Relationships needed to break poverty cycle

By John Pierce
Baptists Today

Photo: Joel McLendon

ATLANTA-While soup kitchens and clothes closets meet some basic human needs, something more personal is needed to counter poverty, said one who lives and works among the poor.

"We need football games, where we can play together," said Jimmy Dorrell of Mission Waco, a multifaceted ministry with impoverished persons in Central Texas.

Relationship-building is the first and most important step in discovering ways to help break the cycle of poverty, he told participants in a special interest session Feb. 1 during the New Baptist Covenant celebration.

"You should have friends who are poor," said Dorrell, who along with his wife, Janet, bought a home in an economically deprived north Waco community 28 years ago, raised four children and built long-term relationships with neighbors.

Mentors, who build relationships with and help guide those seeking to improve their lives, are an essential part of the decade-old Christian Women's Job Corps and its counterpart, Christian Men's Job Corps, said Cara Lynn Vogel of Woman's Missionary Union of North Carolina.

The job-training ministry sites are separate by gender and vary in emphasis by location, Vogel said of the WMU ministry efforts in which "women mentor women and men mentor men."

"The issue of poverty can be overwhelming," said Vogel. "But more importantly, we need to talk about solutions."

The solutions found in the Christian Jobs Corps efforts are built on mentors encouraging and enabling participants to develop through spiritual nurture, health and nutrition, education and job skills training.

Vogel told of an African-American woman, pregnant as a teen, whose experience in the program led to setting and repeating new goals. Today she is a pharmacist serving as a mentor to another woman at one of the sites in North Carolina.

"No two (job sites) are identical," said Vogel, noting more than 2,100 persons participated in the programs for women and men in 2006.

Dorrell described his work in Waco as a holistic ministry that focuses on building relationships with the poor as well as mobilizing middle-class Christians to get involved.

Mission Waco offers numerous services such as job training, a health clinic, literacy, housing and economic development. Economic development is the hardest piece, Dorrell said.

An intense simulation experience gives volunteers a close encounter with poverty and better equips them for relating effectively with poor people, he said.

"People pay $45 to be poor," he said of those participating in his "Plunge2Poverty" simulation experience.

Dorrell is also pastor of the Church Under the Bridge, a congregation that began when he and five homeless people got together to discuss faith. Worship now draws as many as 300 some Sundays, he said, including numerous homeless persons, as well as doctoral students from nearby Baylor University.

 "I've learned more about the kingdom of God from the poor than I learned in seminary or anywhere else," said Dorrell. "We have people who don't fit-and we make room for them."

One of the more challenging aspects of urban ministry is dealing with systemic issues and obstacles that make breaking the cycle of poverty more difficult, Dorrell said.

Mike Queen, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Wilmington, N.C., moderated the presentations and discussions. His congregation recently purchased an adjacent jail that is being converted into a ministry center despite some public resistance.

"When we talk about the systems, we're talking about our local governments, largely," he said. "You just have to be persistent (to bring about needed changes)."

Dorrell warned participants in the session on "Breaking the Cycle of Poverty" that sorrow and disappointment are present in ministry with the poor. He spoke of losing friends to early deaths, seeing them fall into addiction relapses or fail to show up for their jobs.

"If you dive into this seriously, you are going to have a lot of pain," he said.

However, both Dorrell and Vogel shared words of hope as well as practical advice on ministry with impoverished persons.

"But it's a long-haul ministry," said Vogel. "It is not a quick fix or a Band-Aid."