Saturday, February 6, 2010

Can St. Joseph's Poverty Rate Be Transformed? (Dialogue column 2.2.10)

I wrote this originally for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, St. Joseph, MO.

19.7%! Let me spell that out for you: NINETEEN POINT SEVEN PERCENT! That is the percentage of Buchanan County children living in poverty as reported in the St. Joseph News-Press this morning. Nearly one in five children in our county live in poverty, and that’s only those below the poverty line! According to the same article, nearly 60% of St. Joseph children enrolled in public schools receive free or reduced meals, which means over half of the children in our town are living on the margins without proper nutrition. OVER HALF!

I guess the statistics on child welfare in Missouri come out at the first of February, because a week after I arrived in St. Joe—three years ago exactly—an article ran in the News-Press listing the percentage of children in poverty at 18.9%. That’s really bad news; because it means that we can really only blame the recession for less than one percent of this ridiculously high statistic. Even when the economy was better, the poverty rate for children was still high. These statistics are just the children! It doesn’t take into consideration adults, especially senior adults who are living at or below the poverty line in our community.

These facts should cause us to do more than shrug and shake our heads; we should be freaking out and ringing alarm bells. There is a systemic problem in our community that touches all of us no matter our income levels or addresses. Yet, these facts seem at odds with what I’ve experienced of St. Joseph in my three years here. On a weekly basis, it seems, I continue to meet extraordinary people from various non-profits and agencies working to help people in need in our community—Interserv, Community Action Partnership, Catholic Charities, AFL-CIO Community Services, YWCA, YMCA, Open Door Food Kitchen, Heartland Foundation, etc. etc. At the same time, my list grows longer of friends and acquaintances in government and the public schools doing similar work—Social Welfare Board, Head Start, Parents as Teachers, etc. etc. Furthermore, it seems every week there is a fundraiser of some sort for a family in need of help with medical bills or another expense. No matter what critics may say about St. Joseph, there are a whole lot of people in our community who care about statistics like the one put out today regarding child poverty.

A friend I’ve made in my time here through serving on a few community boards, who happens to have spent a career working for a non-profit service provider in St. Joseph, tells me that most of the good work happening in St. Joseph amounts to treating the symptoms rather than the problem. In other words, the really important work happening now may feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc. (all worthwhile efforts!) but they are of a different order from transforming the community and reducing the level of poverty and suffering it contains. To be clear, I offer nothing but admiration and praise for the many people in the trenches helping those in need in our county and town, but unless there is a game changer that will transform conditions on a broad level, the levels of poverty, hunger, homelessness, etc. will remain the same a generation from now—no matter what the national economy does or does not do.

I imagine that if anything really can occur that will transform our community, it must come from all sectors. It would need to involve government at all levels (hold your snickering please), non-profit social services, MWSU, all branches of Heartland’s operations, the business community, public and private schools, AND the FAITH COMMUNITY! I am ill-qualified to speak about any of these areas, save the last one.

When I came to St. Joseph three years ago, I was shocked and disappointed to find out there was no council of churches or clergy association (much less an interfaith group of any sort) in town. There are cooperative ministry ventures like Interserv, Open Door Food Kitchen, etc. and small groups of clergy that gather according to theology, denomination or ethnicity, but there is nothing that enables all of the churches (or synagogues, or mosques or. . . ) to speak to one another much less work together. The closest I have found is Faith in Action, which works with a group of churches that really cross denominational lines and a few agencies to match volunteers with people who have unmet needs, mainly elderly or people with severe medical conditions. Otherwise, the houses of worship that sit practically on every street corner remain essentially free agents—not talking to one another and certainly not asking if what they share in Christ might trump their differences on doctrine and social issues.

I offer no answers today for how the conditions in our community can be transformed, but I do request of my church to prayerfully consider what our church might do to help such a transformation to happen. What can we do to partner with other people of faith—both Christians and members of other religions—to work to not only treat the symptoms of poverty and its related ills but also the problem itself? I will do the same from my end. We will continue to talk and hopefully act on these issues.

Grace and Peace,

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