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A Quick Question

How do congregations provide for the needy?

The quick answer --
Using four different relief strategies.  

The longer answer--  Religious communities in Mississippi’s Golden Triangle Region offer many different types of aid to the needy, including payment of rental, utility, and medical bills; the provision of food and clothing; and various forms of counseling. 

Taken together, the congregations in our sample provide poverty relief in many different forms. Assistance with groceries, utilities, and rent are among the most common forms of relief provided by sampled congregations. Regardless of the type of relief congregations provide, all pastors conceive of faith-based aid as a holistic form of relief that—unlike public assistance—aims to address material and non–material needs of the disadvantaged. Consequently, material relief provided by congregations is often intermeshed with less tangible forms of aid (e.g., social support, prayer offerings, spiritual development).

Congregational Strategies for Providing Poverty Relief

Taken together, local faith communities employ several different aid–provision strategies through which they offer relief to vulnerable populations. Several faith communities utilize a combination of these aid–provision strategies simultaneously, though congregations typically develop pronounced preferences for specific means of relief provision while eschewing other varieties. The four relief–provision strategies utilized by religious congregations are:

1)  Intensive engagement with the poor

Intensive engagement often entails long–term relief to the elderly and imprisoned, respectively, through nursing home and prison ministry programs. Intensive engagement with the poor is also apparent in faith–based food assistance programs that combine food disbursement at an on–site pantry with a regular hot–meal program. Such programs are typically supported by a combination of donations from congregants and other local organizations (e.g., grocery chains, Mississippi Food Network). They are generally staffed by volunteers from within the congregation. Intensive relief is often utilized by congregations with many poor
members because the disadvantaged are in their midst (i.e., their pews) on such a regular basis. Although intensive relief programs differ, congregations that utilize this relief–provision strategy have the necessary human resources (i.e., capable volunteer staff)—and, when pooled, enough financial resources (e.g., tithed donations—to support long-term, on-site benevolence work. These congregations need not be wealthy "on paper." Rather, intensive relief requires a combination of (1) a broad-based financial commitment from the congregation’s membership and (2) an extensive time investment from a critical mass of volunteer congregants.

2)  Intermittent direct relief to the needy

Intermittent direct relief entails short–term or one–time aid, including the payment of utility bills, the provision of job referrals, and the seasonal distribution of holiday gift baskets. Church food pantries that have rotational restrictions (e.g., one visit per three months for recipients) provide intermittent direct relief to the hungry. Quite often, intermittent direct relief takes the form of mutual aid where needy congregants facing a short–term crisis are aided by others within the local church. Virtually every religious community in our sample engages in some form of intermittent direct relief—though the time frame and substance of such relief varies greatly from one religious community to the next. Congregations marked by civic disengagement will, at the very least, provide holiday gift baskets to needy families during the Christmas season. Congregations characterized by higher levels of civic engagement will sometimes "adopt" needy families over a bounded period of time (e.g., several months during the winter). In cases where these "adopt-a-family" initiatives are sustained over a long period of time, they begin to resemble intensive relief (described above).

3)  Parachurch relief efforts

Religious congregations often coordinate their relief programs with those offered by parachurch or interfaith relief organizations. Some churches prefer to provide material relief or volunteer assistance through such organizations because they worry about "door–to–door" aid solicitations. Parachurch relief agencies often retain centralized records concerning relief disbursement and recipient information. Despite the "one-stop-shop" efficiency of this relief strategy, parachurch organizations often serve as a "middle man" or liaison between local congregations and the poor. Consequently, these agencies can reinforce social distance between the privileged churchgoer and the disadvantaged relief recipient. Congregational connections to parachurch agencies vary from "strong ties" (ample resource support combined with frequent referrals) to "weak ties" (meager resource support along with infrequent referrals).

4)  Distant missions of relief provision

Several churches offer short–term mission trips to disadvantaged populations situated in distant locales. These relief missions can transform the perceptions of privileged congregants by exposing them directly to the plight of the poor for a predetermined period of time. Mission trips vary in destination and duration. They typically range from several days for regional trips to several weeks for international missions. In general, congregations that are resource rich or well networked (e.g., via international denominations, sister-church exchange programs) are more capable of fielding mission teams in other states and countries for long periods of a time. Short-term mission excursions within state borders (e.g., the Mississippi Delta) or just across state boundaries (e.g., urban Memphis, rural Appalachia) are much more common. In some cases, these pilgrimages offer the sojourner long–term empathy for the poor and a heightened awareness of poverty. In other instances, the effects of these "pilgrimages of provision" are more short–lived.

*** This research is part of a larger project by Dr. John P. Bartkowski, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, & Social Work. Read more about this research project and see additional research and resources on congregational aid delivery. Or you can contact Dr. Bartkowski at Bartkowski@soc.msstate.edu.


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