Like so many of my days at The Heritage Foundation, this particular afternoon found me incredibly busy. Meetings to attend, reports to write, phone calls to make, projects to complete - it was a crazy day. When one of my colleagues asked if I had a few minutes to meet with an unexpected visitor, I must admit that my first instinct was to want to "just say no". However, when he briefly explained her research, I said, "OK, I've got about ten minutes." I'm so glad I took the time to meet with Barbara J. Elliott - it turned out to be among the most inspiring ten minutes in many months.
Why? Because Barbara briefly shared with me her experiences from eight years of visiting with and interviewing more than 300 people around the country whose lives are marked by their service to others. She's met everyday heroes who understand that helping to lift the burdens of our fellow citizens are some of life's highest callings, and that the love, care and targeted help individuals provide those in need is far better, more effective, and more humane than any government program.
Barbara has written a fabulous book about her experiences that is as inspiring as she is. Street Saints: Renewing America's Cities (www.streetsaints.com ) is recommended reading for anyone in need of proof of the decency and kindness of Americans, or ideas on how to contribute in our own communities.
Although I prefer to describe books in my own words, I found the words on the inside cover of the book to be superior to any description of this important work than I could draft:
"Street Saints takes you through the streets of America's cities to meet people of faith who are renewing America, one heart at a time. These unsung heroes are putting an arm around abused grade-schoolers and teaching them to read, facing down drug dealers, and giving bullet-pocked neighborhoods hope. They are working creatively as social entrepreneurs, turning gang members into computer programmers, and equipping former drug addicts with job and life skills. They are touching the least, the last, and the lost with love. And they are discovering that the transformation is mutual.
This unlikely army of compassion includes reformed crackheads and con men, soccer moms, grade school dropouts and PhDs, former prostitutes and business executives, preachers and ex-gang bangers. Regardless of whether they are black, white, Latino or Asian, Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal or Presbyterian, street saints are discovering their convictions transcend their denominational, racial, and political boundaries. What they all share is a commitment to renew the soul of our nation."
Not everyone is called to walk the streets and physically hand out food to the hungry. But we are all called to help in some way. For many who have enjoyed success in business, the calling is to give of your funds to support those who are "in the trenches". Barbara recognizes that supporting the work of others is an invaluable calling, and she has written a second book to help donors through the process of deciding exactly where to send those funds. Her book, "Equipping the Saints: A Guide to Giving to Faith-Based Organizations" http://www.streetsaints.com /guide.htm explains the characteristics of groups that spend money wisely and reports on programs that are working, clearly states the methods used for evaluating the outcomes, and provides contact information for faith-based organizations around the country.
Polling information from the recent presidential election reveals that the issue most commonly given for voting this year was a concern for values. Although I have written about the role that values played in selecting one candidate over another, http://www.wnd.com/news /article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=41308 I also believe that there are plenty of people in both parties who have deeply held religious values and beliefs that cause them to make personal sacrifices in order to better the lives of those in need. Selfless "saints" are everywhere.
As folks throughout the political spectrum look for ways to further unite our nation, perhaps one way that will hasten the process is for each of us to step out and work with those from all walks of life to make a difference in our communities. Yes, one way to positively affect the lives of those in need is to ensure that public policy reflects the most efficient means to do so http://www.heritage.org /Research/Welfare/bg1796.cfm . But by reaching out on our own - whether it's by donating to a local soup kitchen, volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center, or writing a check to a local charity - Americans of all political persuasions can quickly provide real, tangible, effective help to those in need.
If you're a little down on life, reading Street Saints will renew your faith in the American people. If you're feeling sorry for yourself about your own circumstances, the book will help you understand that in giving of yourself to those whose situations are worse than your own, the one who often benefits most is you.
Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared on WorldNetDaily.com