Churches Must Step Up

Churches must step up for the poor

America has lost the will to end poverty

By Jim Wallis

Everything the churches have learned about the biblical demand of justice for  the poor is about to be put to the test. Every indication is that the the lives  of low-income families and individuals are about to become even more brutal. As  reality of the new welfare bill unfolds, the ones who Jesus called "the least of  these" appear to be in great jeopardy

As the law now stands people will be cut off from welfare benefits without  any provision for jobs, adequate child care or national standards of  accountability for the welfare plans states are now devising. The severe  consequences of these momentous decisions are about to hit local  communities.

Our most urgent need is for new centers of moral conscience and  accountability in the public debate, to monitor both federal policy and state  programs. More important, we must help develop an entirely new approach to truly  overcoming poverty.

Both conservatives and liberals seem to accept widespread poverty in the  richest nation in the world. Ideological battles over a welfare system that few  believed in anymore obscured a deeper reality: Sometime during the last few  decades we stopped even talking about ending poverty.

The arguments have been about maintaining the poor or abandoning them, rather  than the harder question of why such massive and persistent poverty exists in  the United States.

Therefore, it is time for the churches across the conservative to liberal  spectrum to step forward and offer moral leadership for the sake of the nation's  poor. If the Bible is not clear about the primary responsibility of God's people  for those who are poor, then it is not clear about anything. The crisis now  faced by poor people calls the churches to renew that responsibility.

Conversations with religious leaders have convinced me that the crisis now  facing poor people in all of our communities might be the catalyst that brings  us together. Compassion and justice for the poor is the first principle of  biblical politics and has the capacity to bring us together across  denominational, racial, ethnic, and even interfaith lines.

Service-providing institutions must come together with the religious  community. These non-profit organizations, like the religious sector, can  sometimes be disorganized or competitive with one another. Such internal strife  is no longer tenable.

Once united, what should the religious and other non-profit communities say  and do? First, we must make our message very clear. Contrary to the dangerous  talk of some, "churches and charities" cannot, and should not, bear alone all  responsibility for poor people. We must insist that government not abdicate its  legitimate role.

But even without adequate resources, religious and other community  organizations have been successful at fighting poverty in many areas. People  across the political spectrum believe it is time to expand both the role of the  non-profit sector and the resources available to get the job done. At this  moment of crisis and transition, the religious community especially could play a  crucial leadership role to rally the larger society to its responsibility for  our poorest citizens.

Advocacy begins at home, with each of us in our families and churches taking  personal and communal inventory of our resources, time, energy, and commitments.  If the churches are to help lead the wayin responsibility for overcoming  poverty, we must lead first of all by example.

Conservative churches that believe that most of the answers will come through  one- to-one relationships need to enter into those relationships with people who  are poor on a scale that makes more than a symbolic difference. If they believe  personal and church-based initiatives will be most effective, it's time for the  biggest and richest conservative churches to devote their significant resources  toward community development.

Liberal churches who speak of social concern must put their words into  action, offering their budgets, facilities, and pension funds for  community-based economic development. It's time to reconnect all our churches  with poor communities.

The crisis the poor in America face cries out for an outpouring of the Holy  Spirit so powerful that once again it might be said of Christians, as it was of  the early Christians after the first Pentecost: "There was not a needy person  among them" (Acts 4:34).

Jim Wallis is convener of the Call to Renewal, a new  coalition of evangelical, Catholic, historic black churches and mainline Protestant denominations. He is also editor in chief of Sojourners magazine. This piece was distributed by Knight-  Ridder/Tribune InformationServices