Loving Our Neighbors

Last year Michigan Governor John Engler threw out a challenge to Michigan counties: Find out what it takes to get every able-bodied welfare recipient into a job. And then do it. Predictably, the press ridiculed the governor. But the press isn't laughing anymore, because one Michigan county has actually achieved Engler's goal. By last fall, Ottawa County managed to put every single welfare client to work. It's living proof of what can happen when communities practice the oldest of Christian virtues—civic responsibility—and when they pull together to solve their problems. Ottawa County is one of six counties that agreed to take part in a welfare experiment called Project Zero, which requires every able-bodied welfare recipient in the county to work. But Project Zero differs from most welfare reform schemes in one vital respect: It asks the entire community to be part of the solution. Ottawa County asked its 250 churches and synagogues to use their vast resources to find ways to get people off the dole and keep them off. Sixty churches accepted the challenge. A church-based nonprofit group called the Good Samaritan Center taught volunteers how to mentor and support families moving from welfare to work.


And then the churches rolled up their sleeves. Take the case of Gloria Garcia, a 27-year-old mother of five children. Garcia's welfare caseworker matched her with mentors from the Harderwyk Christian Reformed Church. Church volunteers helped Garcia get a job, lent her money to pay off bad debts, baby-sat her kids, and helped the family locate an affordable home. One parishioner, a mechanic, helped Garcia shop for a car. The result? Garcia's employer is pleased with her work. She's repaid the church loan in full and has saved more than $600. But Garcia says she could not have done it without the help of her neighbors. She told the Washington Post that "merely knowing someone else cares has made all the difference." Whenever she has a problem, Garcia says, "they're there for me." Church members say they've learned something, too: what it means to be a neighbor. In the words of church volunteer Ginny Weerstra, "We're… learning that you can't just sit on your front porch. You've got to get involved." These Christians are fulfilling a biblical mandate: to love our neighbors and care for them. All of America used to be like Ottawa County. Caring for one another was an American distinctive, and we had a proud tradition of civic responsibility. And we can do it again. Ottawa County gives us a good model of what can happen when people pull together and decide to take care of their neighbors. It's evidence that when communities work together to solve their problems, they don't need big-government solutions. Critics of what's happening in Ottawa County pooh-pooh the idea that its success can be duplicated elsewhere. But a recent article in American Enterprise magazine describes how churches all over the country are getting involved in solving the welfare crisis—and meeting with great success. What is your church doing to help get people off welfare? We can take back our own communities. We don't need big government handouts. We just need churches like those in Ottawa County, Michigan, that do what the church does best: show our love for the Lord by loving our neighbors.


Chuck Colson


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