It often goes like this.
Johnny, a 10-year-old ball of energy, lives across the street from the church in an apartment building. One Wednesday night he finds his way over to the fun kid’s program going on at church, and he’s hooked. Soon he’s bringing along his four younger siblings and his friend next door. Volunteers begin to discover that Johnny lives in a whole different world from what they know, and they’re scratching their heads how to help him and his family.
I live in a community where a lot of churches are located in high-poverty neighborhoods. Every one of them, to my knowledge, has a heart to help the hurting people and especially kids in their neighborhood. But sometimes churches formed around middle-class values struggle to know how to serve Johnny and his family in a way that’s true to the gospel and leads to growth.
Here are a few things our staff has learned through church partnerships and our own relationships that we humbly offer to support churches who have a heart for this kind of ministry.
1. First and foremost (and if this is the only thing you read, that’s OK!), build an authentic relationship with the child and their family that is not based on a need to “save” or “rescue” them from poverty. Just love them. Do what the church does best: Show them that they matter. Rejoice when they rejoice. Mourn when they mourn. Don’t rush to fill every need, but do build a genuine friendship. Let them minister to you out of what they have, because that’s what genuine Christian relationships do. (When Helping Hurts is a great resource on this point.)
2. Offer help with practical needs… to everyone. It could be dinner before an evening meeting, breakfast or lunch offered during VBS, a summer reading program, or help with costs of youth group trips, camps, etc. But whenever possible, do it in a way that doesn’t create “us and them.”
Here’s an example: My kids attend school in a city district where free and reduced lunch is offered to all students. 20% of the kids don’t really need it, but it’s the most effective way to serve the other 80%. It works best when we do the same in the church: Offer practical help that is available to anyone who needs or wants it, so that there’s no shame in receiving it.
A caveat: Not everything we think is a need, is really a need. Sometimes we can rush in to offer help where it’s not wanted, and inadvertently produce shame in the family we are trying to bless. An educator I know told a candid story about a low-income family who did not have money for sheets on the children’s beds. She was horrified. A colleague told her frankly, “That’s your value! Maybe sheets are not a need in their world.” Something that seems like a need in a middle-class value system, like sheets or even a bed, may not seem like one to a family who is focused on survival.
3. Help draw out their assets. Find out what they have to offer. Johnny may be materially poor, but there’s a good chance he has strengths that middle class or affluent kids don’t, like skills to survive, taking care of his siblings, generosity, acceptance of others, or recognition of his own spiritual need. Empowering them to serve or minister in their area of giftedness helps them feel like the vital part of the body of Christ that they are.
4. Be sensitive to costs of activities. This is especially true of youth group activities, camps, etc. Likewise, be sensitive to waste of food or staples in those fun youth group activities: If you’re going to wrap someone up like a mummy with toilet paper, have somebody bag it up afterward and let anyone who wants to take a bag home as if it’s a normal and valid thing to do. If no one wants it, fine, but you might be surprised that toilet paper is a precious commodity in some homes.
5. Give opportunities to earn with sweat equity. That week at summer camp, even though it’s expensive, could be a life-changing opportunity for Johnny. So offer all of your students opportunities to work at fundraisers, church cleaning, yard work, etc.
6. But if Johnny doesn’t come through, don’t assume it is laziness. Living in poverty is itself extremely hard work, and because families are so focused on surviving plans can shift at a moment’s notice. Balls get dropped. You can gently help kids in poverty start to learn how to plan and schedule since this is a skill they need to develop, but it won’t happen overnight. Our friends at Think Tank have developed a terrific, eye-opening training called the Cost of Poverty Experience that really helps middle-class folks develop empathy and understanding for those struggling to survive.
7. This one costs money and it’s a little heart-breaking. But when you serve snacks, try to include something with nutritional value. We all know kids love candy and donuts, but what if their little belly really needs a granola bar or a tube of yogurt or a PB&J? What if we kept a stash of these things and casually said, “If anyone didn’t eat breakfast yet, take one!” Because—and this is the heart-breaking part—what if the food they get on Sunday morning or at youth group is all the nutrition they’re going to get until the next school breakfast or lunch?
Incorporate literacy for the little ones.
Can we do this, church?? Knowing what we know about early childhood development and the lack of access that poorest kids have to preschool, there is an incredible opportunity for the church to help toddlers and preschoolers in poverty and their parents get a jump start.
What if preschooler classes included basic skills kids need to learn, like writing names, counting, rhyming, and taking turns?
What if churches could regularly give away books to kids and families?
What if churches held a weekly toddler storytime for kids and parents in the neighborhood?
In short what I’m saying is: What if churches gave these little ones in poverty enough of a jump start that schools would no longer find them woefully behind their peers when they walked through the kindergarten doors, and destined to lag behind for the rest of their education?
I don’t know if it would be a game-changer, but it might.
9. This point left intentionally blank: What other ways can churches be sensitive to kids in poverty?
SCYM Executive Director