If you visit Ottawa County in Western Michigan you will find
no able-bodied person on welfare. This quiet community has plenty
of jobs and a good economy, and was the first in the nation to
achieve the goal of moving everyone on welfare to work. It also
has something elsea strong network of Christian Reformed
churches that organized to provide support for families making
The Good Samaritan Ministries, which coordinated the
church-based safety net for families, has been around for 30
years doing what they call "relational ministries."
Concretely, that means that for a long time Ottawa County
churches have been doing a lot more than clothing drives. They
have been engaging in the kind of intentional relationships with
poor people in their area that truly transform livesfor
those in need, but just as important for those who respond. In
fact, Good Samaritan Ministries executive director Bill Raymond
says their main client is the church, and he believes that
ministry is essential to reviving faith.
When welfare reform came down the road, a whole new challenge
presented itself. Raymond and other church leaders there are
quick to point out that it is not the role of the churches to
replace government. However, when Ottawa County was targeted as
one of the first sights for Michigans aggressive and
ambitious Project Zero welfare reform plan, they knew they had to
do something. CRC pastor David Kool said, "We can look at a
700-person caseload and see we can do it." That meant that
any family making the transition from welfare to work was offered
the option of entering into a mentoring partnership with a
church. About a third of the families made that choice.
Each family is assigned a team of four to six church people. A
team leader provides the primary emotional tie and support;
another team member deals with budget counseling; another
addresses resource procurement; and yet another takes on
transportation. A formal mentoring association lasts six to 12
months, with informal relationships continuing after that. Team
members may step in to baby-sit a sick child so a parent can go
to work, marshall church members to repair a car or house, or
just offer encouragement when it is needed. The Good Samaritan
Ministries staff provides support, resources, and advice to the
ONE PARTICULARLY interesting and unique aspect of this program
is the role of Christ Memorial Church, an affluent CRC church in
Holland, Michigan. They have put together a fund to make
no-interest loans to pay off bad debt, pay high-rate loans, and
encourage financial stability. The church has experienced a 90
percent repayment rate.
That these suburban and rural area churches have opened
themselves up so completely to embrace the lives of the poor is
truly impressive. Western Michigan tends to be very conservative
and Republican. Many in the area supported the welfare reform
legislation when it was debated in Congress. Good Samaritan
Ministries called their community to accountability for their
support of this bill, and they responded.
In the midst of this exceptional effort, it is important to be
mindful of some hard realities. It remains to be seen if this
model will work as well in the rest of the state, or in areas
without the good economy that Ottawa County enjoys. Just up the
road in Grand Rapids, initial efforts to organize churches has
not seen the kind of response necessary to address the need. In a
recent study on welfare reform, the U.S. Conference of Mayors
reported that Detroit had a shortfall of 75,000 entry-level jobs.
The churches cannot fix that.
But most troubling is that the child care, transportation, and
other subsidies that have transformed the minimum wage jobs held
by most former welfare recipients in Ottawa County into living
incomes will soon run out. That is when the true test of the
churches and welfare reform will occur. Will the churches allow
those they have nurtured so faithfully to fall back into poverty,
or will they find their prophetic voice to speak up? Stay tuned.
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