poor neighborhoods. The first business I started to employ poor people in the 14613 area was a painting company called “Holy Rollers Painting Co.” That name won us a lot of contracts! But as a business it was a disaster. An employee actually brought a gun to work one day because I didn’t have money for payroll. But as a ministry Holy Rollers was fantastic. We employed 7 people and 6 of them got off welfare as a result.
Later I started a church in that neighborhood : Peoples Ministry in Christ. Many of you know it. What I find so exciting is the ease with which people from Parkminster and Peoples Ministry relate. And that’s the heart of our philosophy of alleviating poverty: partnering relationships rooted in shared faith in Christ. We begin with the graceful acknowledgement that we need Jesus and we need each other. And because we are about relationships we stick in just one neighborhood, the 14613 area.
Wait. How do we suburbanites need inner city people? Me, I started by needing a worthwhile cause – helping poor people. I wanted to boost my self-esteem by having a cool ministry in the inner city. You can probably see that that attitude is demeaning. But since then I’ve become humbler; I see now that my real need is for reconciliation with those we call “the poor”. I’m impoverished without these relationships because they teach me things about God and delight me with companionship. And I do get to be helpful – but as a partner, not a patriarch. So when I train our church members for ministry in 14613 I always ask: “What do YOU need from THEM?”
Out of these relationships grows shared ministry. Tenfold, which is the name of our microfinance ministry, grew out of people asking us for loans. So now we train people in personal finances and make no-interest loans available to them. Through New Life Toys, our used toy store, we show people job skills and help them earn a little income. Whenever possible we share leadership and decision-making in the ministry. And we always pray and study scripture together.
One area we’re still learning about is how to share control in the ministries. I suspect that in some ministries we’ll be able to surrender control entirely.
We also give out food baskets sometimes. But as Lew Monk, the Elder overseeing our poverty ministries says, we want to get away from handouts and move toward hand-ups. So in the future our food ministry will consist more of shared meals and shared responsibility for cooking. It will be more like a New Testament “love feast”. That sure beats a soup kitchen! Again, the heart of our approach is partnering relationships rooted in shared faith in Christ.
Like any partnership there is frustration, misunderstanding, and conflict at times. And only very slowly do people actually climb out of poverty.
My hope is that 100 years from now Parkminster can say: “We were one of the churches that led the charge to end poverty in America.” But that will take four generations. And that’s another topic for another day.