Little Miracles: How Churches are Responding to Welfare Reform

by Amy Sherman

The American Enterprise, Jan/Feb, 1998

Supporters and critics of welfare reform agree on at least one thing: Such a momentous change in many Americansí way of life wonít succeed without a vigorous increase in outreach to the poor by private institutions, particularly churches. The first responses of churches, though they may not seem dramatic, offer cause for hope. In the relatively brief period since the federal government enacted welfare reform, thousands of church members around the nation have linked arms with individuals trying to make the shift from welfare to work.

Mississippiís Faith & Families program, the countryís first major effort to match families on welfare with church members who provide financial, practical, and emotional support, has reached 350 families. More than half are now off of cash welfare, and the program has been copied in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Indiana.

In Texas, 219 churches have joined Pathfinder Families, helping 230 welfare recipients trying to find work under Texasís strict time limits.

In Michigan, approximately fifty churches in Ottawa County have helped 60 families exit welfare in just over a year through the Project Zero initiative.

Twenty-one congregations in Anne Arundel County, Maryland have helped 30 families obtain jobs and leave public assistance through the Community-Directed Assistance Program. Two other Maryland counties are reviewing the program with an eye toward possibly emulating it.

In San Diego, a coalition of churches has joined with the Department of Social Services to influence welfare recipients in four poor city neighborhoods. The churches also maintain a "help desk" at the downtown central welfare office that links needy individuals to private-sector resources. A coalition of churches in Charlotte, North Carolina established a similar "help desk" last fall and is developing a mentoring program to aid newly employed welfare recipients in retaining their jobs.

Church-based welfare-to-work mentoring initiatives are also under development in Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington state. And churches are responding to welfare reform in other ways, too. Some, like my own congregation, are pursuing a "neighborhood adoption" model, which focuses a churchís financial and human resources on one low-income community. Others have begun "agency adoption" programs, in which churches make money, goods, and volunteers available to a particular social service agency, such as Child Protective Services. In Miami, a coalition of 70 churches has helped 700 elderly and disabled legal immigrants adversely affected by welfare reform. In short, throughout the country, churches of all sizes, stripes, and denominations ó white and black, rich and poor, urban and suburban ó are intentionally reaching out to needy families. While they have yet to make an appreciable impact relative to the nationís enormous welfare caseload, they have worked some miracles.

Ottawa County, one of the six sites in Michiganís Project Zero, recently became the first locality in the United States to move every able-bodied welfare recipient into a job. Governor Engler credited churches with much of the achievement. The countyís Family Independence Agency (FIA), which administers welfare, contracted with a church-based non-profit called the Good Samaritan Center in July 1996 to mobilize and train church volunteers to mentor and support families making the shift from welfare to work. The Center got nearly 60 churches -- about 25 percent of the countyís total -- to sign up. One of its recruits, Harderwyk Christian Church, exemplifies the full-court press the faith community can unleash when assisting struggling low-income families. Harderwyk took on six Project Zero applicants, including 24-year-old Rosalinda Ortiz.

Rosalinda had her first child when she was 14. She and her husband, a 15-year-old illegal immigrant, dropped out of high school, and eked out a sparse existence on his meager earnings until immigration authorities deported him. When she heard nothing more from him, Rosalinda got into another relationship, had four more children, and began collecting welfare. When the man turned abusive, Rosalinda turned to Project Zero.

Rosalinda was linked with a mentor from Harderwyk church who helped her design a strategic plan to get off welfare. Together they set up a budget that would help Rosalinda begin to climb out of debt. The church gave her an old car and helped her to find work at a greenhouse. Her family moved into a house the church owned, and Rosalindaís $200 monthly rent payment is deposited into a special savings account that she can eventually can use to make a down payment on her own home.

The churchís help didnít stop with housing, transportation, and a job. Church volunteers also extracted Rosalinda from a complicated legal morass: she was holding three marriage certificates simultaneously. After the deportation of her first husband, she had agreed to marry another immigrant so he could get into the country. Later, members of her extended family stole her driverís license and birth certificate and forged her signature in order to marry her to someone else they wanted to get into the United States. Rosalindaís case was also challenging because she quit her greenhouse job after only one month, citing personal conflicts with the manager. She had to settle for a lower-paying job at Burger King, but recently the church helped her land a factory job paying $9 an hour.

"People like [Rosalinda] come from very, very dysfunctional families. They canít count on them for anything, and the relationships are so messed up," says Ginny Weerstra, one of the volunteers working with Rosalinda. Given her family background, Rosalinda admits that it was difficult for her at first to trust her church mentors. In the last few months, however, Rosalinda has been meeting in a prayer and Bible study group with Weerstra and three other Project Zero participants whom the church is assisting. "Little by little," Weerstra says, "their defenses have dropped and theyíve started opening up about their lives with each other. I think itís helped them to realize that there is someone bigger than themselves ó God ó whoís in charge here. I donít think they feel so alone in their battle."

