The Common Good
March-April 1997

The Church Steps Forward

by Jim Wallis | March-April 1997

From welfare reform to overcoming poverty. A strategy for action.

Everything the churches have learned about the biblical demand of justice for the poor is about to be put to the test. Life is hard for those who are poor in America, and every indication is that the lives of low-income families and individuals are about to become even more brutal. As the reality of the new welfare bill unfolds, the ones whom Jesus called "the least of these" appear to be in great jeopardy.

As the law now stands, people will be cut off from welfare benefits without any provision for jobs, adequate child care, or national standards of accountability for the welfare plans the states are now devising. President Clinton and many members of Congress also know that the massive cuts in nutrition programs and benefits to legal immigrants went much too far. The severe consequences of these momentous decisions are about to hit local communities (see "The Issue is Poverty," page 18).

Our most urgent need is for new centers of moral conscience and accountability in the public debate, to monitor both federal policy and state programs. More important, we must help develop an entirely new approach to truly overcoming poverty.

Both conservatives and liberals seem to accept widespread poverty in the richest nation in the world. This is the national shame that we must directly address. Ideological battles over a welfare system that few believed in anymore obscured a deeper reality: Sometime during the last few decades we stopped even talking about ending poverty.

The arguments have been about maintaining the poor or abandoning them, rather than the harder question of why such massive and persistent poverty exists in the United States. With the current devolution of social welfare policy, those deeper issues will come even closer to home.

Therefore, it is time for the churches across the conservative to liberal spectrum to step forward and offer moral leadership for the sake of the nation’s poor. If the Bible is not clear about the primary responsibility of God’s people for those who are poor, then it is not clear about anything. The crisis now faced by poor people calls the churches to renew that responsibility.

An Inside-Outside Strategy

Shortly after the passage of the historic civil rights legislation in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to see President Lyndon Johnson. As the story goes, King told Johnson that the next step on the road to racial justice was an urgently needed voting rights act. That was impossible, retorted Johnson, because he had cashed in all his political chips with his fellow Southern lawmakers to pass the civil rights act. It would be at least five or 10 years before a voting rights act could be won.

That was unacceptable, replied Dr. King, because until black people could fairly vote in the South, they could not change their communities. The president said he was sorry, but a new voting rights law was politically unrealistic.

King’s response was neither to whine nor withdraw, but to organize. The civil rights movement organized a campaign in Selma, Alabama, and it galvanized the nation, as Birmingham had before the civil rights act. In Selma, the religious community was mobilized and became involved in the civil rights struggle as never before.

Just five months after Selma, the U.S. Congress passed the historic 1965 voting rights act. It was an example of how a social movement changed the political reality, and grassroots momentum altered what was possible in the corridors of power.

Selma, and the whole civil rights movement, demonstrates the power of the "outside-inside" strategy that can be most effective in seeking social change. King and others pounded on the doors of power with the persistence of the poor woman in the gospel story of the widow and the judge. And having a grassroots movement attract national attention finally opened those doors.

We need an outside-inside strategy now. Severe social dislocation and abandonment are right before us unless bold new initiatives are undertaken soon—to make the transition "from welfare to work" possible, to ensure necessary child care, to protect vital nutrition programs, to care for those who can’t work, and to defend those immigrants who really need help.

While the welfare law cannot just be "fixed," critical things can and must be done now. I was as critical as anyone of the new welfare bill, but that battle is over. Like King, we must neither whine nor withdraw. The new reality emerging in our local communities affords us fresh opportunities for action.

The "outside strategy" is critical because, as King and many other successful movement activists have demonstrated, changing public opinion and momentum is always the most important task. Like occurred in Selma, the religious community must play a central role in redefining the welfare debate. That debate tricked us into thinking the issue is reforming welfare, when the real question is how to attack the root causes of poverty in the wealthiest country on God’s earth. That is a challenge worthy of the leadership of the religious community.

The Organizing Task

Conversations with religious leaders in every part of the country have convinced me that the crisis now facing poor people in all of our communities might be the catalyst that brings us together. How we treat "the least of these" is the fundamental social question for Christians and, as a Jewish rabbi testified on a national radio program about the legacy of King, it is a universal theological and spiritual imperative. Compassion and justice for the poor is the first principle of biblical politics and has the capacity to bring us together across denominational, racial, ethnic, and even interfaith lines. We must immediately organize to come together.

Service-providing institutions must come together with the religious community. These non-profit organizations, like the religious sector, can sometimes be disorganized or competitive with one another. Such internal strife is no longer tenable in the face of the hurricane of need we are about to confront. Again, discussions with service providers around the country indicate a hunger to join more strategically with those in the religious community.

Once united, what should the religious and other non-profit communities say and do? First, we must make our message very clear. Contrary to the dangerous talk of some, "churches and charities" cannot, and should not, bear alone all responsibility for poor people. We must insist that government not abdicate its legitimate role. The Bible holds kings, rulers, employers, and judges responsible for their just treatment of those who are poor, and we should too.

But even without adequate resources, religious and other community organizations have been serving poor people and successful at fighting poverty in many areas. People across the political spectrum believe it is time to expand both the role of the non-profit sector and the resources available to get the job done. At this moment of crisis and transition, the religious community especially could play a crucial leadership role to rally the larger society to its responsibility for our poorest citizens.

Our Message

We are all responsible, including the government and the business community—this is our religious message, one with strong biblical foundations. We will tell elected officials that religious and other non-profits will not just "clean up the mess" created by bad social policy. Rather, we want to help formulate that policy in states, counties, and cities.

Church leaders and community activists should be knocking on the doors of state and local officials until they have a place at the policy formation table. The welfare bill requires each state to submit a new welfare reform plan to the federal government by July 1, 1997. Each of those plans should reflect major involvement from the religious and non-profit sectors.

