Note: The following presents the story ofMVLA leading into their involvement with the GEMnasium as told from the perspective of Charlie Carroll their founder and one of the coauthors of this chapter. In particular it discusses their origin story which was rooted in reflection on how a pure philanthropic orientation without a commitment to community building and addressing power structures can undermine the purposes of engagement. Our hope is that this section will underline the particular strength of partnerships between Christian higher education institutions and community partners who have a shared set of values, even when these values arc based in different religious traditions and ideological roots.
The Miami Valley Life Alliance Story
MVLA is a faith-based community who believes that poverty is more than a financial problem—poverty can actually exist in any one of the five dimensions of our lives: financial, intellectual, physical, relational, or spiritual. We know that poverty can only be alleviated through building intentional relationships that not only understand poverty as more than a financial problem but also cross ethnic, economic, social, political, and religious barriers.
Though mentioned for being poverty alleviating professionals (Corbett & Fikkert, 2014), it wasn’t always this way. We, like a lot of Protestant and Catholic communities, had unintentionally been getting it wrong for too long before realizing there was a healthier way to pursue the alleviation of poverty within our community. Our “A-ha” moment came one Christmas Eve, not long after relocating our faith-based community from the suburbs to the center of our city in downtown Dayton, Ohio.
It was the day before Thanksgiving when a gentleman had come knocking on the door of our church looking for a “turkey basket.” Though we had given all of ours away, I felt prompted to ask for his contact information. After stocking up on enough groceries to feed a crowd, I thought to grab a video camera before delivering the food to his home. I wanted to show our congregation what the heart of their church is really about. It ended up being an emotional experience for everyone as I and other church staff members stocked the family’s sparse fridge and pantry.
One month later, this same family responded to an invitation to our Christmas Eve service. We gave them a front row seat and even brought them up on stage, surprising them with a number of Christmas gifts. Many tears were shed and I, like most people, was deeply moved, convinced we had just done something really great. Until, however, the show ended and a social worker from within our congregation burst through a crowd of people to approach me. It was clear something was wrong. She questioned me, frenzied. “Do you realize what you just did?! I cannot believe this just happened.” Within seconds, I could sense that I had just made a big mistake.
Unintentionally, we put a family living in poverty on display for all to see, like the last little puppy left at the pound, in need of being purchased. Ultimately, I had just helped a lot of Protestant, suburban Caucasians feel a lot better about themselves and their Christmas by putting an impoverished African American family on stage. Looking back, it was a life changing experience, both for my family and our congregation as we committed ourselves to learning how to better approach the alleviation of poverty.
God responded to our commitment by bringing a group of experts to our door. An Administrative Team from ThinkTank, Inc. soon approached us, asking if we would be interested in inheriting a poverty alleviation community that had been started by a mega-church north of our city who was unable to maintain it due to a lack of understanding and, therefore, interest. The decision was a no-brainer. On the spot, we said yes and even invited ThinkTank to establish a satellite office within our building. Initially, this community would remain a part of the Circles Community (www.circlesusa.com), before breaking off a few years later to become our own independent poverty alleviation community/initiative. It was here that we were introduced to and worked with Brian Fikkert and The Chalmers Group out of Atlanta, Georgia. We learned from them while being able to contribute some of the priorities of our approach, none bigger than that of the 5 dimensions—that a person’s life or value cannot be processed through merely one dimension (their bank account), but needs to be assessed more broadly via what we’ve identified as the common five dimensions, where people can have a lot of wealth or the lack thereof: financial, intellectual, physical, relational, and spiritual. We list them in this particular order, from the easiest to get and give away to the most difficult to get and give away. We have noticed that those who live in spiritual poverty tend to have broken relationships that affect their physical health, which takes a toll on their intellect, ultimately affecting their ability to succeed in obtaining, sustaining, and growing their monetary resources. This framing of the dimensions of poverty resonates with Christian higher education’s emphasis on educating and caring for the whole person.
Over the last decade, we’ve realized how far a lot of bodies of faith have drifted from Jesus’ original intent. Jesus told stories about the Good Samaritan, who, though rejected by others for being biracial, provided more care for his neighbor than the religious professional of the day ever did. More than stump speeches or a promotion to a larger pulpit or political office, Jesus seemed to have put off such opportunities in order to better prioritize and take care of people in need. Having become popular, Jesus reminded a younger, successfill entrepreneur that he (Jesus) did not have a pillow to lay his head. In other words, this is not the movement for you if you’re looking for recognition. A few years later, Jesus’s half-brother James reiterated the heart of the movement when he said, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:27).
So, what happened? Where have so many churches gone wrong? Our experience has told us that getting faith-oriented followers of Jesus and those familiar with his teachings to give a few dollars, a meal at McDonald’s, or even a coat or pair of gloves is easy. What isn’t so easy is giving of their time, experience, and a willingness to be interrupted at any moment in order to help a fellow community member in need. People within our society at large and even within our faith-based communities have grown used to highly transactional exchanges, giving gifts from a distance versus offering of themselves when they arc needed.
What if God intended for the local church to be the foundation of a community? What if today’s church was like the one Jesus founded almost 2,000 years ago? Would we be in the situation we’re in?
MVLA Approach and Process
Even after all MVLA has learned, we don’t claim to have it all right. We are, however, committed to continual growth as we live more deeply into our mission: to promote, support, and facilitate growth for willing and
Pursuing Social Justice 91 committed participants across the five areas (or dimensions) of life. While pursuing financial, intellectual, physical, relational, and spiritual growth, participants in MVLA will receive financial assistance, career development, family support, and health services.
The foundation of our community approach is based on two ftindamen-tal beliefs: 1) Poverty is more than just a financial issue; and 2) It is only through intentional and diverse community that financial distress will be alleviated. With over a decade of collecting experience-driven data, we have found that involvement in a community unrestrained by divides—such as ethnic, economic, political, religious, or social—is essential in alleviating financial distress and relieving the stress of isolation. Through routine and intentional community involvement and experience sharing, all members of the community will better prosper in the essential aspects of life.
5 Community Engagement for Student Faith Development