There's an oft-quoted Bible verse in which Jesus tells his followers, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
This verse is often used as a rationale for not alleviating poverty because the problem will never be solved. However, some Biblical scholars view it another way: Jesus may have been referring to an earlier discussion about God's program for addressing poverty. Rather than selling something valuable and donating the money to the poor, the people of God were supposed to be organizing their society to eradicate poverty.
Regardless which view you espouse, there's no escaping the fact that the poor are, indeed, still among us.
In Allen County, one in three residents is considered economically vulnerable or at risk. They either live in poverty or work but are unable to make ends meet.
With a county population of about 375,000, this equals 123,750 struggling neighbors. The work of nonprofit organizations, including charities and the faith community, has never been more important in addressing this disparity.
There are 1,478 nonprofits in Allen County, and 373 are human services organizations that provide direct service to the needy. Human services organizations, such as my employer (Wellspring Interfaith Social Services), constitute the second-largest employer sector in Allen County.
Although these agencies are tax-exempt, the direct, indirect and induced fiscal benefits to our community are vast.
Most people I encounter are extremely supportive of our work, but there are occasional naysayers who think our efforts merely enable the needy. It's not surprising that these are individuals who have never required the services of our organizations.
Instead of challenging the unfortunate and persistent stereotypes about the poor, however, I've offered my personal story.
I've written previously about staring down the darkness of poverty more than once in my life. Just thinking about those times makes my jaw clench.
I recall thinking, how does this happen to someone who's educated, open-minded and loves her community? This countered the stereotypes I didn't realize I had until I was actually “there” living it. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
There's no singular lens for looking at poverty. In my work, I've seen teachers and laid-off factory workers line up at Wellspring's mobile food pantry sites. I've known many who've become homeless as a result of inflationary rent hikes, forcing them to live in motels, their vehicles or on the streets. I've worked with immigrants and refugees who tackle a multitude of social and financial roadblocks with grit and integrity. I've assisted people experiencing addiction and domestic violence.
Collectively, these people are my heroes because they're some of the strongest people I've ever met. Anyone who wakes up every morning, whether in the elements or under shelter, and finds the determination to survive and perhaps thrive for another day is strong, even if they don't believe it at the time.
Loving our neighbor is the premise of the golden rule found in many of the world's leading religions, so the misconception that one person is more deserving of assistance than another falls short of a collective reality.
There are always those who'll take advantage of the “system,” but this exists in every culture on the planet on some level. Either way, I'm uncomfortable assigning those judgments. I have no idea what people's motivations are. I'm there to serve them.
The holidays are an especially challenging time for struggling families. They don't need judgment; they need help.
We all have something to give – opening a door for someone, checking in on an elderly neighbor, providing a holiday meal without question, volunteering at a food pantry or making a financial donation to one of many local nonprofits that assist people who are economically at risk. Let's all do our part to make our collective community thrive.
Melissa Rinehart is executive director of Wellspring Interfaith Social Services.