poverty reduction and the church

The United Church of Canada has a very long history of social engagement. We have never been so pious as to imagine that all persons need is a soul full of prayer and they will inherit salvation, a pathway to eternal life. That just does not fit with the character of our God, a God identified by Jesus in stories like the Good Samaritan, in the Great Commandments (love God, love neighbour, love self), in the separation of sheep and goats (“where were you when I was hungry?”), and in his words, “feed my lambs…” How does one read these four Gospels and somehow miss the social dimension of faith, that loving God means loving others? This Social Gospel component of our church identity is very, very strong and remains one of the defining characteristics of the United Church of Canada.

So despite the availability of the Canada Pension and the provincial social assistance programs there remains the persistent presence of poverty. The solutions to this challenge range from left to right on our ideological spectrum. Those on the right believe that getting people to work and making work as attractive and accessible as possible is the single best solution to poverty. Many faithful Christians like my friend Larry Mead, professor at New York University, reference the famous Bible story of Jesus saying to the man who carries his mat, “get up and walk!” as their starting point to empowering people to confront their own economic circumstances. Mead favours an economic system where the state will pay for education, child care, transportation, even wage subsidies, all to move a person from welfare to work.

And those on the left have ample Bible stories to share. “As you do this to the least of these my sisters and brothers, you do this for me”, would be one simple motivation to feed anyone who is hungry. The left has many, many Christian voices who advocate for increased assistance to those living in poverty, more low-income housing, universal high-quality child care for everyone, a guaranteed annual income, and free university tuition, just for starters. The thinking behind these solutions is clear, as we see the one who is hungry and homeless we see Jesus and as we respond to the poor we respond to Jesus.

Local congregations in the UCC include people on both ends of this spectrum and all parts in between. And local outreach committees are always trying to imagine ways to make a difference in their community, or perhaps in the local municipality where they are located, on matters of poverty reduction. Given my 25 years of experience reading on the topic, listening to people in the midst of poverty, attending workshops on poverty reduction, and being actively involved in such work myself, I am often contacted for ideas. Here are a few thoughts:

As I see it local churches need to be aware and engaged in three layers to poverty reduction.

1)    The big picture. Governments have the most impact on poverty reduction, governments have the resources, infrastructure and delivery system to really make a dent into poverty. BUT government resources come from taxes, your taxes and my taxes. And people today are reluctant to part with their tax dollars, in part because they feel they earned this money and it is theirs to spend as they wish and because they are cynical that governments are competent enough to really make a difference. Churches can engage this layer by reminding their largely middle class congregations that their tax dollars can make a difference and that part of our witness as faithful followers of Jesus is to see persons housed and fed. The practical part of this effort is that elected governments listen to middle class voters and thus far the only government spending that middle class people seem to approve of relates to health care (self-interest). If churches can motive and move middle class tax payers to suggest to their elected governments that it is OK with them to spend tax dollars on poverty we might yet see action.

2)    Isolation. Poverty is very, very isolating. When you lack resources you often lack opportunities to engage others. And in many neighbourhoods with high concentrations of poverty the green spaces, the open spaces, the safe spaces, are often elusive. Churches often have space to share and if they get past walking behind these newcomers with a broom and a brush and locking up their kitchens this can be a wonderful opportunity to offer hospitality. Churches can provide space, welcome and presence to persons in the midst of isolation. One more thing I have learned more recently, those of us on the left need to get over our fear of inviting people to church who utilize our programming. For years those of us on the left were reticent to mention attending church for fear the person accepting our help would think it was an implicit part of the deal, you get help and you come to our church. But instead what the person feels is “you don’t want me to come to your church”. Attending church and being a part of a church family is a tremendous way for people in isolation to feel connected.

3)    Need. Over the years many on the left have tried to close foodbanks in hopes that such a dramatic move would force the government’s hand to do something about poverty, that the band aid approach of churches with foodbanks is no substitute to a just system where everyone gets enough food to be healthy and thrive. But more often than not this strategy backfires and those who count on the churches for immediate needs are left with nothing. In the short term it is the poor who suffer the most when the foodbanks close. Churches that offer this assistance are not challenging the system that leaves people hungry but they are meeting a real need. If churches decide that this kind of immediate response is the best they can offer than it is important to hear the story of Mary and Martha, to both offer food and welcome to those who come through your doors. Those who volunteer at our foodbanks need a spirit of compassion, they cannot take it personally when a guest does not say thank you. If a guest is rude or acts in a dangerous fashion, that is another matter and that may well need to be dealt with. But the food we offer is not there so our self-esteem can be improved with smiles and thank yous. If we are there to feed and clothe then we must take that ministry seriously and do that with the spirit of hospitality and kindness.

Poverty reduction is not easy. Poverty will not be solved by just throwing money at the problem but it will also not be reduced by shaming the people who stand where we would likely stand if it were not for one or two mentors who made the difference in our lives. The poor do not need our self-righteous arrogance or our pity. What the poor need from the church is our honest engagement and genuine concern.