Friday, February 16, 2007

Falling Between The Cracks

In the past few years, there has been much talk of "faith based initiatives" and the many ways in which the Church can do a better job than the state when it comes to helping the needy.

In theory, I believe that the Church is better equipped than the state when it comes to charitable works designed to help the needy. The Church was involved in charitable work long before most local, state and federal governments became involved in such work.

The governmental practice of avoiding anything even remotely hinting of religion has often meant that their hands were tied when it came to addressing the spiritual causes of problems such as criminality, drug abuse and teen pregnancy.

However, it would be false to claim that the Church always did a better job of addressing social needs than the government. In some cases, what the Church has to offer is really pretty lame.

I have been in a position in which I needed emergency help on more than one occasion, so I have had the opportunity to look into what types of help are actually available. Certain types of help have been relatively easy to find and procure. Other types of help have been considerably more difficult to obtain.

In this blog article, I want to look into at what types of help a person might conceivably need. I want to look at what the Church does right. I also want to look at what the Church could be doing much better.


Food is a fundamental need for all human beings. To their credit, many churches seem to understand that fact. Some support "soup kitchens". Others work with local agencies such as the Chicago Food Depository, in order to distribute food obtained from secular sources by means of food distribution centers staffed by church volunteers.

In neither case could it accurately be said that it is possible to obtain enough food to meet all of one's needs, but at least the churches do seem to be involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in feeding the hungry. In conjunction with government "food stamps" (which fairly easy to qualify for and receive), the programs offered by the Church can be sufficient to keep a person from starving to death.

That isn't to say that such programs are beyond reproach by any means.

For example, the scheduling is often done very poorly. Often, if a church has its own soup kitchen, that soup kitchen will only be open one or two days a week at most. If all of the soup kitchens would coordinate their schedules, then it would be theoretically possible for a person to eat every day of the week, just by going to different soup kitchens on different days. Instead, I've seen cases in which two or more churches will both schedule their soup kitchen days on the same day of the week, at the same time, so that it's literally impossible for an individual to benefit from both programs. Even though two or more churches are offering soup kitchen days, it may be that a particular needy person is unable to take advantage of all the help which is theoretically available, for the simple reason that the person cannot be in two places at the same time. That makes no sense to me.

Another thing that makes no sense is when a needy person has to spend so much money on transportation to get to and from a particular soup kitchen that whatever savings were realized by getting the free meal are lost by paying for the trip to and from the soup kitchen.

Here in Chicago, a round trip ticket on the bus and/or subway generally costs about $4.00. One can buy a good meal at McDonalds for that kind of money (if one drinks water rather than a soft drink). One can go to the grocery store and buy enough food for a good meal for that kind of money. (A meal consisting of ramen noodles and a can of chicken, for example, can be had for less than $3.00.)

If a poor person has $4.00 to spend, and if the choice is between walking next door and buying $4.00 worth of food (without having any related transportation expenses) or taking a bus trip across town in order to get a "free" meal at a church's soup kitchen, it may be a toss-up as to which is a better choice. In fact, in such cases, it often makes more sense just to go ahead and spend the money on the food, because doing so may take far less time. When one is looking for work, one cannot afford to schedule one's entire week around the schedules and locations of various soup kitchens.

Government food stamps are far superior in that respect. One can use them, regardless of where one lives, without having to travel halfway across town in order to do so. One might have to take a single trip across town in order to apply for such benefits, but once one has been approved for the benefits, one doesn't have to keep going back on a regular basis in order to receive those benefits.

The first thing the churches need to do, if they want to sell folks on the idea that they are as good at addressing the needs of the hungry as the government, is to create a similar faith-based program which is widely recognized by grocery stores and inexpensive restaurants throughout the city or region. Food vouchers could easily be issued by numerous churches which were all participants in an interfaith program, and the administrators of the program could then coordinate their efforts with private businesses so that the vouchers could be used almost anywhere, with obvious limitations on the types of food items which could be purchased. (No $30 steak dinners or $100 bottles of champagne!)

Vouchers could be obtained from any nearby church which was a member of the interfaith initiative, rather than forcing people to spend money on transportation in order to go get their food vouchers.

Another problem with many church soup kitchens is that they tend to operate on the assumption that the person being helped is able to be physically present at the soup kitchen at the time when the meal is being served. Who does that leave out in the cold? People who are struggling to get by on the small amount of money they're able to eke out of their minimum wage part-time jobs, that's who. If their employers schedule them to work on the same days and at the same times as the soup kitchens, then they have to choose between being fed or going to work. That's ridiculous. Offering meal vouchers instead would enable people to buy meals (even in fast food restaurants, if necessary) anywhere in the city, so that they need not choose between eating and working. The same comments are applicable to people who need to feel free to travel around the city in an effort to find work. It's hard enough to find a good job these days without being anchored to one region of the city during certain times of the day or week. A good food voucher program would mean that people didn't have to choose between being fed or going to job interviews in order to find jobs which would lift them out of their difficult circumstances.