The prayer group has provided not only emotional support, but a place for moral challenge and accountability. "Rosalinda definitely has an attitude," Weerstra reports, "and sheís almost lost a job because of that attitude. So weíve been trying to work with her on that, telling her that itís not helping her. I think itís starting to get through because, Rosalinda is really praying about that at the Bible study."

The multi-faceted support that churches such as Harderwyk offer welfare recipients has won them credibility with one local source of private-sector jobs: the Manpower temporary agency. Manpower has designated one staff member to work exclusively with the churches in identifying possible employees. "If it werenít for the church support system, Manpower would not be willing to take a risk with some of these families," says Harderwykís Jay Bangronigan, who oversees the congregationís mentoring program.

Lilia Hernandez, another Project Zero participant, credits the Bible-based teaching she received at a church-sponsored homeless shelter, and the personal support sheís received from her church mentor, for turning her life around. Hernandez, a 28-year-old Puerto Rican, became homeless in 1996 when the man she had been living with severed the relationship and threw her out. Pregnant and with her three young children in tow, Hernandez turned to a girl friend who agreed to put her up. A few months later they were evicted for non-payment of rent, and Hernandez ended up at the City Mission. While there, she attended mandatory Bible-based classes on patience, perseverence, and self-esteem, and began to realize she could take responsibility for her life. This, she explains, was a "turning point." Now, she says, "Thereís not one day that passes by, when things get hard on me or I get tired, that I donít think about what I learned there."

After her stay in the City Mission, Hernandez was linked with Calvary Christian Reformed Church and with her Project Zero mentor, Jan Tuls. "Jan is a big part of my life. We see each other mostly every day," Hernandez says. "Itís like a mother and daughter friendship. She gives me strength. Thereís no way Iím going back to my old life."

For the past three months, Hernandez has been working the 3 to 11 shift on an assembly line at the Donnelly Corporation, which manufactures car mirrors. She nets $270 each week. Project Zero funds pay for her child care and Tuls shuttles her around whenever Hernandezís clunker acts up. "Working full time is still fairly new for Maria," Tuls says, "so I worry that she might be overwhelmed. She wants to keep working, but sheís under a mountain of pressure. Itís one of those things where you just think, ĎKeep at it, kiddo.í"

Not all the Project Zero participants have kept at it. Phyllis Bruggers and three other members of Third Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan tried for nine months to help Laura, a 20-something divorcee with three children who was living with a derelict boyfriend in a mini-bus. When Laura became pregnant with her fourth child, the welfare office moved her family into government-subsidized housing and Project Zero linked her with Third Reformed. The church volunteers helped her move, did 30 loads of laundry, and encouraged Laura to keep the apartment clean. "Every time we helped her," Bruggers reports, " she was happy about it. But when we tried to get her to take responsibility, she resented it." Laura continually stood up the budget counselor, refused to take a harder line with the boyfriend who said 9-to-5 work "was for fools," gave up on getting her GED, balked at working, and finally dismissed the volunteers. "When she did that, we felt like weíd been a miserable failure," Bruggers says, starting to cry. A staff member from Good Samaritan Center comforted the church volunteers by reminding them that they couldnít aid someone who refused to help herself. Laura has since been evicted from her apartment and her children have been put in foster care because a state nurse found them living in filth.

Jay Bangronigan reports that one of the six Project Zero clients that Harderwyk is working with has also come to a standstill. "Donna suffers from depression and clinical mental health issues," Bangronigan says. "Weíve provided budget counseling, mentoring, access to decent jobs, but she continues to hang on to a dead-end job at Burger King. Weíve reached a stalemate with her," he explains.

Sometimes churches fail to make significant progress with difficult clients because they are inexperienced in providing benevolence coupled with tough love. Reverend David Mitchellís Southern Baptist congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, for example, has been working with a Faith & Families participant for over a year. He complains that the Faith & Families staff did not adequately train his congregation. "Our benevolence committee people were used to working with short-term problems, but this mentoring is on-going," explains Mitchell. The church bought a used car for its 24-year-old "adoptee" Tamika, and helped Tamika secure a job at an office supply company where a church member was office manager. The church volunteers were elated, because Tamika had wanted a daytime job so she could spend evenings with her three children. But their joy was short-lived. "She worked there three months and then one day she called me and said she was leaving. She didnít give any notice," Mitchell recalls. "Iím not sure exactly why she left. I think she had more structure than she wanted. It tied her down. She had to be there 8 to 5 and go to lunch when they said." He adds, "She couldnít adapt to that environment from what she had been used to ó which was doing whatever she wanted to do all day long, every day." The church will not accept another Faith & Families participant until Mitchell can figure out a better system for keeping the clients accountable.

