Faith Summit on Child Poverty, a year later

Jan. 15, 2014 @ 09:16 AM
"Twenty-seven percent of Durham’s children are living in poverty.  This is shameful and unacceptable.  We’ve got to change it."
We spoke those words a year ago on Jan. 24, 2013, at the Faith Summit on Child Poverty at Union Baptist Church.  We expected 200 to attend, but 500 (!) showed up, a sign of energy and commitment among Durham citizens. 
The summit was a call to action.  That call lodged in the hearts and intentions of many who attended.  Since we soon mark the first anniversary of the faith summit, it’s a good time to highlight some of the specific action steps that congregations and organizations are taking.
At the summit’s conclusion, one person said, “We need a documentary film on child poverty.”  That person took action, initiating various meetings.  The result is that  Thursday at 7 pm WRAL-TV will air a documentary that includes an East Durham family struggling with poverty.  This film is the direct result of the faith summit, bringing increased public visibility of poverty.  We need to bring this issue out of the shadows, so we can all see the need and take action.
One major priority that surfaced at the Faith Summit was the developing of intentional relationships across the lines of privilege and poverty.  To address this priority, we are launching REAL Durham Circles, our local name for the national Circles campaign, an evidence-based best practice for reducing poverty.  This initiative is a collaboration of End Poverty Durham, Durham Congregations in Action, East Durham Children’s Initiative, Healthy Families Durham and Durham Economic Resource Center.   Several United Methodist congregations are exploring volunteer support for the REAL Durham initiative.  Twenty congregations have contributed matching funds to help launch this initiative.  REAL Durham will match a family in poverty (the leader) with four volunteers (allies), who meet weekly with the family for 18 months.  (REAL = Relationships Equipping Allies and Leaders.)  This initiative begins with training classes for leaders, followed by training for allies.  
We plan to begin 15 Circles in May, focusing on the East Durham neighborhood where the child poverty rate is a shocking 63 percent.  Our goal is to benefit children by helping their parents get better jobs and other opportunities to move out of poverty.
Since the faith summit, many congregations have given focused attention to Durham poverty.  Examples:  Two congregations have sponsored community forums to help educate all of us about the realities of poverty.  A synagogue has launched a multi-year plan to address Durham poverty.  A Presbyterian congregation has started a poverty task force. A Baptist congregation has launched a mission group to support the REAL Durham initiative. 
A number of congregations have given strong support to the new Diaper Bank, while others have sponsored back-to-school festivals with free book bags as well as backpack food ministries.  Antioch Baptist Church has made affordable office space available for the REAL Durham Circles initiative.  These and other actions are clear indicators that the faith community is stepping up to help.
When we speak to community groups, the response is consistent and strong:  “We’ve got to reduce this poverty.  Durham is a progressive city with a caring heart.  We must work to disrupt this poverty.”  
At Watts Street Baptist Church, where I served as pastor for 24 years, they have a tradition of “Sounding a Call” for any new mission.  That call includes three questions:  1. Is this mission good news -- reducing child poverty?  2. Does it seem impossible to accomplish? 3. Is there a good chance we will fail?  If we can answer YES to all 3 questions, that’s a sign that the Spirit is leading us to undertake the mission.
At the final session of the faith summit last January, we heard that the call has been clearly sounded.  For people of faith, the call to reduce child poverty is a spiritual matter.  It’s at the heart of our spiritual health.  
Following last January’s faith summit, we’ve seen affirming actions to address child poverty.  May this next year bring increased resolve to continue vigorous work that makes a difference for our children.  
Our actions will be a clear measure of what kind of people we in Durham really want to be. 
Mel Williams, retired pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church, is coordinator of End Poverty Durham.