How can congregations move beyond “helping” the poor to being in ministry with them? A black Pentecostal church on Chicago’s Near West Side offers a model for pulling families out of poverty. Serving as a something like a “mutual aid society” where everyone has a voice and anyone can ask for help, The Revival Church offers an example of how to make friends with the poor, not simply offer them food.
In 2000, two sociologists, Isaac Laudarji and Lowell Livezey, set out to discover how nearby congregations related to (or did not relate to) the low-income residents their ministries served. (“The Churches and the Poor in ‘Ghetto Underclass’ Neighborhood,” in Public Religion and Urban Transformation, ed. by Lowell W. Livezey, 83-106, NY Univ. Press).
Out of twelve churches studied, only The Revival Center Church of God in Christ, a black Pentecostal church, consistently opened its doors to low-income residents. Not only that, it tried to look beyond its own walls to offer help to persons who felt trapped, whether spiritually or materially. Let’s explore why this “mutual aid” congregation succeeded in bridging the class divide where others fell short.
What made The Revival Center different?
- Volunteers not only served poor residents, but also prayed with everyone who came for food, clothing or help with children. In addition, The Revival Church had more of its own members involved in their social ministries than most other churches.
- Revival Church members visited anyone from the housing project who came to worship, and there were many. Members even visited with the large contingent of parents who sent their children to church but did not attend themselves. When an emergency arose, these parents often reached out to the church for help. It was “their” church.
- Drawing on Black traditions in the South (where members originated), the church utilized a “relaxed Sunday schedule” with many people staying at church most of the day and sharing a meal.
- Functioning like a “mutual aid society,” the church offered itself as a place where everyone had a voice and anyone could ask for help. Church members became friends with low income members and responded to their concerns, not just spiritually but materially. Researchers noted: “The church has shared food and clothing as a rural family might feed a needy neighbor or stranger by adding a potato and extra water to the soup.” (p. 103)
- The church was not so solidly middle class as the other churches, but more “mixed income.” A few active members were middle class, but many of them were “working poor,” though not desperately poor. Celia, for example, was on welfare until the pastor urged her to get her GED. She later became a nurse, began tithing, and served as director of Helping Hands Ministry. Alex, recently released from prison, was able to stay employed, drug free and to avoid lapsing back into criminal activity with the help of church members. Though church offered programs five nights per week, often it was the informal help that proved decisive.
- The church served as an extended family that provided both love and discipline. Fifty or sixty children attended The Revival Church weekly, two-thirds of them unaccompanied by parents. The adults in charge, who were not biologically related to these children, were expected to provide discipline and to model good behavior. Pastor Bowman: “We just love them into good behavior.” As the researchers put it, “Everyone raises all the children.” (p. 100)
- The church’s boundaries were porous, as it reached beyond those who regularly attended to invite those who were seeking betterment. As one example, church members made pastoral visits to other church members who lived at the housing project and the church organized revivals to expand invitational opportunities for residents.
In this way and others, The Revival Church sought to develop relationships with its low-income neighbors, not simply “help” them. The congregation as “mutual aid society” might offer a model for churches, synagogues and mosques that are seeking to “go the second mile” with the poor communities they serve.
Photo: World Bank Photo Collection, Children Eating, Nov. 10, 2006. Flickr Creative Commons.