A coalition claiming to represent 250 Maryland congregations is thumbing its nose at Gov. Parris Glendening's call for help in moving welfare recipients off the dole. In what the Washington Post calls a "grassroots rebellion against welfare reform," religious leaders are accusing the government of abdicating its responsibilities and "dumping" the poor on the churches. "We will not participate in this dehumanizing, misguided effort called welfare reform," declares the coalition's leader, the Reverend Doug Miles.

It is difficult to imagine a more unhelpful response to the new welfare regime. Like it or not, the old entitlement system is dead, and it is not going to be resurrected. For churches genuinely concerned about the poor, it is time to redouble outreach efforts and creatively adapt to the new era.

Step one is admitting that the church's welfare system needs serious reform, because it makes many of the same mistakes that crippled the government's old system. Both have too often helped people to manage their poverty rather than to escape from it. Both have too often handed out Band-Aids—cash and commodities to meet immediate material needs—instead of offering developmental assistance that provides a hand-up to self-sufficiency. Both have too often been clinical, bureaucratic, and impersonal in their interactions with needy families. And both have engendered dependency.

The new welfare bill demonstrates that politicians have recognized the problems in the government's system. Now, as the state looks increasingly to civil society—and particularly to churches—to assume greater responsibility for the poor, church leaders need to re-evaluate and, in many instances, dramatically change their benevolence programs. Scripture, church history, and the example of effective church-based community ministries provide helpful guidelines on how to do so.

Some liberal Christians seem to consider Jesus a lobbyist. For them, love of the poor equals political efforts to advance "social justice"—pressuring the government to provide big, expensive programs while neglecting to remind church members of their personal responsibility to love the needy. Some conservative Christians are also guilty of truncating Jesus' multifaceted ministry. They proclaim Christ as Savior and engage in vigorous efforts to "win souls," but fail to address physical needs or fight injustices. Neither approach adequately grasps Jesus' example of holistic ministry that meets material and spiritual needs and challenges both personal and social sin.

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Jesus' compassion leads him not only to feed the 5,000 but also to exhort them to seek the Bread of Life (John 6:1-13, 25-58). He physically heals the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:25-34) but also encourages her emotionally. Given her medical problem, she would have been considered perpetually unclean. Ashamed, she wants to remain unnoticed. Yet Jesus insists that she tell her story and then publicly praises her for her faith. Jesus deals with people as whole persons, and our outreach must similarly touch heart and mind, body and soul.

Jesus also rails against social injustices while not failing to confront individual sin. Incensed at the exploitive temple merchants who prey on the poor, Jesus scatters their tables (John 2:13-16). His eyes flash with anger at the cruelty of legalistic religious leaders who oppose his sabbath healing (Mark 3:1-5). In both instances, Jesus delegitimates unjust structures erected by the powerful. But Jesus is much more than a political revolutionary. He insists on personal holiness and obedience by the poor as well as by the rich. He loves not the proletarian masses but each individual person. He disciples 12 close, personal friends and heals people one at a time.

This means that churches should not merely lament or laud the welfare reforms. Critics and supporters alike should be in the trenches, actively assisting low-income families. Such personal engagement makes our voice in the public square more credible. In addition, frontline experiences can help us more wisely to evaluate specific policies.

The holistic outreach we Christians need to pursue will be personal and often risky. In the third century a.d., a terrible plague struck the city of Alexandria, claiming many lives. The pagans interpreted the event as the gods' punishment and refused to help the sick since they "deserved" their calamity. Alexandrian Christians responded differently. Out of love for God, they nursed the weak and buried the dead—often contracting fatal illnesses. These brave souls won the nickname paraboloni, which means "one who takes a risk." Today, we should make it our aim to earn this title of honor.

As pastor Tim Keller notes in his helpful book Ministries of Mercy, the Good Samaritan was a risk-taker. The treacherous, winding road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a frequent site of crime and violence. Keller likens the Samaritan's compassion for the wounded traveler to that of a brave person who, while walking down a littered street at night in the inner city, hears a moan from a darkened alley, and rushes in to help. May God grant us such courage as we go to the unfamiliar and disconcerting places "on the wrong side of the tracks" to attend to the needy.

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When the Good Samaritan encounters the battered victim, he doesn't toss the man money, canned goods, used clothing, or religious tracts. Instead, he gets up close and personal. He dirties his hands tending to the man's wounds. He gives sacrificially—of his time and money. By contrast, many of our traditional outreach programs keep the poor at arms' length and offer merely "commodified" mercy.

We need instead a relational mercy ministry. The church father Gregory of Nyssa defined mercy as "a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the sufferings of another." Genuine compassion entangles our lives with the lives of the needy, and sometimes brings grief. On Thanksgiving Day, the 23-year-old mother of a little boy in our church's urban tutoring program was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. There were few dry eyes in our sanctuary when our pastor announced the tragedy. Because of the church's connection to this family, because this was the mother of one of "our" students, the news pierced us more deeply than if this were merely another grim crime statistic. True mercy is rarely sterile; it allows pain into our lives that we would rather avoid.

