The Common Good
March-April 1999

Healing Body and Spirit

by Molly Marsh | March-April 1999

National Summit addresses impact of welfare reform.

Once a month, Leslie Brown buses children to see their mothers—inmates housed at Dwight and Kankakee Correctional Centers in Illinois. She offers self-esteem classes for the women, provides referrals to social services, and helps the children's caregivers with housing, counseling, and clothing through her Chicago-based organization, Support Advocates for Women.

Brown also runs Leslie's Place, a transitional home that provides housing for eight women who are recently released from prison. Brown and her youngest children live in the home. There she offers parenting and life skills and holds a weekly Bible study. The Illinois Department of Corrections now funds part of her program, a partnership that is unique in the state's history.

Brown began the program soon after she was released from prison, when she faced the challenge of raising her six children with little support. Since 1994, 80 women have passed through Leslie's Place, and only three have returned to prison. Given the state recidivism rate of 60 percent, and the $30,000 it costs to hold one inmate for a year, Leslie's Place has saved the state thousands of dollars.

Support Advocates for Women is one of hundreds of successful faith-based ministries across the country. Many had the opportunity to learn from Brown's work at Call to Renewal's National Summit on the Churches and Welfare Reform, held January 31 to February 3 outside Washington, D.C. More than 650 people—twice as many as expected, representing hundreds of organizations from more than 35 states—focused on successful models of faith-based ministries. Twenty-nine denominations were represented, and participants included state senators, legislators, and other local and regional elected officials, as well as representatives of the social service departments of nine states.

The 20 workshop topics included child care, transportation, homelessness, family mentoring, juvenile programs, substance abuse, housing, jobs training, partnering non-profits with businesses, and community economic development. Presenters included Ron Sider (Evangelicals for Social Action), Wendell Primus (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), John Carr (United States Catholic Conference), Amy Sherman (director of urban ministries at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia), and Rev. Eugene Rivers (National Ten Point Leadership Foundation). Ken Medema, musician extraordinaire, provided the conference soundtrack.

The aim of the Summit was to discuss current "best practices" for overcoming poverty in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform bill. While the combination of a good economy and tight labor market has helped some people move off welfare, many people are still in a vulnerable position. "Because of low wages and seasonal types of employment, we have turned the welfare poor into the working poor," Mary Jo Bane, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, told the gathering. "We need to keep the focus on poverty, not on welfare reform."

Overcoming poverty in the context of a deeper, spiritual healing is what most "best practices" embody. These can resemble programs such as Mississippi's Mendenhall Ministries, which offers a myriad of services, including a health center, law office, thrift store, housing ministry, youth leadership development program, and an elementary school. Or they can involve ministries that partner with other faith-based organizations or government programs to offer a similar array of services. What is important is the multipronged approach that can help unravel the complex problems that accompany homelessness, joblessness, substance abuse, and other factors associated with poverty. "Everyone does their share; everyone does what they do best," said Call to Renewal convener Jim Wallis.

Support Advocates for Women, like many of these programs, addresses the whole person and is partnered with community churches and government. But in addition it is led by someone who has credibility with the women she helps. It is often those who were formerly in prison, jobless, or homeless who are the most effective leaders for urban communities.

ATTRACTING, developing, and retaining the leadership of a community is key to its economic viability, according to Bob Lupton, of FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta. "We have to avoid the problem of 'bright flight,' where those with the most education—and therefore the most resources—leave," Lupton said. "The only way to restore health to an urban community is to re-weave it. It's important to develop the leadership that is already there, to 're-neighbor' a community."

Presenters and participants in the Call to Renewal gathering stressed that those who seek to help must walk alongside those who need resources. "We must be careful about our process," said Mary Nelson, founding president of Bethel New Life, a church-based community development organization in Chicago. To prevent inadvertently "adding to oppression through our good will," Nelson said, "we must change stereotypes of the homeless and low-income citizens and acknowledge racism and economic selfishness."

Face-to-face contact is the best place to start. Two groups represented at the conference have made this contact central to their ministry. Youth involved with The Simple Way in Philadelphia live with the homeless, leading protests against the criminalization of homelessness from inside and outside jail. Other students participate in Mission Year—which Tony Campolo, in the conference's final plenary, called the 'youth arm' of the Call to Renewal movement—where groups of young people become active in the life of an urban church and go door-to-door to hear and pray for the needs of their neighbors. Campolo joined John Perkins—a long-time advocate of community economic development and racial reconciliation—as well as a gospel trio and a youth choir to give a rousing sendoff to conference participants.

NETWORKING through regional caucuses and workshops allowed participants to ask questions of each other and the presenters. How do we get churches involved in prison ministry? How do you manage the internal struggles as you marry non-profit groups with for-profit businesses? How do we find out about money available from foundations? How do we apply for that money?

Each workshop developed a list of specific policy recommendations on issues from living wage to child care to health care. Many of the conference participants met with decision makers on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning to advocate increasing the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit, expanding the Dependent Child Care Tax credit, extending the eligibility period for Medicaid, extending health insurance coverage, and restoring food stamp eligibility for legal immigrants.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo stressed the importance of partnerships between faith-based organizations and government programs in his Tuesday afternoon address to the conference. Overcoming poverty cannot be done by government only, Cuomo said. It has to be addressed "community by community. You're out there. We're not."

But the church can't lose sight of its central aim. "We can't reduce our identity to a service organization," said Father Bryan Hehir, interim dean of Harvard Divinity School. "We must work with and apart from government." Maintaining that distinction is crucial, because it is clear that churches cannot substitute for what the government can and should provide. The vocation of churches is not only to serve the poor, but to confront the causes of poverty, and not only to provide for the needs of the body, but to be vehicles for the healing of the soul.

MOLLY MARSH is an assistant editor of Sojourners. For more information on the Summit, see the Call to Renewal home page at www.calltorenewal.com.

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