Whose job is it to help those in need? Some say it's the government's. That's certainly the view of Ebenezer Scrooge. When asked to contribute to the poor, he responds: "Are there no prisons? And the union workhouses? Are they still in operation?" Substitute "welfare checks" and "food stamps," and you find the same attitude prevails today: Let Uncle Sam handle the problem.
But is government assistance the best way to help the poor?
Mary Kay Baker would disagree - gently but firmly. Ms. Baker is director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) in Grand Rapids, Mich. IHN works with more than a dozen local churches to provide food, shelter and other assistance to homeless families.
Why not just leave that up to the government? "We cannot break dangerous patterns of behavior and cycles of poverty unless we get personally involved," Ms. Baker says. "They need cheerleaders who listen to them and give them encouragement."
That personal approach makes a huge difference to the people being helped. It ensures that they receive the dignity and respect they need to help get over the tough times they're enduring. A government check can't look you in the eye and offer advice about how you can turn your life around. A food stamp won't find you a job.
Ryan Messmore, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation, visited IHN for a firsthand look at its work. He writes:
"Mary Kay Baker and her colleagues live this personal approach. They refer to the people they serve not as 'clients' or 'cases' but as 'guests.' ... 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."
Plenty of other churches and civil groups across the country take a similar approach. Consider the work of the First Baptist Church (FBC) of Leesburg, Fla. FBC has built a ministry village on its campus to help serve the needy. Volunteers and staff step in to assist people who are down and out, from homeless men and pregnant women to abandoned children and drug addicts.
Again, why? "They love Christ, and Christ loved broken people, so they are moved by their love of Christ to serve those he served," says Pastor Emeritus Charles Roesel.
Is it any wonder that groups such as IHN and FBC wind up serving the poor more effectively and efficiently than a waste-filled and impersonal government program? It's not just a job to the men and women who voluntarily pitch in to help their less fortunate neighbors. They're motivated by religious faith, or simply by basic human decency and compassion. And in so doing, they make their country a better place.
Yes, there are dedicated public servants. Many government people care deeply about their "client populations." But by its very nature, any government program for the poor is removed from the people it serves. The people who collect the checks routinely become a name and a number, not a face and a personality. They're a mouth and an outstretched hand, not a mind and a soul.
Take Bob, an alcoholic that FBC helped. Abandoned by his mother as a child, he later learned she adopted two girls. "Since then, I never felt I was worthy of anybody's love," he said. He turned to substance abuse in a vain effort to fill "a huge hole in my heart." FBC didn't just feed him and give him a bed. They worked with him, emotionally and spiritually, to help heal this poor man.
Upon graduating from FBC's program, Bob remarked, "Now I feel worthy of God's love and that makes me able to love others for the first time."
A government program can't do that. Only people can.
Whose job is it to help? It's ours.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times