Sometimes, mercy cannot be confined to a predictable schedule but spills over into time slots that we would rather protect. It requires building genuine friendships with poor people—friendships where mutual learning and giving occurs. Anything else, as Octavia Hill, a daring Christian who battled poverty in the slums of nineteenth-century London, argued, is a cheap benevolence that wants to help poor people but isn't willing to know them.

Ed Kirk, a retired businessman in a Maryland suburb, has lived out this kind of mercy. Last year he helped "Jane," a 32-year-old single mother, to get off welfare. It was a 14-month roller coaster ride of hirings and firings, health problems, an eviction, and family reconciliation. For four months, Ed rose daily before 7:00 a.m., picked up Jane and her son, dropped the toddler off at the babysitter's, and drove Jane to work. During the day, Ed tried to resolve the numerous administrative nightmares in which Jane was enmeshed. She had had her license revoked because of unpaid traffic fines. She owed back taxes. An acquaintance had borrowed, and crashed, her car. Her family had disowned her years ago, when she was hooked on drugs.

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"To get people back on their feet," Ed explains, "is not just about getting a job. It's about getting all their problems solved."

Ed met Jane through the Community-Directed Assistance Program, an initiative of Maryland's Anne Arundel County's Department of Social Services in which churches are matched with individuals trying to get off welfare. Similar welfare-to-work mentoring efforts are under way in Mississippi, Michigan, and Virginia. These programs offer a greater promise of success than do traditional social-service initiatives because they provide poor people with volunteers who can give substantial amounts of time and personal support. Social workers struggling to manage anywhere from 50 to 100 or more cases cannot offer the individualized attention welfare recipients need to overcome the multifaceted obstacles they face in achieving independence from the dole.

New welfare rules give recipients two years to find stable, permanent employment. In many states, transitional assistance in the form of Medicaid, daycare, and transportation vouchers is available in the third year. Properly mobilized, churches can help a significant portion of families on welfare to make the transition to the workforce. Some individuals—like those recipients who are finishing college degrees or who have been on welfare only briefly due to temporary unemployment—need just a little extra help. It could come in the form of a daycare scholarship to a church preschool, a one-time grant to a student for her final semester's tuition, or a donated used car that would enable an unemployed person to widen her job search.

Other individuals—like the woman Ed Kirk's church helped—have been out of work longer, have multilayered personal problems, and confront significant barriers to self-sufficiency (such as lack of affordable child care). They need persevering, intense assistance. These realities are sobering; nonetheless, most congregations possess key resources for aiding welfare recipients, though they may not realize it.

In Mississippi, churches that participate in the Faith and Families Welfare-to-Work program are providing such resources: budget counseling; modest financial aid; and assistance in finding affordable daycare, writing a resume, and preparing for job interviews.

The Stronger Hope Baptist Church in Jackson has helped five welfare recipients to locate stable employment. In areas of the state where the unemployment rate is higher, Faith and Families churches have facilitated recipients' enrollment in six-month certified nurse's assistant (CNA) programs. Upon graduation, these individuals are qualified to work in hospitals and nursing homes. A rural Methodist church in the delta has hired its Faith and Families participant as a pastor's assistant and has plans to aid a small team of welfare recipients in opening a daycare center that will offer evening and weekend care. Business is likely to be good since many area residents with children work odd-shift jobs in a local factory and need child-care at nontraditional hours.

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These successes are not achieved "without bruises," as Ed Kirk is quick to admit. But real people are winning independence from welfare with the help of ordinary church members. It can be done—though it involves a deliberateness that is too often missing in church benevolence endeavors.

In John Calvin's Geneva, the church operated a thoughtful, well-conceived, effective assistance ministry that today's churches could imitate. Poor families in Calvin's Geneva were categorized according to the different nature of their needs. Some were unable to work and required charity. Those who could work—and were willing to do so—were given tools or no-interest loans to start their own businesses. The able-bodied poor who refused to work were exhorted to change their ways. Deacons paid quarterly home visits to every family that received financial aid from the church. They knew personally those they helped and used their knowledge to shape an individually tailored, strategic assistance plan. In the context of these personal relationships, they could address recipients' spiritual needs. They encouraged the drunkard toward sobriety, gave practical money-management advice to the young widow, and placed orphans into apprenticeships. They personally investigated needs to prevent fraud, and they refrained from indiscriminate charity that engendered dependence. In short, they employed their minds as well as their hearts when loving the needy.

As Marvin Olasky has described in his important book The Tragedy of American Compassion, evangelicals in nineteenth-century America conducted similarly clear-headed, warm-hearted outreach ministries among the poor. These Christians befriended just a few families at a time and worked with them over the long term, until they no longer required help. By contrast, today we too often practice a "bigger is better" approach. We are busy doing many charitable things—like operating soup kitchens or handing out holiday baskets at Christmas—but we are changing nothing. Our efforts gloss over real needs and fail to encourage lasting change.

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Community outreach programs that truly transform lives share several common features. First, they employ a team approach, rather than one-to-one mentoring, in their welfare-to-work initiatives. This reduces the chances of volunteer burnout, enlarges program participants' network of contacts, and allows volunteers to find their particular niche in the ministry.

Second, successful programs clearly define expectations, so that church members and welfare recipients each know what their responsibilities are.

Part one of two parts; click here to read part two

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