By October 1, 359 individuals currently on welfare in Charlottesville, Virginia, had to secure 30-hour-a-week jobs in order to continue receiving the full level of public assistance. One of these individuals is 22-year-old Shamika (her name and that of others in this article have been changed). She is an African-American single mom with a two-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. Shamika lives in Blue Ridge Commons, a low-income housing community of a few hundred families. Blue Ridge Commons is also the site of the Abundant Life Family Center, a church-sponsored outreach program for children and adults, which includes a life and job skills training initiative we call JobKEYS.
Shamika is one of six participants in our inaugural JobKEYS class. Our experience in working with her--and many of her neighbors--has intimately acquainted us with the complexities behind the ubiquitous "welfare to work" slogan. Our congregation is firmly convinced that our work in Blue Ridge Commons is a necessary response to the Bible's call to love our neighbors and seek justice for the poor. We are less certain about how to love our needy neighbors effectively, but we are learning. Perhaps our church's story-in-progress may encourage other congregations as they consider how to adapt their community outreach efforts in response to welfare reform.
Most of the 1,200 white, middle-class congregants at Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) were unfamiliar with the Blue Ridge Commons neighborhood until 1995, when it began to develop its urban ministry. A few remembered that a two-year-old girl was killed there in a 1994 shootout between rival drug lords, but her death was only another grim crime statistic. A homicide in Blue Ridge Commons over Thanksgiving 1996 produced a dramatically different reaction. Amy Denise Carter, the mother of Michael, a first-grade boy in our tutoring program at the Abundant Life Center, was gunned down in her upstairs bathroom by an estranged boyfriend while Michael and his younger siblings sat crying in the living room downstairs.
When our pastor announced the murder from the pulpit, many in the congregation wept openly. The minister put aside his prepared sermon, and we spent the morning in prayer and intercession. Suddenly this was our tragedy. We were experiencing the painful privilege of what Church Father Gregory of Nyssa defined as true mercy: "the voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the sufferings of another."
Our participation in this suffering has been confusing and often overwhelming. Dean, a medical student at the University of Virginia, was tutoring a fifth grader, and was moved when the boy cried over the imprisonment of his older brother and then told Dean that after God, his brother and his parents, Dean was the most important person in his life. Seventy-three-year-old Miriam called me up after she'd made Mother's Day cards with third graders during a tutoring session. She reported that one girl had written, "Dear Mommy, I love you. Please, please don't leave me."
The fear is not unrealistic. A six-year-old girl in our summer camp program went home one day and found her mother gone; the child and her three younger siblings had been farmed out to foster care. Volunteers working with the adult participants in the JobKEYS program have also had their eyes opened. One participant told us that she'd been called "rigger" on the job. Another, pregnant with her first child, admitted that her boyfriend had been beating her up and had even waved a sawed-off shotgun in her face.
In some of our previous attempts to serve poor families, our church's benevolence was at arms length; we addressed material needs but seldom developed face-to-face relationships. Through our efforts in Blue Ridge Commons, we've progressed falteringly toward a richer mercy. In the words of 19th-century London poverty fighter Octavia Hill, we've become willing not only to help the poor, but to know them. …