Profiles in poverty-fighting
What WORLD looks for in effective compassion coverage
Our country has no lack of kindhearted people. In Los Angeles, some with noble intentions daily pass out water bottles and sandwiches to the homeless at Skid Row, but this constant flow of generosity hasn’t alleviated the visibly abject poverty in LA’s densest tent city. It’s only gotten worse.
That’s one reason God’s World Publications for 40 years has brought attention to the work of thousands of Christians who faithfully and effectively serve their communities. In 2006 we started giving Hope Awards for Effective Compassion to some of the best homeless shelters, pregnancy resource centers, free clinics, prison rehabilitation ministries, inner-city Christian schools, rehab centers, and immigrant helpers.
We profile these ministries to honor those who love their neighbor well, and also to lay out common principles that actually help break the vicious cycle of poverty—principles we hope others can emulate. What follows are some principles we’ve observed from 16 years of covering effective poverty-fighters.
The No. 1 common theme among all Hope Award winners is the gospel. Without God, hope disappears, and without hope, so does transformation. Plenty of people receive clothes, food, and housing through secular programs, but Hope Award winners recognize that human beings hold intrinsic worth and dignity precisely because they are eternal beings beyond the sum of their body parts. Whatever trauma they have faced, whatever terrible mistakes they have made, in Christ they are new creations: “The old has passed away, the new has come.”
The implications are self-shattering. Total life transformation happens when a nonprofit helps people meet God, often with a crucifixion moment when they die to the flesh with all its passions and desires. For this reason, all our Hope Award winners refuse to depend on government checks that often limit their ability to preach the gospel freely.
But even among those who reject government funding, we’ve sometimes had to nix from our Hope Awards final list nonprofits that, instead of focusing on bringing people to God, imitate “Christian values.” Some nonprofits say you can’t “shove the gospel into people’s throats.” That’s true, the gospel can’t be force-fed—and many rescue missions have moved away from requiring people to sit through a sermon in exchange for meals—but there’s a significant difference between discerning the right time to preach the gospel and avoiding evangelism altogether.
One homeless shelter we visited emphasized compassion and self-sufficiency but didn’t make the Hope Awards final list after the executive director and another staff member recommended interviewing a resident they chose. When we asked if he was a Christian, both the director and staffer nodded yes. But when we talked to the man, he denied that, although he acknowledges a “higher being.” He had lived in that shelter for about two years and had many intimate interactions with the director and staff. That they misunderstood the nature of his faith spoke volumes.
Evangelism is necessary but insufficient by itself to untangle the complexities of poverty, some that date back generations. Effective poverty-fighters, particularly those located in historically underserved neighborhoods, know poverty isn’t just an individual issue. They push for a communitywide effort that seeks a whole-community transformation. They try to reconcile and reunite needy individuals with their families. They know what’s going on in public safety and education and economic development.
Effective poverty-fighters are also in tune with the local lingo, history, and culture. They understand the assets and needs in their community, because every community is different. That understanding doesn’t come from reading books, watching local news, or exchanging friendly waves and handshakes. It comes from sharing life in all its messiness and bickering.
That’s how Westside Ministries, an after-school program in Turlock, Calif., began: Founder and director JoLynn DiGrazia, then a second grade teacher, moved into a fixer-upper house on the west side of Turlock and opened it to kids in the neighborhood. Her own children attended the same public schools as her students.
DiGrazia understands the history of the neighborhood because she lived through racism and segregation, a meth epidemic, gang violence and crime, and dysfunctional families and schools. She doesn’t just invite locals to join her ministry—she attends PTA meetings, local city council meetings, school board meetings, and court hearings.
As DiGrazia drives her truck around town, she keeps the windows rolled down so she can yell cheerful greetings: She knows most residents by name, and they know her. Brenda Antinore, who with her husband Bill founded Seeds of Hope, an outreach ministry to ex-convicts, sex workers, and the poor in Camden, N.J., also rolls down her window. She calls out the names of women peddling sex on the streets. Sometimes these women come over for girls’ movie nights together.
Camden 20 years ago was a city with shattered families and destroyed affiliations. The Antinores have built new bonds for more than 20 years. They know the names of both the police officers and prostitutes they meet in South Camden.
It takes that kind of relationship to be able to ask hard questions and expect real answers: How did the cycle of poverty start? What perpetuates it? Are there addictive behaviors? Toxic relationships? Is it poverty born of crisis that needs one-time relief, or is it chronic poverty that requires far more personal engagement?
Effective poverty-fighters differentiate between crisis and chronic poverty, and approach each differently. East County Transitional Living Center (ECTLC) in El Cajon, Calif., offers help to both: One family there said they became homeless after some bad financial investments. They needed a safe place to stay and guidance in job- and house-searching.
Diane Wheeler needed more intensive involvement. When she arrived at ECTLC in 2008, she was couch-surfing, prostituting herself to “slam dope,” and ready to die. “I wanted to be something better than what I was,” she recalled. But she didn’t know how: “I had been in such a deep hole for so many years. I had no hope. … I knew how to do bad. I didn’t know how to do good.” Wheeler didn’t need kindhearted folks to dish her hot meals. A job and subsidized housing would have only sustained her destructive lifestyle. What she needed was a complete reset.
Responsible compassion for Wheeler meant challenging her to give up her old life. It meant having the space and support to face the issues that drove her to numb her pain with drugs. It also meant expecting her to contribute: Within a few months, Wheeler took on a leadership role, which kept her accountable. Today, she works full time for ECTLC mentoring other women.
