Last winter, Frederico Brown was unemployed, homeless, and addicted to crack. He also had left his wife and children.
But Brown got a second chance. Thanks to a drug rehabilitation center at the House of Prayer Church of God in Christ on Chicago’s South Side, Brown says that “for the first time I have a purpose in life and I’m pulling my act together.”
Brown is an exception in urban America—parts of which, say some urban specialists, increasingly resemble Two-Thirds World barrios and favelas. In U.S. cities last year, the average unemployment rate was 8.9 percent; in some urban areas, the rate equals 50 percent. There are between 600,000 and 3 million homeless people in America. And many inner-city children are extremely vulnerable to pressure to use and even deal drugs.
For decades, Christian community-development organizations in the United States have been working to turn exceptions like Brown into the rule. But more than ever, they are being joined in that effort by similar groups historically associated with overseas work.
Steve Ujvarosy of International Urban Associates explains why: “Parts of U.S. cities, such as Chicago’s Cabrini-Green [housing], are war zones in some of the same ways as Addis Ababa or Mogadishu.”
Though none of the groups plans to diminish its overseas emphasis, many are exploring new ways to meet the needs of urban America—some doubling the resources spent on the effort.
“We have a lot of problems at home, especially in the cities,” says Jerald January, U.S. director for the Colorado Springs-based Compassion International. Though Compassion is devoting less than 1 percent of its budget to U.S. programs this year, that will rise to 20 percent during the next five years.
Compassion’s programs in several cities and among native Americans in Arizona and New Mexico, which began in 1971, support local churches, foundations, and ministries that work to give children safe and stable learning environments.
The organization added Jerald January and two other staff members, Chicago facilitator Tommy Moore and native American specialist James Skeet, at the beginning of the year. Compassion probably will add directors for nine different urban regions as well.
World Relief (WR), the international assistance arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, also is devoting many more resources to U.S. programs.
WR began resettling refugees in the United States in 1979. In 1987, it devoted 23 percent ($3.1 million) of its total budget ($13.5 million) to U.S. programs; in 1992, that percentage nearly doubled to 43 percent ($6.3 million out of a total budget of $14.7 million).
“For too long we have tended to let federal programs deal with U.S. poor and needy,” says Don Hammond, WR director of U.S. Ministry. “The church needs to take up the mandate to help the poor in our midst as well as around the world.” To this end, Hammond says, WR’s six area offices are developing advisory committees to help churches, particularly in suburban areas, more effectively minister to poor people.
In 1992, Los Angeles-based World Vision devoted 2.6 percent of its total ministry expense to its U.S. programs, up from 1.78 percent in 1988.
Bob Seiple, World Vision’s president, says, “The dragons of poverty and prejudice we’re fighting abroad are the same ones we find in Los Angeles and Chicago.”
Earlier this year the international relief-and-development organization launched a project aimed at revitalizing some of Chicago’s most impoverished neighborhoods. During the next three years, World Vision, along with the MidAmerica Leadership Foundation, will raise and invest $6.3 million in existing church-based housing, employment, education, youth mentoring, and drug rehabilitation programs.
“Focusing on the U.S. is not new for us,” says Seiple. World Vision began work in the United States in 1981. “What is new is the collaboration of so many different groups.”
Opportunity International (OI) focuses on Two-Thirds World micro-development through small loans (averaging $500) to entrepreneurs. It claims to have created or salvaged 44,946 jobs in 15 countries in 1992.
The Oak Brook, Illinois-based group is looking into replicating that approach in the United States.
Eric Thurman, OI president, says duplicating micro-development on the Two-Thirds World model in the United States will not be easy, given what he calls America’s relatively “anti-business environment.” Still, he is optimistic. “The majority of new jobs being created are pegged to bottom-up sorts of things,” he explains. “If you want to create employment … it’s going to be entrepreneurs and small businesses.” Other Christian groups looking at ways to expand programs in U.S. cities include MAP International, a health resource organization, and Washington-based Childcare International.
So great a need
Why the deeper U.S. involvement? “It’s certainly not a brand new thing,” says J. Dudley Woodberry, dean of the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary. “For some time, there has been an awareness that today’s world mission is from every Christian to every other part of the world—not just Western bases directed toward the Two-Thirds World.”
Harvie Conn, professor of missiology at Westminster Theological Seminary, says, “You no longer have to cross an ocean to minister to the world’s needy.” Several economic factors are facilitating the shift as well. David Beckman, president of Bread for the World, says the current increase in poverty and hunger can be attributed largely to three causes: a slowdown of economic growth, structural changes that have pushed down the wages of low-skilled workers, and government spending choices in the 1980s.
“The percentage of children living in extreme poverty in the United States surpasses that of the elderly,” Compassion’s January says. “In our inner cities, the public-school dropout rate often exceeds 60 percent. Gangs are quickly replacing families as children seek discipline and a sense of belonging.”
An estimated one in four U.S. children lives in a single-parent family, and one in five lives in poverty.
In addition to economic poverty, these groups are motivated by what they see as a “poverty of spirit.” “The problem in the inner city is really more a poverty of spirit than it is economic,” says OI’s Thurman. “For years, some well-intended but severely misguided efforts have misperceived what humanitarian aid looks like.”
It is not about “giving them a handout,” he says, but “putting people in control of their lives.”
By Thomas S. Giles.
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