December 1, 2008 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society, Family and Marriage

Taking Time for Justice

"When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." So goes the rationale behind tax policies that redistribute income, at least as it was offered to Joe the Plumber several weeks ago. The idea, promoted as simple social justice, is that government should help the poor by taking money from the wealthy (through increased taxes) and giving it to those in need (through government social programs).

But that's not the only way to help the poor. Nor is it the most powerful way to extend a helping hand. Consider instead the approach taken by Cheryl Murff and her husband Ron.

About 18 months ago, while working at a church outside of Dallas, Cheryl was challenged by a local minister to give not only money but also time to those in need.

Something clicked. Every Saturday since then, Cheryl and Ron drive to South Dallas to spend time with Rodrick and Lisa. A few years ago, Rodrick was a drug dealer controlling 70 percent of the drug traffic in his neighborhood. He had frequent run-ins with the law, fathered four children out of wedlock, and lived with his girlfriend Lisa in an apartment in a public-housing project. One night when he found his four-year old son imitating him by rolling up a piece of paper like a joint, Rodrick reached a breaking point. He knew he had to change his life around, and he turned to a Christian ministry for help.

Faith-based organizations play an essential role in helping connect those in need with resources and relationships that transform lives. Mike Fechner, the head of a ministry called H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, helped Rodrick kick drugs, get married to Lisa, and participate in a Bible study. It was Mike who also challenged Cheryl with taking time for the poor. When she asked how she and her husband could make a difference in combating poverty in Dallas, Mike suggested they cultivate a personal relationship with Rodrick and Lisa.

Equipped with no special training or skills except a desire to serve others, Cheryl and Ron agreed.

At first, the two couples simply spent time together getting to know each other. It didn't take long, though, for Cheryl and Ron to understand some of the real difficulties facing their new friends. With Rodrick's police record, it was hard for him to get a job, and he was being asked to give up his steady stream of income from selling drugs. He couldn't afford a big car, but he couldn't fit his kids' four car seats in the vehicle that he had.

Together the couples began to develop an unconventional friendship that would change their lives.

Cheryl and Ron helped Rodrick financially and in other ways -- modeling good habits and showing how a mutually supportive marriage can work. But the relationship wasn't a one-way street. Cheryl and Ron learned just as much in return, especially about sustaining joy and gratitude during life's ups and downs. Today the couples can be found going out on double dates and sharing Thanksgiving dinner. When asked how long she plans to continue this kind of relationship, Cheryl responds without hesitation: "forever!"

The results speak for themselves. Rodrick now works on staff for H.I.S. BridgeBuilders ministry, providing real hope for others living in poverty and addiction. He's married to Lisa and works hard to be a good role model for his kids. And he loves to tell people the difference that Jesus Christ has made in his life through people like Cheryl, Ron and Mike.

As our nation discusses how best to help the poor, we shouldn't assume that the only or even the best approach is for government to take more money through taxes. If Rodrick is any indication, a better approach is being offered by those who take time for others. Through their relationship, Rodrick received not only financial assistance but also forms of support that cannot be quantified or calculated -- the kind of help, and hope, that government programs simply cannot provide.

Cheryl reminds us of what progressive economic policies often forget: The real issue of poverty isn't simply about money, but about people. People taking time to invest in people -- shouldering burdens, shaping habits, and sharing holidays with those in need -- is social justice in action.

Which would be most helpful, and truly hopeful, for those in poverty: for all rich Americans to give more money to the federal government? Or for all caring Americans to invest personally in the life of just one person in need?

Ryan Messmore is the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ryan Messmore, D.Phil. Research Fellow
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

First Appeared in McClatchy and Standard Examiner