American history shows that churches committed to social change eventually succeed. Slavery, child labor, legalized racial discrimination—all collapsed under the heat of faith-based opposition. Now, one of the targets is poverty, and the National Council of Churches (NCC) hopes to mobilize its 140,000 congregations, in 36 member denominations, to take effective action to reduce poverty’s grip on millions of Americans.
“We want to make poverty as abhorrent in this century as slavery was a century and a half ago,” said the Rev. Robert Edgar, a United Methodist pastor who serves as the NCC’s chief executive. The aim of the NCC’s poverty mobilization is not necessarily to create new programs, but to organize around existing projects, share information and set realistic goals regarding such issues as housing, health care and public education.
“Over the years, I hope we’ll fine-tune what is achievable, and at the same time we hope to get people to change how they think about the poor,” Edgar said.
The month of March each year is designated as a time to heighten awareness and monitor progress of the 10-year initiative. This year’s “March: On Poverty” will highlight the work of member denominations, local councils of churches, and the NCC’s ministry partners — which include such groups as Habitat for Humanity, Bread for the World, Children’s Defense Fund, Families USA, and Call to Renewal.
The NCC’s Web site, www.ncccusa.org, is featuring a 100-page section on poverty during March. It includes Bible references, facts and figures on poverty, a listing of events, profiles of successful poverty programs, and a multi-denominational preaching festival — a “month of Sundays” — spotlighting 31 sermons on poverty. The site was developed by veteran Southern Baptist communicator Pat Pattillo and the NCC Communication team.
Advocacy on public policy regarding poverty also is a key focus in March, according to Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the NCC’s Washington office. In 1996, Congress eliminated the old federal welfare program and replaced it with a new plan called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The fact that TANF and other “safety net” programs for the poor – the Food Stamp Program and Child Care and Development Block Grant – are up for reauthorization by Congress this year is “really driving a lot of our work together,” she said.
She noted that the economic impact following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has pushed some people closer to poverty level. “The things that people are asking for (in assistance) are increasingly more basic,” she added. Edgar pointed out that even after the recent sustained period of economic prosperity, “We have more poor children today than we did 10 years ago.”
Girton-Mitchell, an active Baptist, believes churches are more committed to tackling the problems of welfare reform now than they were in 1996, when TANF was first adopted, and that they want to create opportunities for the concerns of the poor to be heard. The NCC Washington Office will host a March 13-15 meeting on TANF that will include representatives of state and local councils of churches.
The NCC General Assembly passed a resolution last fall noting that the legislative goal “should be the reduction and elimination of poverty, not the reduction of caseloads.” Each program should provide assistance to help low-income families obtain safe and affordable housing, access to affordable health care, developmentally oriented child care, a nutritious diet and the opportunity to contribute to society through employment or in other ways, the resolution added.
Current time limits for TANF participants should be replaced with an individualized plan, with termination only for those who refuse to participate, the General Assembly said. Work requirements should be waived for adults caring for the elderly or disabled, and those enrolled in secondary education should be counted as meeting work requirements.
The resolution concluded: “No family should be worse off as a result of moving from welfare to work than it was while receiving assistance.”
The NCC’s member denominations include the American Baptist, Disciples, United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches, United Church of Christ, Alliance of Baptists, the Quaker, Moravian and Brethren denominations, the Reformed Church in America, the historically black Baptist and Methodist denominations, and the Orthodox family of churches. More than 50 million Americans are affiliated with these 36 communions.
Linda Bloom and Carol Fouke contributed to this story.