Ending Generational Poverty series, Part I: Introduction: Learning to Love Our Neighbors
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Ending Generational Poverty: Learning to Love Your Neighbor by Nelson Warner and Keith Rodriguez, which can be purchased . Dr. William Allen, former COO at the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, wrote the foreword to Ending Generational Poverty, and Mikael Rose Good, editorial assistant at CURE, edited the book manuscript. The book is now being used as a resource for Christian community development in the authors’ hometown of Lafayette, LA and beyond.
In 2002, an anonymous donation of $150,000 was made to our church, Trinity Bible Church in Lafayette, LA, with only one string attached: we must use the money to build an inner-city ministry that goes beyond “feeding fish” to the hungry.
It took a year of study, research, guidance, and prayer for us to decide what God wanted the church to do. We received guidance primarily from Jimmy Dorrell, the pastor of the in Waco, Texas and the co-founder of , who offered us a biblical model for inner-city development. Jimmy taught us a practical faith that begins and ends in love. With God at the helm and in bold faith, we created the Bridge Ministry of Acadiana and moved into an inner-city neighborhood, just as Jesus moved into our neighborhood.
Small wood-frame houses, some little more than shacks; dead-end streets without sidewalks; railroad tracks running through the middle of the neighborhood. This is the reality of an inner-city Lafayette neighborhood populated by our under-resourced neighbors. Some people work, but most are on government assistance (just as their mothers were), and even those with jobs are on Medicaid. Some people are illiterate, or read at no higher than a third- or fifth-grade level.
In 2003, Bridge Ministry (Bridge) rented a house in one of these under-resourced neighborhoods where drug trafficking, prostitution, and crime were most visible. We began going door-to-door to learn about our neighbors’ dreams. People told us they dreamed of having safe streets and secure homes again. They dreamed of a neighborhood free of drugs and prostitution. They also dreamed of having respectful children who did well in school and beyond. They were not dreaming of more “relief” from charitable outsiders, but of “development and empowerment.” Using their hopes and dreams of development as a guide, we began building multifaceted, relational, daily programs that the neighborhood and its children readily embraced.
Once the Bridge was up and running, our main focus, as directed by the neighborhood, was the children. We began offering after-school tutoring and homework assistance (for which we enlisted the aid of dozens of volunteers from several churches) along with regular children’s Bible studies. To that, we added adult Bible studies, clubs, gatherings for potluck meals, summer day camps, a neighborhood committee that meets with city officials and the police department to air its concerns, and more.
One of our adult programs for the past sixteen years has been a weekly Bible study for the men of the neighborhood. The men range in age from early forties to late eighties. Over time, the leadership of the study has been taken over by four of our neighbors. Each week, someone volunteers to prepare a meal for about twenty people (“Best $2 meal in town!”). We do not sing hymns, but everything else about this gathering is church—discussing God’s Word, “breaking bread” together, and sharing life as friends.
Most of these men have known each other for most of their lives. The older men reminisce about neighborly relationships and whole families that were the norm fifty years ago. They speak to the fact that since the 1970s, trusting relationships have steadily fallen within the neighborhood, while crime has gone up. They reflect on a neighborhood that has become more and more disconnected, both within and with respect to the larger community. Since 2000, about 66 percent of the neighborhood’s homes have become owned by outsiders, with renters only staying three to four years on average. “We Buy Homes” signs are plastered on every telephone pole.
After a few years of ministry, we realized we needed to expand our capacity. Our 1500-square-foot house was just too small to hold fifty to sixty kids each day. Once we turned the issue over to the Holy Spirit, miracles began to occur. We found two acres available a couple of blocks from our rent house fronting on one of Lafayette’s main streets. A friend donated $170,000 to buy the land. After a year, we had raised about half a million dollars in our building fund, but we knew this would not be enough. Out of the blue, the city’s Community Development Department gave us $450,000—with no strings attached! We were able to build two 2500-square-foot classroom buildings with no debt.
After several more years, we realized that two and half hours in the afternoon was not enough time with these kids. Many of the kids in third grade and above were one to two years behind. We knew we could do better. So, in 2016, we opened a Christ-centered school that educates, nurtures, and empowers low-income students to impact the world.
Throughout the years, Bridge has struggled with the question of how to love our inner-city neighbors. Ultimately, we have learned to love our neighbors mainly by loving their children. We have witnessed generational poverty and its effects firsthand since 2003, and we have come to realize the importance of breaking the cycle.
Recently, we saw the most glaring evidence yet of the destructive nature of generational poverty. Our school is free for those who earn less than twice the poverty rate. The only requirement is that parents apply in a timely manner to the state for a scholarship. The process is fairly simple, but time-sensitive. When we saw that many of the parents did not even want to take the necessary steps to get their child a quality Christian education, we realized how deeply generational poverty had penetrated their lives. We came to realize that the crux of the problem was the damage done to their God-given dignity.
Our eighteen years of experience have taught us that the causes of generational poverty run much deeper than conventional thought perceives. Generational poverty is multifaceted and must be attacked in a multifaceted manner. Overcoming it is not going to be cheap, quick, or without pain. But in our struggles, we who choose to love God and our neighbor will grow and mature into Christlike character. And in seeking to restore our neighbors’ dignity and bring them to a place of shalom (wholeness, peace, and joy), we will find shalom too, both individually and collectively.