The winds of change blowing on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures are making a cold world for those without power or wealth. Couched in the language of "personal responsibility" and "individualism," a countrywide backlash has lawmakers suggesting that government get out of the welfare business and let the churches and charities take care of society's outcasts.
This ignores, of course, the reality that churches have always ministered to those untouched by government's overburdened programs. They do so cheaply and effectively, quietly responding to the needs of their brothers and sisters around them. Even without directly confronting the powers that create poverty, these churches often find themselves under attack, as their mere existence challenges gentrification, "revitalization," and other agendas that neglect the poor.
Washington, D.C.'s Luther Place Memorial is one such church. For 23 years, since deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill dumped thousands on the streets, Luther Place has ministered to the homeless. Over time, Luther Place fine-tuned its ministry from one of temporary relief from harsh weather conditions to a full-time shelter and multifaceted programs to help residents not only come in from the cold, but get back on their feet. The church has run these programs almost entirely on individual donations, with little or no government or foundation funding. Thus Luther Place manages to meet the currently vogue preference for private sector action while doing what the gospel requires.
Even so, Luther Place has been attacked. Four years ago, the church decided to renovate some of its properties to better meet the overwhelming need evidenced in the waiting list for its existing programs. Though members approached the local neighborhood association ahead of time to invite input and support, neighbors blocked the church's efforts. In the years to follow, Luther Place found itself repeatedly delayed by various stalling measures in the courts, deluged by technical requirements, and having to undertake time-consuming community education to counter misinformation spread by some of the neighbors.
NOT IN My Backyard (NIMBY) reactions are nothing new. The homeless-symbol of all that is wrong with our society and frequently its scapegoats-are often the targets of a NIMBY response. Not far from Luther Place, Samaritan Inns, a ministry of The Church of the Saviour, similarly experienced strong neighborhood reaction when it attempted to open Tabitha House, a replication of the successful Lazarus House, which provides low-cost housing for graduates of substance abuse programs.
Though Samaritan Inns tried to educate and involve the community ahead of time, it found itself under attack from some area residents who thought the presence of Tabitha House would bring about an increase in crime. The opposition persuaded the D.C. government to block construction and to threaten the closing of the original Lazarus House. Samaritan Inns took the District government to federal court, which ruled that the city's actions were in direct violation of the Fair Housing Act and that it was liable for damages.
The opposition has exacted a high cost from Samaritan Inns. Undaunted, Tabitha House is in operation and Samaritan Inns plans to open another house.
Meanwhile, Tabitha House's residents have been the best source of reducing the fear and polarization generated by misinformation. One Tabitha House resident discovered that the mail carrier for her downtown office lived in her neighborhood. Excited to have a friend in her area, the postal worker talked highly of the neighborhood-except for the "drug addict house" they needed to shut down. The Tabitha House resident calmly replied, "I am them." The fear of "the other" had lost its foundation.
These two churches took mammoth efforts to carry out the call to serve, and they couldn't have been sustained without the support of their donors and congregations. Luther Place's congregation gave up its choir room and parish hall to house the ministry's residents. Samaritan Inns found itself the subject of a prayer chain that stretched around the country.
Such support-and not obstruction-will be essential as churches seek to meet the incalculable needs of those who will fall through the increasingly leaky safety net in the coming years. As David Erickson, president of Samaritan Inns, said, "You would hope that government would at least not stand in the way. You would hope that they would be supportive."
This doesn't necessarily even mean money-government agencies could provide technical support; develop supportive zoning, credit, and tax policies; and undertake community education and mediation to mitigate neighborhood concerns. Regardless of the position government takes, we can be sure that ministries like Luther Place and Samaritan Inns will press on in stubborn acts of faith.