October is Clergy Appreciation Month. Among the reasons for appreciating clergy is their philanthropic contributions to America. Few people in society do more than ministers to encourage, cultivate, and multiply charity for the benefit of their communities.
The tradition of ministers promoting charity goes back to colonial times. According to Marvin Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion, there was always recourse for the poor and needy in early America to a three-legged stool of family, church, and neighborhood for help.
As the country grew, organized ministries grew up to address the needs of the poor. Olasky points to the Gospel Mission movement as a great success story. It began in the Water Street/Fourth Ward of New York, the city’s worst neighborhood. It was filled with poor people, prostitutes, and known for Kit Burns’ Rat Pit. Several pastors decided to rent the Rat Pit for $150 per month. Crowds came from wealthier parts of town to hear preachers, but little changed in the neighborhood.
It was Kit Burns himself who hinted at the solution: “they’ve got to do it in some other way than howling for it.” An ex-convict, robber, and drunkard named Jerry McAuley converted to Christianity and began a mission in the heart of Water Street. He personally invited the tough cases to come and share food and hear testimonies. They confessed their sins and turned their lives to Christ, often beginning ministries of their own. His transformational ministry spread to major cities across the country.
Ministries like McAuley’s Mission worked because they exhibited what Olasky calls the “Seven Marks of Compassion.” These marks are Affiliation, Bonding, Categorization, Discernment, Employment, Freedom, and God. Charities began by asking, “Who is bound to help in this case?” Help was to be sought from the most personal relations first, from family or church. Then volunteers were bonded with the needy, who were separated into categories based on their level of need. Charity organizers had to be discerning to prevent fraud and dependency, while remaining free of government. The ideal for the charity recipient was to be employed and to trust in God.
The Social Gospel movement had a different ideal. It professed that more needed to be done to change society rather than individual lives. In The World as the Subject of Redemption, William Fremantle of Ripon College called for the nationalization of welfare—even calling on Americans to “regard the Nation as the Church” in its delivery of social services. Social Gospel projects like Jane Addams’ Hull House became increasingly secular. “Out went the hymns and in came political action,” writes Olasky.
In the 1890s, charities became more centralized, and national charity organizations like the YMCA, YWCA, and Salvation Army took root. For all of its good, the nationalization movement had two negative effects: it elevated money over time in charitable giving, and it “lent impetus to additional government power,” according to Olasky.
Perhaps this scaling up of charity, and eventually of government, was a necessity of America’s growing population. Government became the primary provider of welfare to the poor, with the church at best supplementing the state.
Even so, faith-based organizations—houses of worship foremost—continue to do much for the poor. I have had numerous opportunities to visit with charitable and faith-based groups in my community over the past few years. Many of these groups are independent of government support and depend on private donations from churches and individuals. Many operate as partnerships among congregations. Most are exceedingly efficient, with few staff and many volunteers. Most are led by visionary local problem-solvers who consider themselves called to their ministry. Most are small in size and big in their impact on lives. No organizations are as effective as these ones at addressing the spiritual and material needs of the poor, the homeless, the broken, and the addicted.
But houses of worship and faith-based organizations can do more. In my community in Washington State, there are at least 18,000 churchgoers in 55 congregations. I often wonder what it would be like if each congregation and each congregant did just a little more to help their neighbors. It would be transformational for individuals—both those being helped and those helping. It would energize churches. It would give people a stronger sense of belonging and purpose in the community. And it would result in less dependency on government.
In an age of renewed government growth, men and women of faith whose political aim is to prevent such growth could do nothing more powerful than loving their neighbor as themselves. Charity is the best check on the welfare state. Perhaps it is possible for people to love their neighbor without faith as a motive, but it is not possible for a bureaucracy to love. Bureaucracies have in fact been partly to blame for the breakdown in family and community that makes their continued services so seemingly essential. If we need more of something in society, it is not the state but the church and its various associated ministries. There is no replacement for faith leaders calling individual believers get involved in their community.
This Clergy Appreciation Month, let’s recognize the indispensable role that ministers play in the well-being of our communities. And let’s respond generously when they ask us to give and serve.