Why doesn't the Church implement such a program? My suspicion is that the administrators of many church-based soup kitchens aren't really motivated primarily by a desire to feed the hungry. Rather, the food is just a lure to get folks in the door so that they can hear the gospel.

I have nothing against preaching the gospel. In fact, I wish that more people could hear the saving message of Jesus Christ. But I think it's morally inexcusable to offer charity with such strings attached. Listening to the gospel should be something folks do because they're genuinely interested in the message, not because that's what they're forced to do if they want to receive emergency help. My message to those who have to resort to such bribery to persuade folks to listen to their sermons is that they need to improve the quality of their sermons. Then the bribery won't be necessary.

Visit any soup kitchen and stand in line in order to get a meal. You will witness a strange phenomenon. Before and after the meal, when talking amongst themselves, many of the folks in line will be cursing a blue streak. But when the chaplain in charge asks everyone to pray, many of the ones who have demonstrated just moments before that they really have no deep regard for Christ will bow their heads and go through the motions of praying for their meals. Why? Because they know that it's expected of them. It's what they feel they have to do in order to get the help they need. This kind of a scenario breeds a type of insincerity which is spiritually injurious to those who are forced by their personal circumstances to play the charity game.


Compared with what's available for people who are homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless, the food situation is relatively good.

Yes, there are homeless shelters. But take a look into how such shelters are actually operated, and you will quickly see that things could and should be done much, much better than they are.

First of all, most homeless shelters only offer a place to sleep at night. During the daytime, they're expected to leave and to take everything they own with them.

In the early nineties, I briefly looked into the possibility of staying at the Pacific Garden Mission, during a time in my life when I was seriously worried that staying there might be my only option. I discovered that they offered no storage whatsoever for one's personal possessions, during the daytime. If one had a suitcase full of clothes, one was expected to take that suitcase with one every day, when leaving the facility, because they would not store it for you in a locker or storage room during the daytime.

Imagine what a drawback it would be, when applying for a job, if one walked into the job interview carrying all of one's worldly possessions because one could not find anyplace to leave those possessions!

A properly operated homeless shelter would take into account the fact that people need storage for their possessions if they are to ever get back on their feet.

I'm not just talking about storage for the relatively limited number of possessions they can carry with them. Sometimes people become homeless solely because they cannot continue to pay their rent due to changing circumstances. Yet, they may already have a lot of furniture and other possessions for which they worked long and hard, back when they still had jobs. Having to throw those things away because there is no longer anyplace to put them can be heartbreaking and emotionally debilitating.

Some organization needs to offer free storage (for limited periods of time) to such people, so that they can survive without having to give away or throw away almost everything they own. That would even include parking for people who still own their own vehicles. Not having a vehicle can be a real liability when it comes to getting certain types of jobs (particularly when those jobs are located in the suburbs). One would not expect the Church to buy vehicles for such people, but at the very least, it would be nice if help could be offered so that such people didn't have to give away the vehicles they already owned! If every suburban church with its own parking lot set aside 5 of its parking spaces for such a purpose, it would make a huge difference in the lives of a lot of temporarily displaced people.

It would help even more if suburban families with extra spaces in their own garages or driveways would offer parking for those who had temporarily lost their own homes.


Another drawback, related to most homeless shelters, is that they almost all operate on the assumption that any person who is homeless is in need of rehabilitation services. To someone in need of such services, that can be a blessing. To someone who is not in need of such services, it can be insulting and demeaning to be forced to participate in such a program. More to the point, forcing a person to waste time in a rehabilitation program which is not really needed by that particular person can actually hinder that person's ability to get a job, find a normal apartment and get back on his or her feet again quickly.

Certainly, it's true that people who are either mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol are more vulnerable to homelessness than the general population, but it does not follow from that fact that anyone who needs emergency housing needs rehabilitation. The only thing wrong with some homeless people is that they lack homes and/or jobs. If one is evicted for nonpayment of rent, it doesn't necessarily mean that one is irresponsible. It may simply be that one has been trying, without success, to get a job. In some cases, it may even mean that one has a low-paying job but has not yet been able to save up enough money from that job to get caught up on one's rent.

A related problem is that many emergency housing programs are only available to people with problems with addiction or mental illness or specific "politically correct" physical illnesses such as AIDS.

I have no problem with the idea that such people should be eligible for emergency assistance. I do have a big problem with the fact that there are so few options for comparatively ordinary people whose only fault is that they have temporarily fallen behind on their rent because they cannot find work and they cannot qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. Why should preferential treatment be given to people who have failed to resist the temptation to engage in extremely risky behavior, while those who have successfully resisted those temptations are sometimes less likely to receive the help they need?


Wouldn't you think that it would make more sense to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place, than to respond to such homelessness only after the fact? I suspect that if you looked at the actual numbers, you would find that financial assistance which would help people to avoid eviction by helping them to pay back rent which they owed would ultimately be less costly than waiting until those people became homeless and then dealing with them as homeless people. Certainly, it would be far less traumatic for the people being helped.

