Effective Compassion


The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today's Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods, by Robert L. Woodson Sr., New York: The Free Press, 158 pages, $20.00

I've never thought of calling my elderly friend Mrs. Rogers "Joseph," but I may begin doing so now that I've read Robert L. Woodson's thoughtful book, The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today's Community Healers Are Reviving Our Streets and Neighborhoods. Mrs. Rogers is the "community grandmother" of Blue Ridge Commons, a low-income housing development where my church's urban ministry center is located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Though in her late 70s and in frail health, she retains an indomitable commitment to work for her neighborhood's improvement.

For 27 years, she has counseled single moms in distress, lovingly pushed wayward teens in a better direction, served as president of the tenants association, organized block parties and service projects, and lobbied city officials for better service and more cops. She is the spiritual head of Abundant Life Ministries, my church's partnership with the residents of Blue Ridge Commons. She guides and encourages us as we try to keep kids in school, match fatherless boys with positive adult male role models, dissuade the girls in our teen club from drugs and sex, and prepare adults for the work force through our job-and-life-skills training program. Mrs. Rogers is definitely what Woodson calls a "Joseph."

Woodson draws on the biblical story in which Joseph, a Hebrew boy persecuted by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, eventually becomes second-in-command to the Egyptian Pharaoh by dint of his integrity, leadership skills, and uncanny powers of discernment. Along the way, Joseph overcomes many obstacles–including an unjust prison sentence–but never gives in to self-indulgent defeatism or abandons his faith in God. Despite his humble beginnings, minority ethnic status, and "dysfunctional" family, Joseph excels Pharaoh's courtiers in wise counsel and leads Egypt successfully through a seven-year famine.

Woodson argues that many such Josephs exist today in our inner cities and that these grassroots, faith-based leaders are effectively transforming lives and neighborhoods that no one else has been able to influence. His book tells their stories. The "Josephs" speak for themselves through Woodson's interviews, and we get a close look at a few particularly effective organizations through his short case studies. While not a social scientist, Woodson makes a thoughtful journalist, not only describing the Josephs but analyzing their philosophy.

Woodson has met these Josephs over many years through his National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, an umbrella organization that supports grassroots urban leaders who are reclaiming the lives of drug addicts, rescuing youth from gangs, fighting crime, renovating abandoned properties, and launching inner-city businesses. Many Josephs have themselves undergone radical personal transformation–liberation from a life of drugs or crime–and are devoting themselves to helping others caught in such traps. Other Josephs are neighborhood residents who resisted these pathologies and succeeded despite innumerable obstacles, and are now giving back to their communities.

Freddie Garcia, an ex-drug user whose Texas-based Victory Christian Fellowship has led over 13,000 men and women out of addiction, is a Joseph. So is Toni McIlwane, who left her abusive husband and single-handedly mobilized residents in a drug-infested, violence-ravaged Detroit community for a campaign that has cut crime by 42 percent. The members of McIlwane's Wade Street Block Association each pitched in $25 and installed new lawn lamps until the whole block was well-lit. Then they shut down the crack dealers by purchasing and renovating the abandoned properties the dealers used.

Carl Hardrick is a Joseph who has spent 30 years mediating gang conflicts and leading kids out of gangs in Hartford, Connecticut. By building a friendship with the teenage leader of Hartford's largest and most notorious gang, the Magnificent Twenties, Hardrick was able to convince the Twenties to turn from violence to community service. Twenties members now sponsor youth festivals, deliver meals to the elderly at holidays, and run a job training program teaching boys construction skills.

Josephs like these have been effective with even the toughest cases for several reasons, argues Woodson. They personally know the streets and they make themselves available "24-7"–all day, every day. They view those they help as friends, not clients. They emphasize discipline and insist that those they help take responsibility for themselves and abandon a victim mentality. Their approach is personal and flexible, and they seek not merely "rehabilitation" but personal transformation. Josephs want to persuade people not only to abandon deviant behavior but to commit themselves to a new, purposeful life of service to others. Freddy Garcia's Victory Fellowship, for instance, has found that teaching addicts to be sensitive to and feel responsibility for others is fundamental in getting them to transform their own lives.

