Connecting with Poverty in Our Community

A week or so ago the Oregonian published an article about poverty in our neck of the woods. The article profiles the “subtle shifts” of poverty taking place in Clark County, the county of which our meeting is a part. The city of Vancouver has worked to push poverty out towards the east parts of the county (Camas and Washougal) which makes demographics look better for the city, but in turn people end up moving out where there are less services available. What is even more interesting is that we learned that the city of Camas actually sweeps people back into Vancouver for the same reasons. This back and forth is not only hard on the people it affects but it keeps anyone from owning up to the problem or seeking solutions. This is why we were told last year by the police in Camas that there are no homeless in our town. This thinking underlies the ideology: “If we don’t see a problem, there must not be one.”

However, for those who have eyes to see, there is something going on. What we’re seeing in Camas/Washougal is an influx of poor who have no place else to go and when the get here there is little support for them. The Oregonian article is a nice write-up not only about poverty, but actually talks a little about how our Quaker meeting here in Camas is approaching the issue. As I told our congregation the Sunday after this came out: “It’s nice to get some good press every once  in a while. After all this is the kind of thing Churches should be in the news for.”

As for me personally, I began reflecting on the things that have gone on since we first began investigating this problem and there are a number of areas that I feel called to encourage. I realized that the way we approach this question as a Quaker meeting is tied to who we are as a community, our vision of what it means to be the church in the world, and it is also, in some ways, connected to our size.
I think there’s the assumption often that a smaller church shouldn’t get involved in big issues like this, but then again, I kind of feel like it’s the smaller churches that are most likely to be directly connected to these kinds of issues and questions. In our meeting we have a good mixture of ages, education levels and plenty of working class folks. Ours is by no means a middle-class suburban church and for this reason I think we may be strategically placed to connect with some of these issues in a way that other communities may not be able to identify with. Poverty and the fear of losing housing is very real for some within our own church. But beyond this, size is not really the question. For Quakers, we have always tried to work out the conviction that our main task is to listen and be obedient to Christ’s leading and he will give us what we need to fulfill the call he’s placed on us. Size does not figure into this question at all. And in fact, I like to think that smaller communities may actually have an advantage in many ways and may be agile enough to respond to that leading more easily.
Some of the other areas I think we can encourage as a meeting:
  1. Grow in awareness of the issue of poverty and the many levels of inequality in East Clark County.
  2. Instead of focusing on the big problem and all the issues poverty in our town entails, we can take it step by step. And simply focus on each person who comes to us separately. The 12 step saying is “do the next right thing.”
  3. Raise questions and be persistent. We may not have a lot of answers but we have some serious questions about poverty in our town that continue to be posed in various venues.
  4. Be active in a meaningful and sustainable way. It’s easy to bite off more than we can chew.
  5. Join with others. We are working to partner with groups such as Parents Organizing for Economic and Welfare Rights, Laundry Love, East Clark County Children’s Home Society, Yellow Brick Road and others.
  6. Help connect the dots for people to resources that are available. One thing we get a lot of is phone calls from people looking for assistance. While we can’t help everyone we never tell people “Sorry, we can’t help you, talk to you later.” What we do try and say is “While we can’t help you with (rent, utility bills, etc) what we can help with is your Laundry on the first Thursdays of the month. And who else have you been able to connect with. Maybe we can help you connect with other resources in our community you may not know about.” So our goal is to help, even if it’s simply knowing enough about what is available in our community to be a resource for people.
How about you? What have you learned about working with others in this kind of capacity as a faith community?

7 responses to “Connecting with Poverty in Our Community”

  1. Wes, I think what your meeting is doing answers to the very heart of the Christ’s gospel. The only place in Christian scripture that Jesus actually defines what it means to him to be the Christ, the messiah, is in Luke 4. After his vision at his baptism and the testing of his vision in the wilderness, he comes home to his home town of Nazareth and is invited to read during the Sabbath services. He chooses Isaiah 61:1-2:

    The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the poor/oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors.

    Here, “anointed me” is the Hebrew messiah or Greek christos; “good news” is of course, evangelion; and “the year that Yahweh favors” is the Jubilee commanded and defined in Leviticus 25: the cancellation of all debt, the release of all debt slaves, the return of all families who have been alienated from their ancestral land holdings by bankruptcy to their family farms; and rest for the land. Jesus is defining the role of the Christ as bringing relief to the poor.

    In Luke, Jesus sits down and then announces that this prophecy has been fulfilled in their hearing. He is claiming the God-anointed authority to proclaim a Jubilee. In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus spends much of the rest of his ministry fleshing out the planks in this platform for the common-wealth of God. Half of the healings, many of the parables, many of our most beloved sayings and teachings are elaborations on one of the four injunctions included in his Jubilee release. My most favorite are the Beatitudes, which are all midrash on inheritance law, promising reversal of fortune for those who have lost their land through foreclosure.

    All this raises the question of how! How does Jesus plan to fulfill this outrageous prophecy? Luke gives us the answer in the second and fourth chapters of Acts: The followers of the Christ will take care of the poor. Those who have surplus wealth will liquidate their holdings and use the proceeds to support the poor, following the example of Barnabas in Acts 4.

    Somehow, and for thousands of years, the church has lost sight of this, the very core of the gospel message. But Camas meeting has remembered.

  2. Hey Wess,
    I haven’t had much luck getting people involved in this issue in Lebanon, but like you said in the article as long as I am here I am going to keep reminding people they are here and as Christian we have some responsibility to them.
    But if you do ever get a chance to get up to Seattle Mennonite they having an amazing community ministry for the homeless. After I finished seminary I worked there for a couple of months and it is very interesting way to do homeless ministry that is more based on the face to face rather than just throwing money at the problem or “fixing” it.
    Hope things are well.

  3. I know you’re the pastor of your meeting and it’s your job to listen to your callings and act on them. I’m just curious about how God is asking you to encourage leadership in this area from the working class people in your meeting.

    One of the ways the social class structure of our society gets replicated in our meetings is by owning and middle class people taking on the role of leader and visionary and not asking if those who aren’t traditionally leaders to take some responsibility and leadership.

    • Jeanne, absolutely. Most of what is happening is by the folks in our meeting. The other group I’m a part of is P.O.W.E.R. which is a group of low-income families and allies who are doing advocacy work.