Teaching Responsibility, Step by Step

November 23, 1994|By GERALD WISZ

NEW YORK — New York. -- Broadway Presbyterian Church, located in uptown New York near Columbia University, has always had a place in its heart for the poor people in its community. That's why the church started a soup kitchen in 1980. The indigent, many of whom were drug-addicted and incapable of holding down a job, would come to the church to eat.

Other organizations, including student groups at Columbia and nearby Union Theological Seminary, also volunteered at the soup kitchen. Before long up to 250 people were eating lunch in the church's basement every day. It had become a sprawling volunteer enterprise. But even its most ardent supporters began to realize that something was missing. The people who frequented the church's facility ate only to continue in their self-destructive habits. Lunchers made no visible attempt of using the meals to sustain them until they could afford to feed themselves. For them the soup kitchen had become yet another entitlement; if anything it helped subsidize their dependency.

In 1990 one of the church members, Bill Stewart, came across ''The Miserly Welfare State,'' an article by Marvin Olasky in Policy Review. It's not that the welfare state spends too much on the homeless, Mr. Olasky argued, but that ultimately it does not -- cannot -- spend enough. Minimal stipends and perfunctory bureaucratic counseling are about all the welfare state can provide a growing dependent population. These are poor replacements for personal acts of charity that encourage self-reliance, Mr. Olasky suggested: Charity, as earlier philanthropic organizations understood but contemporary ones have largely forgotten, emphasizes practical measures that help people help themselves.

Mr. Stewart circulated copies of the article among the church's board of elders. ''The article put into words what many of us were feeling for a long time but couldn't quite articulate or conceive of doing ourselves,'' said Mr. Stewart, a businessman. ''The responsibility model, instead of the welfare model, is where we knew we had to migrate.''

Migrating wasn't easy. The church was divided over the issue, and compromises were made, but in the end most agreed that a different approach was needed. The soup kitchen was kept, but as a gateway to a responsibility-based program for those wanting to change.

Opposition came early from the Presbyterian denomination of which Broadway was a part. The new plan includes a program known as Street Smart, in which men visiting the church for food agree to sweepthe sidewalks along storefronts on upper Broadway for a minimum wage. If they show up for work on time, stay off substances and cooperate with the program director, they get raises in 25-cent increments. Representatives from the denomination condemned the program as ''racist,'' since participants are black.

The presbytery summoned a hearing, at which John Sligh, one of the Street Smart sweepers, told the assembled clergy and elders -- many of whom were also black -- that the program had taught him the importance of self-sufficiency and restored his self-respect. ''He told them that we, through the program, probably saved his life,'' reported Chris Fay, the church sexton who organized the program. ''They didn't have a lot to say after that.'' Now the presbytery is among Street Smart's largest financial supporters.

In its 2 1/2 years of operation, Broadway's program has received only a few thousand dollars of public funds for an art-therapy project. The rest is financed by private giving from within and outside the church.

The soup kitchen now feeds fewer people each day, and the church actively encourages visitors to volunteer in preparing, serving and cleaning up after meals. If they help, they get food to take home. If their help continues with some consistency, they get a stipend. A voluntary Bible study offers participants spiritual nurture. If there are serious problems like severe drug addiction, participants are referred to a city agency.

Broadway has worked with 15 people this year. ''Seven are going to make it,'' estimates Moira Ojeda, the program director. Two already have jobs outside the church program. Last year, one received his commercial driver's license and is now driving a truck full-time.

Participants in the program draw up a ''covenant'' with Ms. Ojeda. They list goals and report to her periodically to review their progress. ''Once progress is made in achieving a goal, and reported to me and the group at large, we move on to the next one, which is built on the previous one,'' said Ms. Ojeda.

Teaching responsibility step-by-step has worked. The numbers are small, but the change in lives seems permanent. But Bill Stewart is not too concerned about the numbers. ''We're not trying to solve society's problems,'' he said, ''but we're trying to develop a model that succeeds with people willing to make a change in their lives. . . . If we can point to this and say that it works, we'll spread it as wide and as far as we can.''

Gerald Wisz is a financial journalist. This column appeared in the October issue of The Freeman.

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