In the book of Matthew, on the day of judgment, the king will separate the people one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Those on his right, who fed the hungry, clothed the needy and cared for the sick, will be given eternal life.
“I tell you the truth,” the king says in Matthew 25:40 in the New International Version translation, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
The parable of the sheep and the goats lies traditionally at the heart of Christian social outreach. For Jews, the phrase Tikkun Olam, “repair the world,” is a call for social justice. Zakat, one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam, obliges Muslims to contribute materially to the fair distribution of wealth in society.
In mid-Missouri, faith communities represent an important, even indispensable, part of the social service network. More than 55 churches, for example, worked with the Voluntary Action Center last year, donating money, taking part in drives for school supplies and coats, and “adopting” families in need of financial help. Of the 145 agencies that work with the Central Missouri Food Bank, “a good 70 percent are faith-based,” said Peggy Kirkpatrick, executive director of the food bank.
“They’re overwhelmingly our hands in reaching out to the poor in that capacity,” Kirkpatrick said. “I give a huge amount of credit to the faith-based community in this.”
But these faith-based groups are facing an uphill challenge as more and more people are living in poverty. The 2006 KIDS COUNT Data Book, a joint project between Citizens for Missouri’s Children, the Children’s Trust Fund, and more than 30 public and private organizations statewide, reports that since 2001, 40,000 more Missouri children have been relying on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. This indicator is described by advocates as the “best consistent measure” by which to measure childhood poverty rates.
More children have been receiving food stamps between 2001 and 2005 to meet their nutritional needs, the report states, and “more and more families need assistance to provide their children with the basics.”
Kirkpatrick has seen the reality of the report’s findings. In 1992, the Central Missouri Food Bank was distributing 2.9 million pounds of food a year and serving about 20,000 people. In 2006, it had increased to 20.5 million pounds, and the food bank was helping about 80,000 people a year. In addition to the food bank, faith-based groups are seeing and touching the human face of poverty.
“I can tell you from experience, just from the number of calls the church gets, from people saying, ‘Can you help pay my bills?’ It’s just increased exponentially in the last six or seven years,” said the Rev. Maureen Dickmann of Rock Bridge Christian Church. “We see people at the soup kitchen who are working full time. When people who are working full time are not able to support their families, that’s a serious problem.”
Dickmann and others say they have watched the situation worsen for years, as both political and social pressures have widened the gap between the haves and have-nots.
Cuts to Medicaid are one of the chief causes of the rising poverty rate in Missouri; the impact of the federal Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 was exacerbated by the Missouri legislature, which changed eligibility requirements and cut services to meet budget goals. As a result, one out of every eight people insured by Medicaid lost their health insurance, says the Missouri Budget Project, a nonprofit organization that analyzes Missouri’s budgetary and policy issues. Many who remained eligible were shifted to a “spend-down” Medicaid program that demands higher monthly premiums.
According to the Missouri Budget Project’s report, “Clock Ticks on Medicaid,” the 2005 cuts had the greatest effect on low-income working parents and their families. “The 2005 cuts brought unintended negative consequences for children, the elderly and disabled and undermined the efforts of low-income working families to support themselves,” the report said.
Dickmann says the policies have shifted rising health care costs from the government to other entities, such as health care providers and beneficiaries, as well as to social service providers such as faith-based groups.
“The need is increasing,” Dickmann said. “Government is pulling out more and more and leaving it to the faith communities, and it’s stretching our resources.”
Meanwhile, some observers are worried that as poverty increases, fewer religious groups and churches are getting involved in helping the needy.
In February, the Barna Group, which conducts research on religion, published a nationwide survey on the nature of Americans. It concluded that Americans exhibit traits of both compassion and self-centeredness. “People think of themselves as engaged in assisting needy people, but the vast majority of Americans merely dabble in helping others,” said David Kinnaman, the director of the study. “Living morally is not just obeying thou-shall-not commandments, but also actively enriching the lives of those around us,” the report said.
This sentiment is echoed by Lana Jacobs, who has worked with the St. Francis Community since 1982. The community includes the St. Francis House of Hospitality, Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen, and Lois Bryant and Bridget houses. The St. Francis Community has more than 250 volunteers from 38 faith communities, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Christians.
The real problem, Jacobs said, is not in the rising number of people who need assistance, but in an increasingly apathetic culture. “There’s always going to be people who are more interested in watching ‘American Idol’,” she said. “It’s a very self-centered culture, I think.”
Despite the report’s findings, those faith-based groups that are committed to helping others see no such lack of support from their members. Rock Bridge Christian Church, for example, works with the Central Missouri Food Bank, Show-Me Central Habitat for Humanity, the Interfaith Day Center, St. Francis House, Voluntary Action Center, The Wardrobe (a clothing bank), and Loaves and Fishes, among others. The congregation also adopted a family affected by Hurricane Katrina, and has sponsored Bosnian and Liberian families.
Dickmann admits Rock Bridge Christian exhibits an unusually high commitment for its size; almost everybody is involved in helping out in the community, from children who help out in the soup kitchen, to the prayers of the elderly. “You know, we can’t do everything but we do a lot of the things we’re asked to do (in the Bible),” she said. “Our focus is on serving those who are in need and celebrating God’s love for everyone.”
Congregation Beth Shalom puts the essential element of Judaism — Tikkun Olam — into practice by holding regular coat, blanket, food, and donation drives for various shelters and food banks. Most recently, Beth Shalom’s Tikkun Olam Committee reported they had received nearly twice as much in school supplies for students in low-income families this year than last year.
The Islamic Center of Central Missouri holds a food drive for the food bank every Ramadan. According to Rashed Nizam, former president of the center, the highest amount collected in one such drive was 36,000 pounds of food. Students in the Islamic school regularly organize projects to raise funds for the food bank, as well as volunteer there.
The Columbia Interfaith Council brings together people of all religious faiths to support the needy. Recently, an interfaith meeting was held to discuss ways in which various groups could work together on service projects. Ideas included building a house for Habitat for Humanity, working on a community garden whose produce would go to the food bank, and selecting a particular day for the different groups to serve at the food pantry together.
At the end of the day, faith-based groups view their work in the community, above all, as an act of living out their faith.
“God inspires and we perspire, if you would,” said Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom. “It just will not happen by itself.”