Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Making poverty unwelcome in the Ozarks

Recently, I made a presentation at the Impacting Poverty Commission Community Summit, which was held at the Springfield Art Museum. More than 400 leaders from business, labor, government, service agencies and education filled the auditorium.

With the release of the Commission's report that day, we learned how significant a problem poverty is in our city, county and region. Springfield is the "most economically distressed urban area in Missouri," according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Poverty has increased from 10 percent of the population in 2009 to 28 percent of the population in 2015. More than half of Springfield public school students receive free or reduced-cost lunches. Eight-hundred public school students are homeless.

City Manager Greg Burris, one of the Summit speakers, urged everyone to "tell the story"of poverty in our community. He said that many citizens never see poverty. We do not sit beside poor people in our churches. We do not work with poor people.We do not socialize with poor people. We do not live in poor neighborhoods or even drive through them on the way to work or school.

Not seeing poverty, we assume that it does not exist. And sometimes, if we do see it, we might distance ourselves from it, as I have at times, with judgmentalism and stereotypes: The poor are lazy, dependent, takers.

As an "action item," Burris urged us to sign up before we left to participate in a Poverty Simulation, if we had not been involved in one before. I have. We are organizing one for Christ Episcopal Church members. The simulation helps people experience poverty for themselves, enabling them to discover that for the majority of poor people, poverty is not a life they choose, but a life, an existence, that is .forced upon them by circumstances, including divorce and family disintegration, major illness, debt to predatory lenders.

You can read the Impacting Poverty Commission's "Community Focus 2015, A Report for Springfield and Greene County" at www.springfieldcommunityfocus.org.

As a panelist at the Summit, I had only seven minutes to comment on the role of the church, including Christ Episcopal Church, in meeting the challenge of increasing poverty. Below are my comments. I answered questions posed by the Summit organizers:

What is the role of our faith-based community and what is its capacity to affect poverty? 

I speak as a Christian and pastor. Jesus calls his followers to love their neighbors as themselves. The Golden Rule is taught and is lived not only by Christians, but also by followers of the world’s other great religions. We people of faith are to love our neighbors by helping them flourish, realizing their full potential as human beings who are created in the image and likeness of God.  

And everyone is our neighbor, including those on the margins of society. In Matthew 25, Jesus says,
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren,you did it to me” (Matthew 25. 40b).  

During my 20 years in Springfield, again and again, I have seen our churches and their members faithfully do the work of Jesus. St. Teresa of Avila writes that Jesus has no hands but ours. The role of the faith community is to be the hands of Jesus--the very hands of God. Our hands might be calloused by service, but not our hearts. Sharing generously of time, talent and treasure, church members from many denominations are united in helping needy people. And so are people of other faith traditions.

 Please tell us what Christ Episcopal Church is doing to impact the quality of life for our under-resourced families?

Through our church budget and individual contributions-- amounting to tens of thousands of dollars--the people of Christ Episcopal Church support the agencies of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.

Our members also contribute hundreds of hours annually to the work of these agencies. Several women from the church, for instance, regularly volunteer at Safe to Sleep, which provides temporary shelter to homeless women in local churches.I am proud to serve on the council’s board.

Quarterly, Christ Church hosts a community dinner, serving 150 people at each meal, sometimes more. Our guests are often homeless, disabled, or suffering from chronic illness. All the food is donated, as is the labor. Church members do the organizing, the cooking, the hosting, the cleanup. They also visit with our guests. In welcoming them, we welcome Christ himself.

We are one of founding churches of the Center City Christian Outreach, which operates the Well-of-Life food pantry. The Well is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 2 pm and is staffed entirely by volunteers. We contribute $8000 annually to the budget of the pantry, and church members give hundreds of hours of service to the Well, which feeds more than 600 people monthly.

Coordinating with the Council of Churches’ Crosslines agency, the Well will  also distribute 25 Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets this year. Crosslines helps five families a month pay their utility bills. It provides bus passes and gasoline vouchers, helping people without vehicles or friends who can drive them get to doctors appointments or to job interviews. 

Christ Church staff distributes nearly 20 sack lunches each week to hungry people who come to the church door. From clergy discretionary funds, amounting to a few thousand dollars each year,  we help people pay rent and utility bills, buy their prescription medications, secure temporary lodging, and more. 

Our Next-to-New resale clothing shop is often able, free of charge, to outfit needy people with warm clothing during the winter and sometimes with dress clothes for job interviews or employment. Through store sales, we provide support to such local groups as Rare Breed and the Family Violence Center. 

We help feed homeless teens through our ministry at Rare Breed. Once a month, church members buy food for dinner, prepare it and then serve it. We feed as many as 50 young people each month. Once, we fed 100. We get to know the young people we serve. 

Annually, we participate in Friends Against Hunger, or the Pack-a-Thon. With many other volunteers from the community, we pack one million meals on a weekend. From 20 to 60 of our church members volunteer a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, assembling dry meals for hungry people here, elsewhere in the United States and abroad.We commit $1000 to $1200 to the Pack-a-Thon when we participate. 

About 10 years ago, we adopted Bissett Elementary, a Title I school. We participate in the Council of Churches' RSVP reading program there, with 10 church volunteers giving 30 or more minutes weekly to each of their students. We provide Christmas baskets to three or four Bissett families annually. We furnish personal hygiene products for the school nurse to distribute. Yearly, we take a class to a production at Springfield Little Theater.This year, we opened a store, where children can buy pencils, paper and other supplies inexpensively. Church members annually donate as much as $7500 to buy new tennis shoes for all the students.This year our 31 volunteers gave out 280 pairs of new Converse All Stars. One church member got this ministry under way and keeps it going.

Why is caring for those in poverty imperative for our community, and how can we join together as a community to do this.

As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “If God is our Father, then we are all brothers and sisters." We are family. A loving family takes care of its members.We need to care for family members who are unable to care of themselves. And for people who can care for themselves and who are seeking work,
for instance, we need provide opportunities for education, training, mentoring and other support, and then we need to ensure that they have access to jobs with living wages and benefits. Good jobs will help reduce poverty. 

And just as important, we need to work for justice. As we live the Golden Rule,“Love your neighbor as yourself," we will create a more just society in which poverty diminishes, perhaps even disappears one day. Yes, it’s a dream, but I believe we can make this dream come true when we act in partnership with one another and with God.

Borrowing from Dr. King again, I believe we need to be "drum majors" for justice—at City Council, in the General Assembly, in the U.S. Congress. We citizens need to become informed about issues of public policy. We need to know where candidates stand. And we need to work and vote for leaders who are committed to creating a just society. Government is only as good as its citizens.