At this time of the year many Americans, motivated by the spirit of Christmas, want to “reach out” to the poor. So, it seems appropriate to identify who our poor are by summarizing some of the data from the 2000 federal census.

Once again, as has been the case for several decades now, rural people are much more likely:

–to be living below “the poverty line;”
–to dwell in inadequate housing;
–to live in manufactured housing–places of declining value and with limited “life expectancy;”
–to experience an annual cycle of poverty, as in the case of seasonal workers;
–to be physically disabled;
–to be fiscally dependent, either too young or too old to hold regular employment;
–to lack transportation resources to employment sites;
–to be among “the working poor;”
–to experience difficulty in accessing healthcare services;
–to be under-educated;
–to consume a diet high in salt, sugar and fat;
–to have grown up poor, dependent, fatalistic and hopeless;
–to have been in prison;
–to dwell south of the Mason-Dixon Line;
–and to be, or have been, a member of a Baptist church.

My point is that much of rural poverty is a problem of the Baptist family. It is concentrated in southern Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Delta, the Black Belt of the southeast, the Rio Grande Valley and the western Indian reservations. In most of these areas the Baptist movement is the dominant expression of the Christian faith.

Historically, many Baptists who grew up in poor rural areas have adopted a good Christian personal ethic and have risen out of poverty. They thank God that their lot is better than that of their parents. They support missions and ministry unselfishly from a thankful heart.

But for a variety of reasons many others have not “made it.” The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is to be applauded for its commitment to ministry among the rural poor. But their resources are very limited.

To address the problem of rural poverty there must be increased “grassroots” response. I see some commendable efforts in the work of our Baptist associations. Let me share, by way of example, the work of a relatively poor association on the cusp of Appalachia and the Black Belt in rural Alabama.

–Like many other associations, it has created mechanisms for collecting and distributing used clothing and household goods to the poor. This ministry operates out of a former rural store building. Most of the donated items are sold cheaply to the public. All of the clerking is done by a corps of about 50 volunteers, most of whom work one or two days a month. The income pays the rent and utilities and provides additional resources for benevolences and mission projects.

–By default, the thrift-store ministry has become the “food bank” for the county. The rural mail carriers, Boy Scouts, Royal Ambassadors, Girls in Action, churches and others annually gather up non-perishable goods and bring them to the store. The food is distributed upon requests from social-service agencies and from pastors. Similarly, financial-aid resources are distributed to churches to help with their response to needy families.

–Cooperating with the county Gideon’s’ camp, the association supports Bible study in the county jail.

–Cooperating with the ministers of various denominations, the association coordinates a volunteer chaplaincy program for the county hospital. A similar program is in place to respond to crises in the schools.

–The men’s ministry of the association has “rehabbed” the homes of the elderly. Currently, they are cooperating with the United Methodists in the construction of a new home using the Habitat for Humanity model. And they have a well-trained and well-equipped crew ready to respond to natural disasters such as tornadoes.

–The Woman’s Missionary Union conducts health fairs in poor areas and refers needs they identify to the appropriate agencies. They also provide tutors for needy children and Bible study for women prisoners.

–The association supports and promotes ministries housed in specific churches, which reach out to the larger community to provide a grief-support group, a substance-abuse recovery group, and marriage-enrichment seminars.

–The association supports a new Hispanic ministry and a new congregation comprised of very poor persons.

Those involved in these ministries experience two conflicting emotions. Generally, they feel good about their service and what is being accomplished. But, they also experience despair. They are painfully aware that there is so much more needed here than they can address. However, they are grateful that the umbrella of the Baptist association creates ministry opportunities for them.

Some come to see the need to work on three fronts–personal evangelism and discipleship, the binding up of wounds and the correction of the social structure to minimize hurts to persons. While working on one front, they applaud efforts on the others. Some even find a “proof-text” for this in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.

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