June 30, 2008
By Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
How do we meet people's basic needs in America? The answer often
depends on where we stand.
Those who stand in Washington, D.C., typically see problems such
as poverty, homelessness and drug addiction in terms of statistics,
costs and caseloads. This view nurtures the mindset that these
problems can be solved only by government programs fueled by
But if you stand on South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids,
Mich., or on West Main Street in Leesburg, Fla., you perhaps see
Instead of statistics, you might know a family who can't pay its
rent because of unexpected doctor bills. Instead of a case number,
you might know a pregnant teenager whose dad was never around. Your
close-up view of these problems helps you see what Washington
bureaucrats can't: That what these people need most are family,
friends and support networks that know them personally.
Therein lies the power of religious and community-based
organizations, which President Bush has rightly highlighted from
the earliest days of his campaign right up through today. The best
expressions of this reorientation toward the local, the flexible
and the personal have been through programs such as Access to
Recovery. ATR is a program that allows drug addicts to use vouchers
at the treatment facility of their choice, including religious
Similarly, grassroots nonprofits also play a valuable role in
helping the homeless.
"We cannot break dangerous patterns of behavior and cycles of
poverty unless we get personally involved," says Mary Kay Baker,
director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Grand Rapids. Her
organization works with 15 local churches to provide shelter, food
and other forms of material assistance to homeless families. But it
offers more. "They need cheerleaders who listen to them and give
Mary Kay and her colleagues live this personal approach. They
refer to the people they serve not as "clients" or "cases" but as
"guests," according them dignity and respect. Church members
volunteer to house these "guests" in their church buildings, cook
and eat dinner with them and play games with their children or help
them with homework.
This personal approach includes another crucial element:
With assistance comes personal responsibility. Toward that end,
guests are required to seek employment during their stay or receive
a seven-day notice to leave.
Guests at IHN also must turn over their government-issued debit
cards to staff. Although staff members don't hold veto power over
the cards, they talk with guests about their spending choices.
"Many guests have never had the concept of saving explained or
modeled for them," says Baker. "When we encourage them to save
money, they often leave thrilled to have enough saved up for their
first's month's rent."
IHN's networking approach with local churches is just one model
for meeting people's needs. The First Baptist Church of Leesburg,
Fla., has taken a different route by gradually building an entire
ministry village on its campus. Staff and volunteers operate
different ministries that serve homeless men and women, abandoned
children, pregnant women, sick people without medical insurance,
alcoholics and drug addicts, and many others.
What motivates FBC members? "They love Christ, and Christ loved
broken people, so they are moved by their love of Christ to serve
those he served," Pastor Emeritus Charles Roesel says.
This local, faith-centered approach doesn't just transform
lives. It also tackles human need more efficiently than bloated
government programs. For example, while FBC's community medical
care center spends about $30,000 a month to provide medical care to
the uninsured, it receives over $100,000 a month worth of donated
pharmaceuticals and services.
Similar savings are achieved in Grand Rapids. IHN receives
$12,000 annually from a government grant - less than 10 percent of
But because churches and volunteers provide housing and food to
their approximately 200 guests each year, they provide services
that would cost taxpayers more than $92,500 annually in government
Such examples bear out the original idea behind the President's
Faith-Based and Community Initiative. At its best, the initiative
seeks to instill a personal, community-based approach to meeting
human needs by reducing regulations and fostering an environment in
which faith-inspired and grassroots efforts can flourish.
As government budgets spiral out of control, the need is more
urgent than ever for policies that create environments in which
families, local congregations and community-based organizations can
thrive. Their power to meet people's needs lies in a personal
approach that government simply cannot emulate.
Ryan Messmore is a
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The
Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune News Service
How do we meet people's basic needs in America? The answer often depends on where we stand.
Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
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