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Healing Lives, One Person at a Time

Her name was Anna. Her mother was an alcoholic, and she and her live-in boyfriend were unemployed. Looking for an apartment and a job was overwhelming, because she had never done so before. She had no savings, no furniture, and few clothes. Anna was estranged from her older daughter and her husband. She was cynical and believed in nothing because she had seen little in life to trust. Truth was a matter of expediency to her—she did and said what she needed to, in order to get along, get a check, and keep her subsidized apartment. No, Anna is not an American welfare mother. She came from East Berlin just as the Berlin Wall fell, but she suffers from the same malady as her counterparts in the inner cities of Washington, D.C., New York, and Los Angeles today. The victims of socialism have the same sickness as the victims of the welfare state. Its symptoms are souls atrophied in dependence and decayed in a moral vacuum.

Those who have lived in dependency for three generations have had their substance sucked out of them. As communism did in Central and Eastern Europe, three generations of government dependency in America has destroyed millions of lives, devastating minds and souls. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall freed millions who were charges of the “nanny state,” millions of Americans are now being liberated from the welfare state. With freedom, however, comes responsibility, and many people are terrified. In both the East and the West, they have never had to care for themselves, and do not know how. Far more than material help, they need someone to help them in their job search, tutor their children, and encourage them through the transition. Just as West Germany was unprepared to meet the needs of its East German brothers and sisters, the suburbs are unprepared to meet the needs of the American inner city. The wall is down—will there be cries to erect it again? Both there and here, government cannot provide sufficiently for the millions who have been crippled for three generations. Only individuals with vision can give them what they need most: the love to plant a seed that God will grow.

It will take much more than legislation and longer than a few years to reverse the damage both in former communist nations and in the United States. The devastation runs deep. To truly change lives, we must acknowledge that spiritual needs are even more important than material ones. To undo the damage of the welfare state, we must heal the inner lives of its victims, restoring their dignity. But the habits of the heart and mind change slowly, and there is much work to do. To revive these devastated communities, we must heal one person at a time.

Some suggest that shifting responsibility to the private sector will allow greater flexibility in responding to individual needs. Not all private-sector efforts, however, change lives. Some—including a number of main-line, well-funded ones—offer handouts that perpetuate dependency. Private organizations that provide services “no questions asked” and allow people to continue destructive life patterns are just as harmful as government programs that do the same. No number of shelters and free hot meals will change the alcoholic, the drug addict, or the chronically jobless, regardless of who provides them. The only kind of help that will bring about lasting change addresses the root causes of misery.

Life Skills Needed

Welfare recipients need more than an incentive to get a job; they need life skills to be genuinely self-sufficient. What we see in the inner cities are many people who not only have never had a real job but would have trouble keeping one because they have not learned the work ethic, habits of punctuality, and how to follow instructions. If they earn money, few know how to budget or save. Few have had models of how to live responsibly or how to plan for the future. Their schools are criminalized and indifferent. Teenagers have not been shaped by responsible adults at home. Many children have been physically or sexually abused and have lasting inner damage that makes it hard for them to trust others. Their self-respect is nonexistent. Very few have experienced genuine love. Many welfare mothers are unmarried, not only because there was a financial incentive to remain single but because they have never seen a stable marriage.

This bleak litany is the result of the complete breakdown of the family in the inner city. Families have always been the transmitters of virtue, of vision, and of civilization. There is no adequate substitute. Utter despair drives increasing numbers of even grade school children to commit suicide. Without a family to show children what is good, how can they know it? This void is not something a government agency can, or should, attempt to fill. It can, however, be filled by patient mentors over time. If one responsible adult commits to love one child, it is enough to change both their lives. If parents do not, then others must.

Beyond Good Intentions

One wry observer remarked that the opposite of good is good intentions. Wrong-headed policies will never produce good, regardless of our best intentions. Worse yet, they may actually do harm. Bob Coté, who runs Denver’s Step 13, a shelter for homeless men, indicts ssi payments to alcoholics as “suicide on the installment plan.” He has documented deaths resulting from drinking binges on the day the checks arrive.

If we are to practice compassion effectively, we need to follow the examples of what works. Marvin Olasky’s work blazed a revolutionary trail through the thickets of modern sentimentalism. His ABCs of effective compassion have become watchwords for innovative thinkers.

The questions we need to ask of programs replacing the welfare state now are these:

Affiliation: Does the program build relational bridges from the recipient to family, friends, and community?

Bonding: Is there a direct relationship between the giver and the receiver? Is there a mentor to walk with the recipient over time?

Character: Does the group build good character in the recipients, fostering the virtues of self-restraint, honesty, and reliability?

Discernment: Does the program distinguish between those looking for a handout and those who need a hand up—temporary help to get on their feet? Are solutions tailored to fit the individual?

Employment: Do recipients receive help finding a job and learn an ethic that will enable them to keep it?

Freedom: Do recipients learn to use freedom to make good choices and take responsibility for their actions?

God: Do recipients come closer to knowing their Creator, loving and serving Him? Is this work building His kingdom?

With these criteria in mind, for nearly three years the Acton Institute has been on a nationwide search for what works. It sponsors the annual competition called the Samaritan Awards, which honor the nation’s most effective and innovative non-profits helping the poor. In the course of evaluating more than one thousand four hundred groups that have applied, we have had the opportunity to gain an insight into the nation’s best: vibrant, effective, and for the most part small organizations doing remarkable work. Here is what we have found.

