Bridging the gap between inner city and suburbs
A number of years ago I heard economist John Powell say that poverty is not an issue that can be exclusively addressed by people who are poor. An approach like that assumes that people living in poverty are responsible for their condition and thus are responsible for fixing the problem. He went on to say that solutions must involve a partnership, collaboration between city and suburban residents.
At least some of the solution, if not a great deal of it, will require dollars because much of the reason for poverty is structural and we must find ways to address the structural things that contribute to poverty. But dollars are not the singular answer.
We've been blessed at Cross Lutheran Church to have five major suburban congregations that partner with us in the work that we do. Four of those congregations have assumed major responsibility for purchasing, preparing and serving the food that is a part of the weekly hot meal that we provide, which feeds on the average of 300-400 people.
Each of those congregations will bring anywhere from 15-20 individuals. What we have heard from our partners is that their involvement in this way has humanized the city and has helped to allay some of their fears.
Valuable insights gained
In a recent conversation that I was having with several individuals from our partner congregations one person told the story of hiring someone from the community, a young man who has had his share of challenges. At one point he was homeless and living on the street, addicted to drugs and always trying to stay one step ahead of the police. Today he has turned a huge corner in trying to get his life together.
This member, who is a professional and who has done quite well, said, "Pastor, I have hired this person twice now to do work at my house and I have to tell you that he is one of the hardest workers that I have ever seen. My frustration was not with his work but with the fact that I had to pick him up and take him home because it was time that I didn't have."
What that experience revealed to the suburban man was that there were probably many people who really want to work but, even if there were an opportunity, they would be hampered by lack of transportation. He came away from that experience saying we must not only find jobs for people but we have to also address the transportation piece so that they can be successful.
Growth and gifts
It has been an awesome thing to see the growth that this relationship has brought on both sides in the context of a city where racism has and continues to be such a force -- one that threatens the quality of life for all of us.
The gift of these partnerships is that they communicate to the larger culture that we as people of faith will neither participate in nor support a life fueled by fear and hatred. We are intentional about deepening these relationships.
We operate together out of a set of agreed-upon givens:
1. God calls us to be in relationship.
2. This relationship is meant to be mutual.
3. Our witness is stronger when we are united in fellowship and in mission.
In an effort to live into these givens we meet several times a year as an inner-city congregation with our suburban partners. These are usually two-hour meetings where we talk together and set priorities for the things that we can address together. It is out of these meetings that the genesis for the idea of the faith community raising $2 million dollars to assist with the high rate of unemployment came.
It is out of these meetings that the invitation came from one of our suburban partners to be a part of a trip to Israel, an invitation from another to travel to Honduras on a mission trip and from another an invitation to travel to New Orleans to help clean up and rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Each one of those experiences resulted in profound life changes.
Not long ago one of our suburban partners designated April 22 as Cross Sunday. I was asked to preach. Our Gospel Choir sang at the second service and our parish nurse and neighborhood minister spoke to a packed room during an adult forum. They shared eloquently and powerfully about the challenges faced by so many people that we are privileged to serve.
Because of the history we have and the trust that we share, a young man approached me with the question: "How can we grow deeper in our relationship as partners?"
That question is, for me, the operative one. It is the question that I pose for my own congregation as well as our partners. All of us know that poverty is not merely confined to the city. The present economy has impacted people in suburban communities. Soup kitchens are now in communities that we would have never anticipated before.
There are families in suburban communities who have lost their homes and some are now homeless. As a result of our partnership we can be honest and vulnerable together. But equally we have grown to see that the solutions will require those who are living in poverty and those who are well off financially to work together.
Ken Wheeler is pastor of Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.
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