“It’s not hard to create a ghetto,” says Bob Lupton, Atlanta community developer. “Just remove the capable neighbors. To produce a substandard school system, withdraw the students of achieving parents. To create a culture of chronically dependent people, merely extract the upwardly mobile role models from the community. That’s what happened in thousands of communities across the United States.”
It is this reality, the reality of a new breed of poverty–poverty compounded by dependency and hopelessness, and rooted in a three-decade long federal “War on Poverty” and a public school monopoly–that Dr. John M. Perkins confronts every day. Perkins, a Baptist minister who serves as chairman of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) , seeks to “fill the vacuum of moral, spiritual, and economic leadership that is so prevalent in poor communities by inspiring people to develop themselves and their community through the gospel.”
“The community of the church came about spontaneously, not by government design. It was the product of a people with faith in God and rightly ordered lives. That is what we need to recapture,” Perkins said in 1993. Since then, the federal government has dramatically changed the way poverty is fought in America. Today, an increasing amount of poverty work is being initiated at the state and local levels. More significantly, across America churches, volunteer organizations, and other mediating institutions are beginning to reclaim their traditional leadership role in uplifting those genuinely in need, by treating more than just the material needs of the downtrodden.
“The most creative, long-term solutions to the problems of the poor are coming from grassroots and church-based efforts–people who see themselves as the replacement, the agents, for Jesus here on earth,” says Perkins. “Acts of charity can be dangerous because givers can feel good about actions that actually accomplish very little, or even create dependency. Overcoming a [false] attitude of charity is a difficult task because it requires givers to demand more of themselves than good will. God’s people have solutions that are qualitatively different from any other approach to the poor.”
From his experience in poverty relief, Perkins has developed three principles encapsulating this approach. He calls them “the three R’s of community development.” These principles, described in detail in his book With Justice for All, are not dependent upon government programs and welfare handouts, but upon genuine human flourishing brought about through the gospel lived out in people’s lives.
The first “R” is relocation. Perkins firmly believes in the importance of relocating to communities in need and living among the poor (as he has done many times over the past four decades). Like Jesus who traveled from one community to the next to spread the gospel and lay the seeds of community in new lands, Perkins realizes that, “Living the gospel means desiring for your neighbor and your neighbor’s family that which you desire for yourself and your family.” Only by joining a community do a community’s needs become one’s own. Living the gospel means sharing the suffering and pain of others, and relocation transforms “you, them, and theirs,” to “we, us, and ours.” “Effective ministries plant and build communities of believers that have a personal stake in the development of their neighbors,” Perkins maintains.
For some persons, relocation means “going back” to a community after growing up, receiving an education elsewhere, tasting success, and then responding to God’s call to return home with skills and leadership to give to the people there. For others, relocation means moving from the outside in, to uplift the people who live there. Either way, by having a personal stake in the success of the community, individuals relocating to a community often are able to provide the leadership and inspiration needed to rebuild the fallen community and prepare the next generation for a brighter tomorrow.
“If programs and services are done for a community, rather than with and by the people of the community,” argues Perkins, “these programs do not help the people of the community develop. They simply continue the mentality of dependency that the welfare state has created in so many of our urban centers and that suppresses the dignity of the people there. In Christian community development, we want to empower people to take responsibility for their lives and to have the consciousness of their own dignity and worth that comes from being able to have such control. In order to do so, we need to give responsibility for programs at least in part to them.”
The second “R” is reconciliation. The reconciliation of people to God, and the reconciliation of neighbor to neighbor. Through the gospel this process requires breaking down every racial, ethnic, or economic barrier to opportunity, such that as Christians people can come together to solve the problems of their shared community.
The third “R” is redistribution. Perkins believes in the importance of economic development and the redistribution of resources. But this commitment does not mean the heavy hand of government taking from one member of a community to give to another. It requires, rather, “bringing our lives, our skills, our educations, and our resources and putting them to work to empower people in a community of need. [This] is redistribution and it helps people to break out of the cycle of poverty.”
“Economic development begins with developing people,” says Perkins. “We need to let children know in kindergarten that their education is preparing them for the day when they will have jobs. We need to explain to them that they are developing their skills and their work habits, that what they are learning now will influence the quality of their adult lives. Economic development begins with developing skills and work habits in people. You then teach them that economic development is managing what you own. What you own first is yourself, so you need to turn yourself into an asset that is valuable to others. So economic development then becomes asset management. Asset management finally grows into developing an enterprise that you own.”
Perkins has lived and worked in communities around the country, doing his own part to live out the gospel message and revive urban communities. He and the CCDA represent the best of what the future holds for poverty fighting in America: non-governmental approaches to effective compassion that emphasize healing the whole person. Something no government program could ever hope to accomplish.