Hands Across Memphis: A Church Coalition’s Direct Impact on Poverty in Our Community

August 14th, 2014   •   no comments   

gpcI’m going to make this brief and what sounds complicated, is really simple. I have an idea that was sparked after hearing Pastor Will Gray Jones preach a great sermon Sunday at Germantown Presbyterian Church. I cannot get it out of my mind. It has me thinking. Ideas are one thing. Action is another. Pastor Will asked during his sermon this question: “When is the last time you took the time to feed someone hungry? Help someone less fortunate? When have you visited a prison?” It has me thinking. I won’t go into the sermon points but the key theme was this: through service to others we will grow spiritually. My issue is this: how do we find those hungry and poor who actually have drive and want a better life? Sure, we could go downtown to the soup kitchen and volunteer, which is great. But we need to do more. How do we locate the single mom working 2 jobs to feed her children and get them educated who is not getting handouts? Where are those in our community who genuinely want a better life, but need that help out of the vicious cycle? There are many non-profits and plenty of resources in Memphis. The problem we have is that all of these non-profits are doing much of the same and there seems to be no “central command” to coordinate it. I’m not critical of the great work being done. I’m thinking about how we can leverage it more effectively. The Greater Memphis Chamber wants to help Memphis get on the road to getting out of poverty. Poverty is the core problem that affects education, healthcare and ultimately, economic development. Are you with me?

So here is my idea: Get pastors from all churches, all faiths, and all geographic locations around Memphis and form a “round table” type of coalition for addressing this. We could start with 20, we could start with 40. I don’t care but the KEY way this has to work: there is no political or financial agenda and no ONE pastor owns this. It’s the “Knights of the Round Table” type of problem solving group and no ONE person–no one church, synagogue, etc–owns this. No money needed. This group comes together–from all parts of town–to DISCUSS, IDENTIFY AND TAKE ON poverty-stricken families who want better. Is it initially 350 households? 5,000 households? I know from sitting in a meeting in City Hall that we know who these people are. We have demographic detail on where these families live. I will not say what prominent city official made this comment but he said, “Be careful, poverty is big business in Memphis.” If that is what a top city official thinks, the government will never be the answer and that is a terrible way to look at it, by the way. So how do we actually do something?

First, we form this church coalition. No money needed, just pastors from all religions around the table. Identify the need—specifically, who is out there that we can most likely help? These would ideally be the ones who are working and trying not to live on handouts. We can develop a “list” from city information and other non-profits doing great work. Identify the top non-profits in Memphis working on poverty and related issues. The resources are there. Each church then “adopts” as many households as it can. So when the church says, “OK, here is one home who needs food, clothes, help with mentoring, tutoring and after school activities,” that church then taps our non-profits to get a needs list. It’s coordinated and tracked. Progress is reported at this council. Enter the business community: They support the non-profits. We use the business community–and the Chamber–to identify Memphis poor who can achieve better. We employ mentoring programs. We hook these people into volunteers who will career train. We use the private sector connections to help people get better jobs. For example, if one single parent we met could gain better skills, perhaps someone in the business community could help that person find a better paying job. No money needed, just connecting the dots to help make a life-changing move for one family. This is a very targeted, specific way to help people but I think it could work.

If the churches could communicate with the business community AND the non-profits out there that all work so hard to help the poor, maybe we could get more people working more effectively. An additional benefit would be that if all the faith leaders were joined together in a worthwhile project, it could be a fantastic platform for helping with other community issues like crime.

This has been done in other cities. Mobile, Alabama for one. The key is to initially identify the top 25% of the poor population who truly want and need the help. Match congregations up with them, use resources already in place and involve the corporate community. So when my preacher asks what I’m doing to help, he can point to a specific list of needs for households in Memphis. When a church decides to take on a mission for the poor, why not make Memphis our mission? While it is fantastic to send youth groups overseas to help developing countries, we have grave needs right here in our own backyard. I think this could work!

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