I find it both sad and strange that many churches seem to be far more interested in financing missionary endeavors in far away countries than they are in helping people in their own neighborhoods in times of crisis. I have nothing against missionary work, but I also believe in the wisdom of the old saying that charity begins at home.

If a person in crisis cries out for help to a local church, and if those cries for help fall on deaf ears, then why shouldn't that person distrust claims to the effect that that same church is using its foreign missions money in the way that it claims that the money is being used? While it is true that donations to one's local church are not to be thought of as some kind of insurance policy, it is also true that churches which respond with indifference to the crying needs of their own people ought not to be surprised when those who have received such a response conclude that their churches don't really care about them, and when they respond to such indifference by either searching for more caring churches or abandoning the Church altogether.

In addition to the fact that local churches ought to offer emergency rental assistance programs so as to prevent people from ever becoming homeless in the first place, such churches also need to be actively involved in helping unemployed or marginally employed people to find work so that the need for such assistance is not a recurring need over a long period of time.

While it is true that some people who can work refuse to do so, it is presumptuous to assume that because a person is not currently working, that person does not wish to do so. Getting a job quickly is sometimes much easier said than done.

Even if a church has very little in terms of monetary resources, virtually every church worthy of the name has a telephone and a list of contact information for members, to say nothing of connections with other churches in the area. So what's to stop a pastor or church leader from getting on the phone and calling everyone possible to tell them about a particular person's need for help, and to urge them to pray about doing whatever they can do to help that person?

These days, many churches also have their own web sites. What's to stop such churches from using their web sites specifically for the purpose of making their members aware of specific members who are in need of help? What's to stop them from using their web sites for the purpose of appealing for help on behalf of those who need such help? It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that if it was obvious that they were actively working toward the purpose of contributing to the material well being of others, that would draw more people to their churches, and it would ultimately enhance their own prospects for success.

Most churches do have the resources to help people in crisis. The fact that churches seldom use their abundant resources for that purpose is a sad commentary on their lack of real compassion for the people who, in many cases, have made their ministries possible in the first place.


One of the biggest problems I see, when it comes to church-based charities, is that those who are involved in such charities often use that involvement as a means of imposing their own views on the people they are helping.

For example, when I looked into the possibility of receiving help from Pacific Garden Missions, I learned that they were not content to merely require that participants in their programs attend their chapel services. They also mandated that it was unacceptable for participants to attend certain types of churches or to listen to certain types of Christian music (such as Christian rock music)! In short, it wasn't just Christianity they were forcing on others, it was their particular brand of extremely conservative Christianity that they were forcing on others. I even seem to recall that their was a provision in their policy handbook which stated that it was unacceptable for participants in their program to attend Pentecostal or charismatic worship services!

I couldn't help but think that if they were really convinced that their particular take on Christianity was the correct one, they would not have felt the need to force people to adopt those views (or to externally conform to those views for the duration of their stay) in order to receive the help they needed.

Homelessness is inherently humiliating for the homeless, even without adding in such factors. To be forced to temporarily abandon one's own personal convictions (about matters which genuine Christians often cannot agree upon) merely adds to that humiliation. For a person who has been a committed Christian all of his or her life to be told implicitly that he or she is a second class Christian and that he or she must temporarily pretend to hold altogether different views in order to qualify for help he or she needs is just wrong, in my opinion.


Back in the early 90's, I was terrified at the prospect of having to stay at the Pacific Garden Mission --- not because I was too proud to ask for help, or even because I thought that some of their rules were ridiculous, but because it seemed clear to me that being forced to do so would actually make my situation even worse than it already was.

As it turned out, God delivered me from having to stay there. Instead, a Christian I met during that time of crisis invited me to live with him, his wife and his son in their suburban home in Lindenhurst, IL. He even gave me a room of my own, and fed me on occasions. He helped me to find a job, and allowed me to save a certain amount of money to be applied to rent at a new place before requiring that I leave his home. His name was John Speckman. His wife was Debby Speckman and his young son was named Johnny. John wasn't perfect, but I will be forever grateful to John and his family for taking a chance and reaching out to me with genuine Christian compassion. It saddens me that I have lost track of him. (He was an engineer for NutraSweet, in Mt. Prospect, IL during the early nineties when all of this occurred.)

I hope that if I am ever in such a situation again, I will be able to find similar help from another Christian. But what I would really prefer would be that God would materially bless me so that I could pass that favor on to someone else.

Even though churches often have many social programs these days, those programs simply are not adequate to cover every conceivable situation. They are often based on demeaning stereotypes which are not universally applicable to specific people in specific situations.

We need more individual Christians, like John Speckman, who will recognize the limitations of social service programs, whether those programs are church-based or government-based, and who will do whatever it takes to insure that no one who needs help fails to receive help.

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