The poor may be with us always… but we can help.
At ESR’s common meal last Tuesday, students, staff and visitors heard Sharlene George, Laura Arendt and a few others from Open Arms Ministry in Richmond speak of the growing number of working poor and newly poor in the Richmond area—and the efforts Open Arms is making to serve both the freshly minted poor and the entrenched generational underclass.
Sharlene George, the executive director of Open Arms, said that the organization is seeing more people than ever who are seeking aid for the first time. People in this situation are often embarrassed. Some are angry that although they are working very hard, they can no longer earn enough to make ends meet. Open Arms works with these clients to focus on what they can be grateful for as they adjust to the reality of poverty.
Beyond financial aid, the organization offers budgeting help and offers itself as on-going spiritual and community support system that clients can call on for prayer, for referrals as other needs arise and for caring attention to them as human beings. One man, for example, who was just out of prison, came in for help paying for a prescription drug. When he mentioned that he was going on a job interview, Open Arms noticed he might need a hair trim and connected him with a beautician who offers free hair cuts to people in need. Another time, while talking to a woman with young children who came in for help, Open Arms realized that, beyond her immediate problem, this mother had no money for Christmas. They took the initiative to recommend her to a group wanting to sponsor a family’s Christmas.
Open Arms, which began in 2009 after several years of planning, is a partnership of a dozen faith groups in the Richmond area that pool resources to assist to people in need. The ministry, which dispensed $11,000 in funds last year, offers financial help of up to $250 per needy family every six months. It works to meet people’s need by partnering with other agencies: $100 pooled from several different groups each donating $25 can make it possible to pay a bill.
They say the hardest clients to deal with can be the generational poor, because they are used to living on the social services system, and thus can sometimes appear to be demanding. The staff pray daily to keep an unbiased attitude and open heart toward this population, who have deep and real needs.
As I listened to the story of Open Arms, I found myself remembering Jesus’ comment that “the poor will be with us always.” This statement occurred to me as I was pondering how we could structure a system that wouldn’t enable people to skate along in poverty but would encourage them towards independence and fuller life. Then I realized, that as it was impossible to engineer the Tower of Babel, so it’s impossible to structure a perfect human system, much as we might long for a shalom world where God’s abundance is distributed such that every person has enough. So for the people who are left at the bottom, scraping along to survive inadequately, we need to offer help and compassion, not condemnation. As seminary students, sometimes caught up in the intellectual realms, it’s also good to have a stream of reminders from places like Open Arms of faith in practice and of missional opportunities in our own community and around the world.
Open Arms is also aware of the fine line it walks between counseling people to adjust to straitened circumstances and the issue of addressing structural problems that are causing an upsurge in poverty. While an attitude of gratitude is helpful, acquiescing to a new normal in which poverty is acceptable is counterproductive. In addition to giving or receiving charity, people need to be talking to Washington.
Ministries like Open Arms that address the whole person, spiritual and emotional as well as financial, fill an important and urgent social role. George noted that when poor people, who could be any of us, receive dignity and respect, they are more likely to give back to the system that helped them. She said that the woman whose family received Christmas gifts “paid it forward” by leaving a bread maker on the Open Arms doorstep, hoping it could be used by someone else in need.
Open Arms can use both monetary donations and volunteers. They can be contacted via their website, and they are always open to phone calls or visitors.