Breaking Down the Wall

A quiet revolution is taking place as religious groups begin ministering to the poor using government money -- and succeeding where government couldn't. But eternal vigilance may be the real price.

Now Kessler's calling everybody she knows in that neighborhood, trying to reconnect. That's better than burying the file, burned-out-social-worker-style -- but how many times will she be able to stand failing? "It's just real clear to me that for now, God wants me to use whatever talents he's given me here," she says. "It's not fun sometimes; I'm seeing too much pain and I don't like it. But I'm a big believer in community: What happens to one of us happens to all of us."

In Loco Parentis
C-FAR's emphasis is communal, but at Missouri Baptist Children's Home, they see their new welfare-to-work program as a highly personal form of prevention, a way to ward off the abuse and neglect that send so many children into their care. Case manager Marshea Culbreath used to work for DFS but adamantly prefers this atmosphere. "I can share my faith with my clients without worrying about getting fired," she explains. "I can pray with them, give them a Scripture. If I offend them, they can call, but I'm not going to lose my job."

"You might get a raise!" teases the PR director, Lori Dyess. But Culbreath's not smiling. "A lot of the people I was attempting to help," she says softly, "the only one who could help them was God."

Family Works director Von Hulin nods soberly. "Jesus talked to the masses, but where people noticed the big difference is where they were one-to-one with him. The state was doing this work with very little contact, very little accountability, very little relationship, if any. DFS workers don't have time to do what we do. When one of our first ladies got a job, we gave her a little clock. She just shined. We took some of our clients to Dress for Success, and they fixed them up to the nines. Maybe nobody had ever made them feel like they were worth fixing up."

Culbreath hears every day about people whose families function more like lead weights than boosters. "If you're used to your family member sitting home with you all day watching the soap operas, and then they decide to get up and do something.... " The problem's familiar: "It's that generational 'I didn't go anywhere, and I don't have any hope for you.' But this is the last generation of people receiving benefits; they can't do it the way it's always been done."

Culbreath's learning triage (in a recent list of referrals, one woman was six months pregnant and another had only an eighth-grade education; no way would either make it to full-time jobs within the contract year), and she's learning firmness. At first, she drove clients to job interviews herself -- "I'd just get so excited if they got an interview!" Then a young woman got the job but lost it because she couldn't manage to arrange transportation for herself. Culbreath had to report the woman for sanctions -- something everybody's been wondering whether marshmallow-hearted churchfolk would be able to do. But at Family Works, sanctions are seen as a practical necessity. "We're giving them opportunities, teaching them to fish," remarks Hulin. "At some point, you get to a place where you're not really helping them."

Unlike many of the new FBOs running welfare-to-work programs, Missouri Baptist Children's Home is an established 501(c)(3) social-service agency, long used to bureaucratic constraints. (When they hire, they can't even stipulate churchgoing, let alone Baptist, so they have to play games, like asking for a letter from someone's pastor.) Still, their Christianity soaks all the way down to the language on their brochure, which promises "preventive and redemptive services." Will the new government contracts compromise that mission?

So far, the question's merely amusing: The Family Works program doesn't even come close to paying for itself, and the contract requirements are so basic, no one could disagree. But Hulin says the program's board is perfectly ready to renounce state funding the minute it interferes with their faith. "We do what we do; we are who we are. If this stops working, we'll assume it's not God's choice for us."

Meanwhile, 15 clients are employed; one's volunteering at a potential place of employment; six are finishing high school or job training; seven are job-hunting; 15 just enrolled in the program.

"People are starting to trust us a little bit," finishes Hulin. "These women who've been on assistance forever, why should they bother changing when nobody ever checked on them? And without that piece of hope -- even for the staff, we need that, because sometimes what we do can seem incredibly hopeless." She shakes her head ruefully. "I don't know how people do it without God."

To Give and Not to Count the Cost
Union Memorial United Methodist Church is a large, oddly angled building that faces Belt Avenue with so much stained glass you could melt it down into a rainbow. Inside, you find all the peace of a sanctuary -- and all the tensions of a bureaucratic battlefield.

Pastor Lynn Mims urges you into his church-red carpeted office and hurriedly shuts the door: Babies are sleeping downstairs, their moms bent intently over computer keyboards. The three government contracts -- welfare-to-work, childcare and community organizing -- are going beautifully. Still, this first year's been a frustrating one, and he's exasperated enough to tell you why.

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