Churches and non-profit organizations could be the catalysts and conveners of new partnerships for real solutions to poverty. We need new approaches beyond relying either on government programs alone or hoping that churches and charities can, by themselves, take care of the problem. Religious communities and other non-profits must enter into public-private collaborations with both government and business to find the answers that work.

Churches and Government

What government and churches can do together is a fundamental question. That should be the focus of the "inside strategy."

Religious institutions and other non-profit groups already do a great deal, and with very limited funds. These institutions and the government need to develop strategies together to strengthen and empower non-profits (including religious ones) to play a central role in delivering social services, without either violating the First Amendment or weakening the specific components that make religious non-profits so successful.

A public policy that empowers and funds the successful strategies of both religious and secular non-profits while respecting the separation of church and state is critical. This departure from both Left and Right is an urgently needed new paradigm to alleviate poverty. We also must resist any effort to restrain non-profit organizations from advocacy—restraints that in effect tell them to do more and shut up.

The new welfare reform law may push more than two million additional people (half of them children) into poverty. What state governments decide could reduce the damage or expand the ranks of the poor by millions more. The churches’ task includes advocacy for government responsibility.

Churches and Business

Most of the welfare debate has concerned government and the non-profit sectors, with little attention given to the companies who make a profit in a community but often take little responsibility for the community’s well-being. From a religious perspective, profits simply cannot be the only bottom line of a business enterprise. A business also must be committed to the common good and to finding real solutions to the persistent poverty plaguing so many of our communities.

Conversations with bank presidents and entrepreneurs show that some of them are ready to pitch in. Practically, businesses must offer their time, expertise, and resources for job readiness and training, while creating new jobs—as they always claim to be best at doing—jobs where they are most needed and jobs that can lead to a living family wage.

They could also play a crucial support role in the development of business plans and skills for new micro-enterprise efforts in poor communities. Changing restrictive financial policies to open the door to capital formation for new people and constituencies is critical for success in community-based economic development.

The churches can be a critical partner in all these efforts to provide the link to poor communities, to identify the people, families, and projects most likely to succeed in new economic activities from home ownership to business start-ups. Congregations working with the business community can be the cradles or crucibles for innovative economic development in low-income communities.

Churches must challenge local business people, including members of their own congregations, to uphold their social responsibilities: to fair and just labor practices, to racial and gender equality in the workplace, to environmental stewardship, and, yes, to an honest and fair relationship with the labor movement, whose rejuvenation and leadership role is essential to any real hope for economic justice. As a partner and a prophetic interrogator, the church could enter into a new, dynamic relationship with the business community that would be profitable for both as well as the larger community.

Getting Practical

For specifics, churches should prioritize jobs. Churches and religious non-profits can be highly successful with job readiness programs; job linking (informal networks for sharing employment information); job creation (developing entrepreneurial and micro-business plans and enterprises); and by providing quality, safe child care at affordable rates to single, working moms.

Churches and the neighborhood centers they are establishing demonstrate success in becoming "sanctuaries" in violence-torn, drug-infested neighborhoods. Gang truces, mentoring and tutoring, youth recreation, judicial accompaniment of juveniles, successful addiction programs, conflict-resolution training, summer "freedom schools," neighborhood crime watches, and a host of efforts to reclaim local communities are the impressive results.

These kid-by-kid and block-by-block redemption programs work best when they are fully supported by a range of surrounding public and private institutions—government, schools, police, courts, and businesses. Public policy can do much to ensure that support.

State plans for welfare reform should directly link with those efforts. At the national level, religious leaders should push the president and congressional leaders to insist that each state invite religious institutions to be centrally involved in developing the welfare reform plans and make a significant role for faith-based non-profits in delivering programs and services. Proposals to provide tax credits for individuals and corporations that donate money to eligible non-profits (religious and non-religious) with a successful record of promoting community development should be explored.

In every state and city, religious communities must boldly knock on the door of the policy makers while we tell the White House and Congress to help open those doors from the national level. That would be an effective "outside-inside" strategy.

But effective local community service and development are not substitutes for advocacy—for supporting good public policy in Washington, D.C., and in the states to help alleviate poverty and hunger. Right now that includes joining the efforts of religious and secular anti-hunger organizations to protect and improve national nutrition programs that make a difference (such as the "Hunger Has A Cure" campaign, led by Bread for the World).

Taking Moral Inventory

Advocacy begins at home, with each of us in our families and churches taking personal and communal inventory of our resources, time, energy, and commitments. If the churches are to help lead the way in taking responsibility for overcoming poverty, we must lead first of all by example. That is required of all of us, despite our political differences.

Conservative churches that believe that most of the answers will come through one-to-one relationships need to enter into those relationships with people who are poor on a scale that makes more than a symbolic difference. If they believe personal and church-based initiatives will be most effective, it’s time for the biggest and richest conservative churches to devote their significant resources toward community development.

It’s also time for liberal churches who speak of social concern to put their words into action, offering their budgets, facilities, and pension funds for community-based economic development. Too much liberal social concern has been offered from a safe distance; it’s time to reconnect all our churches with poor communities.

A Pentecost for the Poor

All congregations—evangelical, Catholic, and mainline; black, white, Latino, and Asian; urban, suburban, and even rural—must reach some common ground about these urgent matters. The time has come to make the effort.

By Pentecost Sunday 1997 (May 18), the church should strive for that common ground together and then announce to the nation what it will take responsibility for. In the church calendar, Pentecost marks the moment when the early church was filled with the Spirit, found its voice, and took to the streets. The crisis the poor in America face cries out for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit so powerful that once again it might be said of Christians, as it was of the early Christians after the first Pentecost: "There was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4:34).

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