“Is this a cannot, or a will not?” That’s something the staff at Christian Encounter in Grass Valley, Calif., a residential youth program, often ask when a kid acts out. Discerning between “cannot” and “will not” leads to completely different responses and results.
Christian Encounter daily sees the pervasive realities of childhood trauma, which can stunt physical, social-emotional, and cognitive growth. One boy refused to take showers because he said he didn’t deserve to be clean. When he did, he turned the water scalding hot to burn himself. Another kid stared listlessly at the wall and refused to make eye contact with anyone. Many have abused drugs and alcohol, engaged in risky behaviors, or attempted suicide. They arrive at Christian Encounter wounded. Many explode into streams of tears and expletives, disobey rules, or fail classes.
Instead of immediately taking a punitive approach, Christian Encounter staff try first to engage the youth, over and over, before they discipline. They ask questions, listen, and point out wrong behaviors. That doesn’t negate structure and responsibility. One girl refused to help with Christmas decorations. But there was a reason: This foster kid had never enjoyed holidays with her family. So she withdrew, expecting another horrible Christmas. Then one staff member told her firmly, “You can sit here and have another terrible Christmas, or you can get up and help because this year is different.” The girl chose to get up and had a great time.
That’s discernment: The staff member knew the girl enough to understand why she was sulking, but she also called her out on it and offered a better way. Such discernment leaves room for more personalized approaches. Sometimes a person may be reacting to trauma. Or it may be typical teenage troubles. Or he might just need a nap.
Unconditional love does not equal unconditional giving. Most ministries now expect able-bodied men and women to contribute to the program and emphasize good work ethic. Everyone has the God-given capability and dignity of serving self and others.
But people often face legitimate obstacles to employment: They might have criminal records. They might lack skills and get stuck in minimum-wage jobs. They might need help with child care. Some might have so much unresolved trauma that they’re unable to keep their jobs. Critical-thinking poverty-fighters acknowledge some folks can’t pull up their bootstraps and turn in a resumé.
That’s what David Palmer discovered while serving on the board of a rescue mission in Indianapolis. Many residents there told him they had trouble finding jobs, so he started Purposeful Design, a woodworking nonprofit that intentionally hires and trains men leaving addiction, prison, or homelessness. Bud’s Warehouse in Denver, Colo., operates a similar social enterprise at an inner-city thrift store that also hires and trains men and women who can’t find jobs. These poverty-fighters take a risk on people whom other companies won’t hire and give them a second, third, or fourth chance.
Many Christians and conservatives blame dependency on government programs for creating a modern welfare state that they say imprisons people in continuous dependency. We rightly criticize naïve charity that operates out of do-gooder sentiments rather than results-oriented, reason- and heart-driven compassion.
But another insidious attitude is just as debilitating: cynicism. “The poor shall always be with you” is a common verse Christians quote to point to a world that will never be fully restored until Christ’s return. It’s true that poverty will always remain until the last act described in Revelation. But that doesn’t mean particular individuals must remain poor.
There are two possible traps to fall into: godless utopianism or cynicism that appears sophisticated and realistic, yet is deeply entrenched in disbelief, compassion fatigue, and apathy.
WORLD has combated both. Breaking the cycle of poverty is hard. It requires sacrificial, tear- and sweat-inducing work—every poverty-fighter with a list of extraordinary success stories also carries a list of heartbreaking stories of people who drifted back to unhealthy desires and lifestyles. Yet these poverty-fighters persevere. Why? Faith, yes. Hope, absolutely. But the greatest of these is love.
Ask those whose lives have been transformed at these poverty-fighting nonprofits how they transcended from death to life, despair to hope, failure to flourishing. The answer is rarely good programs by themselves, or lovely amenities. It’s the love of God—a love that’s neither cynical nor naïve, a love that cuts through hardened hearts and delights in each unique being.
2021 Hope Awards
To write this essay, I read every Hope Awards profile WORLD has printed since 2006 and drew out common themes outlined in the seven principles mentioned here. Most of the specific examples I mention are from my own reporting, but some are from the reports of other writers.
Every year, WORLD collects readers’ recommendations for Hope Awards from different regions in the country and abroad. Due to COVID-19, last year’s domestic Hope Award finalists all were in the Eastern United States. This year, we focused on the West. Next year, we plan to resume profiling nonprofits from all five regions: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, and International.
This year, reporter Charissa Koh parsed through many nominees and chose seven nonprofits that fit our criteria. Between April and May, WORLD radio reporter Sarah Schweinsberg, correspondent Bonnie Pritchett, and I visited the six nonprofits that could accommodate a visit and chose to profile four.
All six were worthy of recognition. We picked these four because we thought they best reflected the personalized, challenging, and gospel-centered work of effective compassion.
In northern Washington, Safe Harbor is a free clinic that offers medical relief and prayers to the working poor in its community who fell through the cracks in a broken healthcare system. In Northern California, Christian Encounter is an intentionally small and intimate ranch that provides a healthy family and church for many youth who need more intensive care. In California’s Central Valley, Westside Ministries offers Jesus and healthy activities for kids in the heart of a community ravaged by drugs, violence, and poverty. In Southern California, East County Transitional Living Center is one of the few homeless shelters to take in single fathers and is currently expanding to make room for its long waitlist of families. All four are doing the quiet, persevering work of fighting poverty, one soul and one community at a time.
How can you help? After reading these profiles (or listening to versions on our podcast, The World and Everything in It), go to wng.org/compassion to vote for your favorite between now and Aug. 20. The nonprofit that gets the most votes will receive a $10,000 award.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.