Mitchellís struggles point to the importance of adequate training for church mentor teams. In Michiganís Project Zero and Marylandís Community-Directed Assistance Program (C-DAP), where training has been more thorough and there are systems in place to support the mentors (C-DAP, for example, hosts regular gatherings where mentors from various churches meet to encourage one another and swap lessons learned), churches have experienced greater success in moving clients from welfare to work. In Mississippi, despite impressive success stories, the record is more mixed. Several church leaders I interviewed said they could have used more in-depth training. Mississippi Faith & Families field coordinator Ronald Moore acknowledges the need and is currently developing a church training video.

The nature of the training varies, depending on whether it is church or government sponsored. In Ottawa County, Good Samaritan Ministries trains church mentors and emphasizes the importance of meeting the needs of both body and soul. In the Texas Pathfinders initiative, governmental personnel do most of the training, so the spiritual part is absent.

When government officials are in charge there also may be less urgency behind the drive to end welfare dependancy. Lucy Todd, the state employed Pathfinders director, states that, "The volunteers come into our training not knowing very much about how complex itís going to be for people to get off of welfare. When they finish our training, they have a whole new view of the situation." She relates with unsettling enthusiasm an anecdote that suggests government trainer could prove counter-productive to the goal of getting people off the dole: "When the volunteers work for the family, they really become advocates.... I was in San Angelo last week at a meeting and members of a [mentor] team were literally screaming at the welfare worker about the eligibility benefits. They were incensed at the system that has been put in place by welfare reform. And these are people who a year ago were lobbying for welfare reform!"

Government-provided training that inculcates in the volunteers a good working knowledge of welfare rules may be useful. But it is also possible that ignorance is the mother of invention: church volunteers who donít know what benefits their "adoptee" may be eligible for may take greater responsibility upon themselves for devising solutions for themselves. In any event, itís doubtful that educating a welfare recipient to navigate the system for all itís worth will lead to self-sufficiency. The message of welfare reform, after all, is that individuals must take primary responsibility for their own sustenance, rather than looking to Uncle Sam.

Not all churchgoers are thrilled with this idea. The national leadership of many mainline Protestant community fought welfare reform tooth and nail and continues to lobby President Clinton to "fix" the legislation. The views of Reverend Glenn Allison, President of the Ecumenical Council of San Diego, typify those many liberal Protestants. While claiming he is "not against welfare reform" and that he supports mentoring of recipients by congregations, Allison criticizes many aspects of the reform law and argues that religious people must not respond only with "good works" but with advocacy for "social and economic justice." This phrase refers to his rather vague notions of a better society in which "everyone is honored and has access to whatever it is that they can do;" where everyoneís gifts are "upheld" whether or not they are channeled through normal employment; and where single mothers are not forced out of their homes into jobs.

In a similar vein, the National Council of Churches (NCC) decries the end of entitlements and rarely misses an opportunity to assert that the government, and not the church, is principally responsible for assisting the poor. NCC President-Elect Craig B. Anderson argues that the church "cannot carry the weight of whatís being asked for." The NCCís Washington declared last May that "voluntarism alone ... cannot replace the responsibility of government to provide for the common good."

By contrast, national institutions associated with conservative, Evangelical churches ó such as the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the Christian Coalition, and the Family Research Council (FRC) ó are now, because of their support of welfare reform, more vigorously calling their constituencies to greater personal involvement in helping the poor. Literature about the Samaritan Project, the Coalitionís recently launched initiative to provide financial support to faith-based community ministries and inner-city churches and to promote racial reconciliation, states: "Many Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics believe that welfare and federal entitlement have hurt, rather than helped poor and minority communities. Yet, we also acknowledge the Biblical mandate to help those in need. As a social movement, we cannot be defined only by what we protest. We must take action to demonstrate what we support."

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), in a resolution entitled "Heeding the Call of the Poor: Let the Church Be the Church," acknowledged both the failures of government welfare and the responsibility of the Christian community "to model the sacrificial love of Christ by increasing its financial giving and personal involvement with the poor." The resolution called on every church congregation in America to help at least one struggling family. In September, the NAE hosted a welfare reform "summit" in which representatives of 14 denominations to brainstormed about how their churches could respond to welfare reform. "It was just a first step," says organizer Don Hammond, "but it was a good one. I hope in five years weíll be at the point where people will look at the Evangelical movement and say that we are dealing with a broad spectrum of social issues" ó not just abortion and pornography, but poverty and racial reconciliation as well.

Most churches havenít yet attained this ideal. As Family Research Councilís Deanna Carlson puts it, "I wish I could say my phone was ringing off the hook with churches calling for practical advice on how to reach out, but itís not. But Iím definitely getting more of those calls since the passage of welfare reform, and the church leaders are asking great questions."

