When Abraham Smith retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1996, the last thing on his mind was preaching from a storefront in one of the most depressed areas of the nation’s capital. But an elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church asked the lieutenant colonel and ordained minister to create a new congregation in the district’s troubled Petworth neighborhood.
Edgar lived alone in a welfare motel among prostitutes and drug abusers. He was a bit rough around the edges and would sometimes get loud and demanding. But for all his rough edges, Edgar was the only person who passed for a pastor in that backwater parish of broken souls. And there could be no more fertile soil for biblical "church growth" than the concrete motel parking lot and those waiting children of God with their wisdom "from below."
Alice O’Connor, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that her students laugh when she talks about how Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in the 1960s. Apparently the idea strikes them as quaint.
Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, former president Jimmy Carter remarked that the “growing gap between the rich and poor” is the most elemental problem facing the world economy. But the gap between the rich and the poor is also a very old problem.
Are the poor blessed or lazy? The prevailing answer in America is lazy. The welfare revolution of the past decade put the poor to work. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 changed the social support system. As the name of the law implies, people are held personally responsible for getting out of poverty by taking advantage of work opportunities.
Funding for the 1996 law that changed welfare had an expiration date of September 30, 2002. So last year, Congress had an opportunity to renew and revise the system. The House and Senate disagreed, however, about funding amounts and changes for the system.
Welfare reform has triggered experimentation by states, which are responsible for its administration, and copious research about what works. In this search for effective answers, the prevailing way of thinking about welfare and poverty has also cast a spotlight on religious congregations and the potential support they provide.
"The past is not over,” said Odessa Woolfolk of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Speaking to my divinity school class, Woolfolk spoke of systems that continue to oppress and seriously limit access to resources that are basic to any human being. With slavery a thing of the past, with segregation banned, with the right to vote for everyone, what is the problem? It is access.