Some religious institutions have a dark hidden secret. It has been a secret for centuries. The secret - some religious institutions enable rather than empower suffering people to change. The church does quite well with people without problems, but not well with people who have problems. We do a wonderful job praying for the poor. Prayer is good, but services to assist recovery from substance abuse, hunger, homelessness, poverty, and unemployment is better. Some houses of worship are so heavenly-bound that they are no earthly good. Yet, the church is called to empower God’s people.
Holy Scriptures command us to care for the poor. The Bible says, Deut. 15:11 “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” There is, however, a difference between empowering the poor and enabling them. Far too often, churches focus on paying off a mortgage, repairing stained glass windows, and purchasing new artifacts. Most people do not care about the buildings or new artifacts. Rather, they focus on social causes! Most churches spend more time entertaining dues-paying members than suffering souls. Religious Institutions are spiritual places, but they are also social service agencies. Religious Institutions are called to give people fish to eat, but they must teach people how to fish and ultimately own the pond from which they fish.
The Millennial Generation is tired of Religious Institutions promoting values and doctrines but failing to meet the needs of the community. Richard Flory, Senior Director of Research for the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture says, “Based on our data, evangelical Millennials are decidedly not moving into mainline Protestant or Catholic churches in any significant numbers.” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple is equally concerned with the absence of Millennials in synagogues throughout America. We have experienced a drop in Millennials attending COR Church. Millennials are interested in espousing a cause not religious dogma. There has been an increase in heroin addiction, racism, hate crimes, police abuse, bullying and no faith in governmental leadership since the recent presidential election. The church must meet the social needs of suffering people. The church must listen more than just preach!
Most people in low- to-moderate-income communities have used the church for money and resources, but people suffering from addiction often go ignored. The substance abuse community distrusts the church. They feel judged and often misunderstood. The church must first open its hearts, minds, and souls to serve the least in the community. The church needs tools to meet the “felt needs.” Religious Institutions have a rich reservoir of the most talented and successful people in the community. There are thousands of people attending Religious Institutions willing to volunteer their knowledge, money, and time to help people in need. The religious community may learn to partner on social service agencies for recovery programming, empowerment workshops, and dismantle ideological differences for the betterment of all communities.
A long-term vision is for Religious Institutions to become centers of empowerment for the least of these — not limited by cash assistance but through the dissemination of training, sharing of resources, cause funding, and becoming advocates for the poor. Poor people need Religious Institution to work with them to create jobs, housing, sober living homes, drug and alcohol treatment facilities, and offer a moral platform where all people are accepted. Religious Institutions may form partnerships with other Religious Institutions, government, social service agencies, drug recovery programs, financial institutions, and medical centers to offer free social service programs, financial tools, teachers and services to all interested participants. Let us stop keeping secrets. We are called to empower all of God’s people.
Rev. Mark Whitlock, Executive Director of the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement and Senior Pastor of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church, Irvine California