On the Road to Samaria: The Church’s Response to Poverty

Admittedly I was a precocious child and I have grown into an idealistic adult. I’m not sure you can be in my line of work – a social work faculty member and community-engaged researcher finding ways to strengthen neighborhoods – without a hefty dose of idealism. My selection of scripture for my ordination nearly 18 years ago was equally precocious, idealistic, and ostentatious. As I considered the meaning of an ordination service and how I wanted to frame my ministry, selecting from Luke was the most logical. The social justice minded Luke’s gospel presents a Jesus who challenges authority, fights oppression, and creates a place at the table for all especially those whom society marginalizes. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.18-19) Yes, that’s the text I chose for Dr. Deborah Krause, Professor of New Testament at Eden Seminary, to preach at my ordination. It was a brave choice, an ostentatious choice. But it is how I have always viewed the central work of the Church and my call to participate in that work.

The Church has sustained the most consistent response to poverty throughout time. In Colonial America, it was the local church that bore the responsibility for the poor, widows, and orphans within its parish. Congregations cared for their own. People of faith, primarily trailblazing women, began Settlement Houses and Charity Organization Societies in the later part of the 19th century to provide community responses to increasing urban poverty. The United Church of Christ’s predecessor denominations were active in such efforts – many of these ministries are still providing faithful service to children, older adults, and those with disabilities. Today, social welfare policy has explicit provisions (Charitable Choice) to encourage greater participation of faith-based organizations in the social service delivery system. And even the White House maintains the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The efficiency and effectiveness of faith-based social services has received significant scholarly attention over the past decade. Findings are as mixed as the politics surrounding Charitable Choice itself. I would like to posit, however, that we should think more broadly about the Church’s response to poverty. Not that specific programs are not important, but we should consider how the very nature of participating in a religious congregation may build social capital, foster social and economic mobility, and promote mental and physical well-being.

Colleagues and I recently examined data we collected in a large, Southern US city. We are interested in how social capital can be built and accessed through participation in various social spaces, including religious congregations. This is particularly important in light of the reported declining participation in civic organizations and churches. It seems like every week I receive another Pew research update citing how much and why US congregations are declining. However, participation has its benefits.

Our current study takes a different approach by examining whether or not the distance one travels to their religious congregation impacts their access to social capital resources. Well it does, but not as we would expect. It seems, from these data, that the further one travels from home to where they worship, the more resources they access. We posit that these social spaces provide access to a diverse resource network not available within one’s neighborhood. At one time we would have argued that attending a congregation within one’s neighborhood would enhance social capital by increasing face-to-face interactions; yet here we see that exposure to people who may be different from you is an important piece of how congregations enhance one’s social and economic mobility and mental and physical well-being. Participation has its benefits, particularly when we expand our social networks beyond the circles we might normally include. Our natural inclination is to build relationships with people like us – in the social sciences we call this assortative mixing. In all honesty, we are not quite sure what to make of this finding but it does suggest that those who travel across greater physical distances to participate in the life of a religious congregation are able to draw upon more resources to make life work. It could say more about the individual than the distance itself or it could mean that some congregations are naturally destinations because of what they have to offer. Regardless, it gives us pause to think about the role that congregations play in helping people to get by and get ahead.

We walk many roads and encounter many people along life’s way. The Church plays an intentional role in poverty alleviation, but it also continues to address poverty in informal ways. In some respects this is a call for our congregations to grow in their diversity, to expand opportunities for interaction across groups, and to combat systems of oppression. Congregations, while celebrating their vibrant pasts, should challenge themselves to think creatively about their futures. Rather than what was, we are a people of what is yet to be. Don’t be constrained by the past, but be empowered by what the future may hold. Be an idealist. Bring good news to the poor! It is what the Lord has anointed you to do, no matter how ostentatious it feels.

Photo: Good Samaritan window at Christ United Church of Christ, Dupo, IL.

Many thanks to my study collaborators Dr. Bethany Bell of the University of South Carolina and Dr. Richard Smith of Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.

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