Caring Enough to Confront

Faith-based programs have an astonishing success rate in changing lives. Drug and alcohol treatment programs like Teen Challenge and Victory Fellowship can document a success rate of sixty to seventy percent—unheard of in government-run programs. Their “tough love” approach transforms, although it is much harder to challenge an addict to change than it is to give a handout to assuage one’s own conscience.

Ben Beltzer, the founder of Interfaith Housing Coalition, a Dallas employment and housing program, is one who cares enough to confront. Jay and his eight-months pregnant wife, Connie, both former crack users, had been at Interfaith only one week when Jay was caught using drugs. Ben helped him into a drug rehabilitation program, allowing Connie and their five-year-old son to stay through the delivery of the baby, free of charge. Within two weeks of Jay’s return, he was caught using drugs again. Jay came to Beltzer with his newborn daughter, thrusting her forward and pleading, “You’re not going to put her out on the streets, are you?”

Ben looked at him clear-eyed. “No. You are.”

The whole family had to leave the program. And even though Jay is still using crack, Connie got the message. She has stayed off drugs, has a job, an apartment, and custody of both children. For Ben to kick the family out was an act of compassion, although it would not appear so at first blush.

Compassion does not mean giving indiscriminately. Don Michel, who heads Portland’s Union Gospel Mission, leads one of the nation’s most effective programs helping the homeless. He says he has learned from his mistakes. “I thought just handing out food and clothes without question was a very compassionate thing to do. But I think now that when you give things away without accountability, you’re participating in that person’s harm.”

Mentors Make the Difference

Many groups have discovered that one of the most effective ways to teach accountability is through mentoring. Interfaith has two pairs of mentors working with each resident on specific issues of employment and budgeting. Providence House in Denver has a similarly high ratio of mentors to homeless residents, and the results are equally spectacular. Philadelphia Futures Adopt-a-Scholar pairs one mentor adult with one child, and the at-risk kids show demonstrable progress academically and in their character. Best Friends links inner-city adolescent girls to mentors in their schools and communities, and their success is documented in the girls who say no to sex, drugs, and alcohol, and successfully finish high school. What all of these award-winning programs have in common is the relationship-building component of mentoring, which changes lives.

The relationship is even more potent if the mentor is someone who has had the same experience as the person they are helping. Jimmy Heurich of Teen Challenge in San Antonio is a self-described “glue-sniffing wino from Washington.” When he talks to men with alcohol or drug problems, he does so from experience. So do Freddie Garcia and Juan Rivera of Victory Fellowship, both reformed heroin addicts. Step 13’s founder Bob Coté is a former homeless alcoholic who now reaches men in the same place he was. Former business executive Ben Beltzer was once homeless, an experience he says helps him understand the residents at Interfaith. These people can say “ I know exactly what you are going through. I’ve been there. There is a way out.”

Poverty is more than a material condition, it is also a condition of the spirit. No programs to help welfare recipients will do lasting, life-changing work unless they take into account spiritual as well as material needs. Assistance must build the person from the inside out, not from the outside in. External restraints cannot create inner order by imposing it, nor can gifts create it. No laws can make people motivated, responsible, and virtuous, only the law written in the heart.

Who Can Do More? Who Should?

We are obligated to care for those in need, not because we are forced to, but out of obedience to Christ. Our motivation matters. Frank Meyer made the point in In Defense of Freedom that coerced actions do not have the same moral value as those freely undertaken. Because jail is our only alternative to paying taxes, writing the check to the IRS is more an act of self-preservation than virtue. Assuaging one’s impulse for compassion at the expense of other taxpayers is also not an act of virtue. However, for those who freely choose to give of their own resources to a worthy group, there is the reward of doing good for the right reasons and with the right means. Reducing charity to merely social service is spiritually bankrupt.

The Church is the one institution charged with loving people. With welfare reform, there is now a clarion call for the faith community to put its beliefs into action. The responsibility for caring for the poor has not been, and cannot be, fulfilled by the government. Now the question is, “Can the private sector meet the needs? Can churches do more?”

The answer is yes. But is the church prepared? Virgil Gulker of Kids Hope USA, who has spent a lifetime designing and launching ministries, says “clearly, no.” He contends that strategic planning and training are needed to empower the church to accept this responsibility. Without it, he fears a disaster. Responsibility for “the poor” is too big, too nebulous. But specific responsibility for a particular child or one welfare family is a project church members can put their arms around. Taking the huge task and breaking it into accessible pieces, then structuring trained teams is his strategy. Many good-hearted people are willing to help but need someone with a vision to show them how.

There are two temptations: The first is to try to impose a solution from outside rather than taking the time to find the agents of healing in a community and coming alongside to empower them; this is the same intellectual error that spawned socialism and the Great Society. The second is to act to make ourselves feel better rather than wanting to actually know and love the person we want to help. Unless the work is relational, it will not be life-changing. And the point is that if our motive is genuinely to love, rather than to “do a good work,” we will be changed.

Instead, the reason we should help those in need is that Christ commanded us to do so. In Matthew 25, Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brethren, you did for me.” Mother Teresa, in her book The Simple Path, defines the “least of my brethren” as those who are hungry, not only for food, but for the word of God. Those who thirst not only for water, but for knowledge and vision. Those who lack not only clothes, but human dignity. Those who need not only a house of bricks, but a heart that understands and covers.

These are the people Christ calls us to serve. In serving them, we serve Christ himself in what Mother Teresa calls “the distressing disguise of the poor.” He does not want our bread and soup. He wants our hearts.