Why would you want to change them?
Fourteen years ago, my husband, Joe, was hired as the Community Minister at the Highland church. One of the main responsibilities he was given was to give church members a better understanding of the community and people in poverty. In addition to his 20+ years’ experience in community outreach and prison ministry at our previous church, Joe could tell you many stories of going to school hungry as a child and many times waking up in the family car to a cold, dark night sky. No stranger to the word poverty, I too, can remember being hungry and watching my mother take a whole chicken fryer and cut it into about 18 pieces in order to feed all thirteen of her children.
Shortly after our arrival at the Highland church, we were introduced to Ruby Payne’s, What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty. As the Highland church began to engage in ministry to the poor through Freedom Fellowship, this book was our basic first step in guiding Highland church members.
The key concept from the book is the author’s understanding of the difference in social classes, what each class values and how each socio-economic class reasons and processes their life. While the book does not specifically address solutions to poverty, it does advocate that for churches to be successful with the poor, members with a middle or upper-class mind set, must understand the hidden rules of generational poverty, so that the shift can be more readily accepted.
Noticing the Hidden Rules
Payne writes, “For the transition to occur, both sets of rules must be openly acknowledged.” An awareness of the “hidden rules” will give you the “behind the actions” motives and why people, specifically low-income, do what they do. “Hidden rules govern so much of our immediate assessment of an individual and his/her capabilities. These are often the factors that keep an individual from moving upward in a career-or even getting the position in the first place.” (Payne and Ehlig, 1999). In the book, Payne and Ehlig go one step deeper and infer that churches have their own “hidden rules” or “bias” and these rules prevent us from making people in poverty feel welcomed in our pews.
What does an awareness and an understanding of the hidden rules look like? How can we, members of a church open our hearts and create a welcoming environment? It was towards the end of one of the class sessions on the book that someone asked two questions. The first was “Why can’t we just let them be who God created them to be?” followed by the second question, “Why would you want to change them?” Throughout the book, Payne and Ehlig keep reminding us that the “bottom line for those in poverty is entertainment and relationship.” And, I surmise that relationship is the key.
Most Sundays at Highland you will find Joe in his Celebrate Jesus Bible Class. The class is designed to help assimilate many of our Freedom and Grace Fellowship friends and neighbors regarding the Highland culture, as we walk with them in their physical and spiritual journey. In the class you will often encounter someone who is homeless, recently released from prison or maybe someone struggling with addiction. The main objective of the class is to help our friends and neighbors to know the value of relationship dynamics as a means of practicing shalom. Why? Because impactful changes can occur through cultivating and increasing their circle of influence.
At our church, it is not uncommon for one or two of our Freedom friends to show up spontaneously at your house. They don’t show up with an ulterior motive, they just want to hang out and experience relationship. The Highland member who shared this story continues to express how much richer and changed he is through the relationship. Imagine being in the middle of the Sunday morning worship and you watch as your low-income neighbor gets up from his seat, walks across the entire 1400-seat auditorium, to intentionally give you hug. The Highland member who shared her story and experiences those intentional hugs continues to express how much richer and changed she is through the relationship. Every Wednesday at Freedom, our neighbors plan, organize and cook the weekly meal. I call it a meal, but instead, it should be called a feast! Why? Because the meal may consist of two or three main entrees, lots of various vegetables, a couple of different salads, some bread and of course a dessert. Like I said, it is a feast. But, at the end of the evening, anyone who wants, is able to take a plate of food home. If you look at it through the eyes of someone in poverty, you can never have enough because you know what it means to be hungry.
At Highland, the positive stories far outweigh the negative. I don’t think there is a church who has not experienced that neighbor who comes in every Sunday and asks you for some gas or food money. And every Sunday, I watch as members dig into their own pockets to meet that neighbor’s need. Payne’s book seems to indicate there is an us-and-them view of the poor. What would happen, if instead of digging into your pocketbook, you simply told that neighbor that you want to be his friend and continually asking for gas money hinders the relationship you want to build? Instead of an us-and them perspective, I suggest you take a teacher-teacher approach. I have learned that I too need to be resilience in the face of adversity by watching my homeless friend, who slept in her car for 3 weeks because the HUD office didn’t approve her new apartment. It is a teaching moment for me as well as my son as I watch my friends serve the Lord’s Supper with eagerness and joy.
If your church is to be successful in spreading the word to all people, your members must identify with those that are different from themselves and use that knowledge to reach out in a way that is meaningful. Our neighbors need to see how you value your family. Our neighbors need to see your concept of work and the role it plays in addressing poverty. Our neighbors need to see the necessity of savings goals and how important it is to provide for your children in the present and in the future. Every week, as the Community Care Coordinator (a fancy name for Benevolence Coordinator), I sit across people in poverty. I listen to their stories, their frustrations and yes, even their dreams. Sometimes I can help them and sometimes the answer is no. But, by extending friendship and support through their transitional process, there is hope that our neighbors can be empowered to set goals for themselves and work toward a positive outcome.
The poor will always be with us, and for the church, there lies the challenge. However, it is also a powerful opportunity to demonstrate the power of the Gospel.