One of those questions is whether churches should collaborate with their local governments when responding to the needs of welfare recipients. Project Zero, C-DAP, Faith & Families, and Texas Pathfinders all involve church-state partnerships. Though the "Charitable Choice" provisions of the welfare law -- which seek to protect religious groups that accept government money for their outreach efforts from becoming secularized in the process -- have helped some Evangelicals feel more comfortable about church-state cooperation, others remain leery.

One Church, One Family, a new Christian non-profit in Delaware that matches church volunteers with welfare recipients, has decided to work exclusively with private agencies. "The main component of our program is spiritual, and we donít want to ever have to water that down," says the organizationís executive director, Dawn Carlson. "Unless you meet the spiritual side of a man, he canít truly be changed permanently. And because of our fear that once you develop a partnership with government there might be some regulations put on that, we decided to go with a different approach."

Church-state issues arenít the only ones affecting the prospects for a more large-scale collaboration between governmental social service agencies and the faith community. More mundane matters, such as staffing, also play a role. In settings where the government has designated just one individual to mobilize the church community, results have been predictably modest. In the first year of Mississippiís Faith & Families program, when Moore was the lone employee, only 13 families were linked in face-to-face relationships with church mentors. Once the Faith & Families office staff expanded to five, the initiative exploded. Marylandís C-DAP program has shown slow but steady growth, but after three years, fewer than 30 churches have been involved. In San Diego, it took hard-working DSS staffer Bobbi Neff almost a year and a half to mobilize 18 churches for action.

But where the government and churches are linked by the right intermediate organization, the scope and scale of church involvement is considerably larger. In Fairfax County, Virginia, a nonprofit called Community Ministries has succeeded in mobilizing 75 congregations to work with homeless families in partnership with a local government housing initiative. And the Good Samaritan Center in Ottawa county recruited nearly 60 churches for Project Zero in 15 months. In both instances, the intermediary organization enjoyed the confidence of the local faith community and knew how to contact church leaders. The intermediaries could also tell church leaders that they had evaluated the project and thought it worthy of support. In the absence of such intermediary organizations, governmental officials ó who may be totally unfamiliar with the local faith community ó are left to their own devices.

Churches also appear to be more readily mobilized when they are presented with a clearly defined request for assistance. As Ralph Williamson, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Department of Social Servicesí point man for mobilizing the churches, reports, "What we heard from the churches was, ĎWe need specifics. What program model are you talking about? When would we start? How do we do it?í" Williamson did not want to present a pre-packaged program to the churches; he wanted to learn what they were interested in doing. The result, though, has been a lot more talk than action. By contrast, in Michigan the Good Samaritan Center hashed out the details of the welfare-to-work mentoring program with the local welfare officials and then had something concrete to show to the churches.

In light of these encouraging but not dramatic developments, most pro-welfare-reform church leaders on the front lines say there is more to be done to tap the capacity of churches. Yet Bill Raymond, Executive Director of the Good Samaritan Center, is frustrated by the idea that the churches can "replace" the government. He argues, "People donít realize whatís all involved in welfare. The church canít take on SSI or Medicaid. The church isnít prepared financially or conceptually to do that and it shouldnít get into that bureaucratic, administrative end." Instead, Raymond says, the church should do what it can do best -- and what the government canít do at all: "engage in transformational relationships." Other pro-reform church leaders concur. Jay Bangronigan, who has led Harderwyk Christian Reformed Churchís impressive work with 36 needy families, thinks the average church is willing to take on one or two cases at a time. Moreover, some suburban churches are not responding to the needs presented by welfare reform, while other financiallyapped inner-city churches feel they cannot respond.

If the churchesí response has been modest in its scale, it has nevertheless been impressive in its depth. Ed Kirk, a retired Catholic in Maryland, rose every day 7 oíclock every morning for four months to give Jane, the C-DAP participant his church had "adopted," a ride to work. Jan Tuls has made herself available to Lilia Hernandez on a daily basis for 19 months. Jay Bangronigan asks the mentors at Harderwyk church to make an open-ended commitment to developing a friendship with a needy welfare recipient for as long as the recipient wants the relationship ó whether thatís six months or 60 years. Stronger Hope Baptist Church, a congregation of 300 moderate-income African-American families, has helped 19 welfare recipients find jobs and a new way of life since Faith & Families began in late 1994. Texas Pathfinders director Lucy Todd admits "it blows her mind" when she hears how church members become daily chauffeurs for months at a time for single moms and their kids.

Getting people from welfare to work can be a herculean task. So far, it is churches, more that any other institution, that are taking up the challenge. C-DAP director Remy Agee reports that when she sought community support for the mentoring initiative, churches were the only ones willing to make an on-going commitment; other social services groups shied away, preferring one-time or more manageable charitable endeavors. It may be that there are still too few churches involved. But the fact remains, it is churches that are showing the way.


home | about us | site map | contact us | © Faith in Communities 2009