We are living in some interesting days. Every morning CNN gives us an update on the progress of the health care reform initiative in the senate; we are in an extreme recession that, according to some experts, is surpassed only by the ‘Great Depression’ of 1933; in the last month we have witnessed the devastation caused by two severe earthquakes one in Haiti and one in Chile; and we still have not finished cleaning up the mess from hurricane Katrina. Our dollars are being stretched, and stretched and stretched. Yet, at every turn, when devastation strikes and the appeals go out, millions of dollars are collected from private pockets, agencies and institutions. How is this possible? How does it happen that in a time of severe financial downturn the giving to special problems and needs continues to flow?
I believe this question was answered for us in a recent course taught at ABSW entitled “How to Create and Sustain Your Own Non-profit.” In this course, taught by Rev. Robert Wilkins*, President and CEO of the East Bay YMCAs and a member of the ABSW Board of Trustees, students caught a vision for the necessity of the non-profit sector in a capitalist society. Wilkins’ analysis showed the glaring gaps created by the capitalistic structure, e.g., the inaccessibility of health care and education for all. As the capitalistic structure does its work to create competition in the market place thus producing more and more, and better and better goods and services, it will by its very nature leave behind a certain percentage of the population who simply cannot keep up. I believe Darwin called this the survival of the fittest. As a result, our society is left with individuals, groups and sometimes entire communities for whom the fulfillment of basic needs becomes increasingly more difficult. This is where the non-profit finds its place.
Without the work of our churches & schools (both non-profits), as well as organizations like the YMCA, the Red Cross, PICO, and many others, our capitalistic structure would not be sustainable. A society cannot exist solely on competition in the market place. Who will educate? Who will nurture? Who will see that basic needs are met for all? The old adage, ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ comes to mind. If we as a nation and culture are not caring for our aged, our ill, our handicapped, our underprivileged, and our youth (thought by many to be our greatest resource), then we will be crippled as a society and culture. In fact, in every instance where this does not take place we are already crippled. While we live in a great and wealthy nation it has by no means achieved its absolute potential. But, I digress.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to this mission. We have been mandated to give a cup of water to the thirsty, to provide food for the poor, to heal the sick, and visit the prisoner (Matthew 25:34 ff). For those of us who live and work in the community of faith this command has touched our hearts. We believe in it, at times due to our faith, at times due to our altruistic nature, and perhaps most often due to our personal experience of God at work in our own lives bringing healing and sustenance through the faith community. But, today I want to suggest to you that the gospel message is more than a nice platitude, or pie in the sky thinking, it calls us to the basic work of creating and sustaining human development and dignity. It is the core from which great cultures and societies are built. In the Gospel message we have not simply been given a mandate to be kind to one another (i.e., love one another) as if this were an end in and of itself, but we have been given a blueprint for living; a strategic plan, if you will, that if fully implemented will lead to a healthy, vital society/culture that exemplifies the best God has called us to be.
Last Friday night, Rev Trudy Read made a presentation in another of our MDiv/MACL courses entitled “How to Create and Sustain Social Ministries” [We have a “How To . . .” series going for the Master of Arts in Community Leadership (MACL)]. Rev. Read works for City Team San Francisco. Through her presentation we learned that there are 6000 SROs (Single Room Occupancies) in the neighborhood in which she works. We were shocked! Six thousand people are living in small single rooms, 8 x11 ft, that consume the majority of their monthly social security checks. The remainder of their needs (food, clothing, medical, etc) are met by non-profits in the neighborhood. Unbelievable! Yet true. There is a system/structure in place in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco that sustains this population and by so doing strengthens the city of San Francisco. If these nonprofits were to cease to exist San Francisco would have a huge problem on its hands causing many functions to come to a screeching halt. Similarly, the YMCA of the East Bay provides child care, nutrition and family support services to some 300 migrant farm workers families in Yolo and West Contra Costa Counties; comprehensive mental health services for crime victims and crime victimized communities throughout the East Bay; and diabetes and obesity-prevention programs and activities to children at high risk.
Why do people give liberally to relief efforts and nonprofits in their own economic crisis? Because they have an implicit knowledge of the truths described above. We all know these needs will not be met by our capitalistic structure and, thanks be to God, we still have enough ‘heart’ as a nation to care for those in need. Why do we have ‘heart’? Why have we not been totally consumed by our capitalistic ideals? I would suggest because of the work of our faith communities and our non-profits. This is why we are training our students at ABSW to be ambidextrous, enabling them to move with ease between church and community, empowering them to create faith based institutions that fill the gap(s) left by capitalism, and educating them for relevancy in the 21st century.
Rev. LeAnn Snow Flesher, PhD
Academic Dean and Professor of Old Testament
American Baptist Seminary of the West
*Special thanks to Rev Wilkins for his assistance in writing this blog