The Common Good
May-June 1998

Local Work on a National Problem

by Duane Shank | May-June 1998

Communities pitch in to help people out of poverty.

While government officials claim that welfare "reform" is working, the facts contradict that myth. Reports continue to show that half to three-quarters of welfare recipients are simply being dumped. No one really knows what is happening to them, except for widespread reports of an increased demand for emergency assistance.

In this situation, we need to reassess the 1996 welfare legislation and make needed midcourse corrections. Political leaders should stop boasting about getting people off welfare and make a commitment to help millions of families out of poverty. That task will require cooperative efforts in every community.

As Call to Renewal focuses on the creation and development of local roundtables, we are witnessing a coming together of the churches along with political and business leaders. The new commitment that is needed is appearing in an increasing number of communities. Call convener Jim Wallis and national field organizer Rev. Emory Searcy Jr. have visited nearly 30 communities so far this year.

In January, Wallis spoke at the annual prayer breakfast of the West Virginia state legislature, where legislators of both parties eagerly received the message. The president of the West Virginia Council of Churches agreed to coordinate a West Virginia Call to Renewal table.

Call to Renewal of Memphis, Tennessee, is focusing on education as one key to overcoming poverty. The table is working on family support, after-school, and preschool child care programs.

In Phoenix, Arizona, the Republican state legislator who chairs the committee responsible for allocating welfare block grants hosted a Call meeting with Searcy. Also in attendance were the local Democratic state legislator, the director of Social Services, the Southwest Leadership Foundation, a representative of the Catholic Bishops Conference, and local pastors from all sectors of the church. At this initial meeting, a commitment was made to continue working together on common projects.

Several tables are forming in Michigan. The Grand Rapids table is bringing together a number of faith-based ministries and churches, each with their own focus, to discern areas for cooperative work. A local activist from the Christian Reformed Church is convening the table. In Detroit, a new table is forming and making plans for a local Pentecost action. A roundtable discussion in Kalamazoo brought together the Ecumenical Forum, Coalition of Compassion, Black Baptist Ministerial Alliance, and Northside Ministerial Alliance to meet with Searcy.

In the past year, 5,000 church-based workers have been trained in North Carolina to serve in welfare-to-work programs—mentoring, job readiness, day care, and others. A church-based Jobs Partnership is bringing together local churches and businesses to train, equip, and employ people. The churches have assumed a leadership role in several counties.

Following speaking appearances by Wallis in Des Moines, Iowa, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, groups of local church and government leaders are coming together to discuss and plan for the formation of Call to Renewal tables.

Wallis and Searcy have also participated in roundtable discussions in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis, and Kansas City.

The newest Call to Renewal chapter has formed at Sing Sing state prison in New York. A group of men there who are in a theological study program of the New York Theological Seminary invited Wallis and Searcy to address their evening meeting. They expressed their strong desire to create a Call to Renewal group, laying the groundwork to organize their communities after they are released.

These newly forming tables are now looking toward Pentecost as a time to come together publicly and speak to their communities.

IN ALL OF these communities, important ministry is being done and valuable lessons are being learned. And a message is being sent from the communities—"bring us together." We need to share our experiences, build a national network, and speak to the nation.

In response, we have begun to plan a National Summit on the Church and Welfare Reform. Its purpose will be to present to the nation the experiences of those who are working on the ground, and provide an opportunity for training and networking to engage thousands of additional churches in the goal of assisting families to move from welfare to work with dignity in community. Look for further details in upcoming months. —Duane Shank

Sojourners is an active participant in the Call to Renewal network, providing leadership and organizing support. Write Call to Renewal, 2401 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009; call (202) 328-8842; fax (202) 328-8757; e-mail: Call_to_Renewal@convene. com or visit the Call to Renewal home page, www.calltorenewal.com

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