Most important, Woodson writes, Josephs "have forged an effective, internal, spiritual response to the spiritual and moral atrophy of our civil society which goes far beyond the limitations of conventional remedies of professional therapy and economic assistance." Most Josephs are faith-based. They don't talk of dysfunction or pathologies or being "at risk"–language that implies material deficiencies that can be redressed by public policy. They use words such as sin, brokenness, and redemption and assert that power from God must be brought to bear to effect healing and change. They focus on individual behavior and individual responsibility, stressing that the biggest obstacles to positive change are internal, not the external economy or environment. As one graduate of Victory Fellowship puts it, "The problem is inside you."

Woodson's lament in The Triumphs of Joseph is that these effective community healers are often ignored–or, worse, opposed–rather than celebrated and supported. In his formulation, "Pharaoh's courtiers" have conspired against the Josephs and their assumptions and strategies: "There are many powerful social, economic, and political institutions that have a proprietary interest in the continued existence of the problems of the poor, the denial of the existence of solutions, and the portrayal of low-income people as victims in need of defense and rescue," writes Woodson, in a characteristic passage.

These institutions, Woodson says, include the civil rights establishment, the "poverty industry" of social workers and government agencies focused on the underclass, and various politicians who align themselves with these interests. The civil rights establishment is hostile to Josephs, Woodson contends, because it knowingly advocates race-based preferential policies that benefit better-off blacks at the expense of poor blacks. Moreover, by emphasizing racism and victimization themes, civil rights leaders undermine the crucial values of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, and determination preached by the Josephs.

Government agencies and large, state-funded nonprofits running social programs judged only by their laudable intent, rather than by their dismal concrete results, also frustrate the Josephs. These organizations cultivate the very dependency Josephs must combat. And Josephs with creative, unconventional-but-effective programs to lift people out of poverty have been stymied by government red tape.

Grassroots efforts to encourage African-American families to adopt needy kids from the foster care system, for example, are hampered by the extended duration of mandated "home studies." A tenant-ownership initiative sponsored by residents at the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing complex in Washington, D.C., was denounced as "ridiculous" and "a hoax" by Reps. William Clay (D-Mo.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), now the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Woodson complains that since 70 cents of every public dollar spent on "poverty programs" is absorbed by service professionals, the poverty industry has a vested interest "not in boosting the poor to self-sufficiency, but in maintaining and expanding a client base of dependents."

Recent welfare reform represents a "pro-Joseph" policy shift. Welfare reform has changed the incentives for government agencies: Now they will be rewarded for moving people off the dole rather than for keeping them on. This should help decrease dependency and reinforce the Josephs' advocacy of personal responsibility.

Additionally, the "Charitable Choice" provisions of welfare reform make possible increased funding for faith-based Josephs who want to expand their outreach without compromising their religious character. "Charitable Choice" permits faith-based organizations to discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring; to constitute their boards of directors without government interference; and to retain a "religious atmosphere" (i.e., to have religious art work and symbols) in their facilities.

Woodson wants to see the Josephs more respected and better funded, and he believes this will happen if we "use the principles that drive our market economy to guide our approach to societal challenges." The marketplace allows different groups to compete and rewards the group with the best outcomes. Woodson argues that the Josephs have the best success rates and, therefore, private and public resources should be directed their way.

But a serious word of caution is appropriate. Part of the reason for the Josephs' success is their personal approach, which could be compromised if individual Josephs try to do too much. We should focus most of our efforts on replicating and multiplying effective Joseph models, rather than pumping enormous sums into current Josephs and perhaps unwittingly undermining them with our largess.

Woodson seems aware of this danger; he is careful to distinguish the grassroots Josephs from the large, well-funded, impersonal, "religious" charities that are sometimes indistinguishable from their government counterparts in method and ideology. Unlike true Josephs, these organizations are religious only in name; their faith–and the commitment it inspires–does not drive and shape them.

This insight highlights the importance of scrutinizing "faith-based ministries" while they are being indiscriminately lauded by politicians and the media. The healing that Woodson has witnessed emerges from Josephs whose faith emphasizes objective, knowable truth and immutable standards of right and wrong. This is the faith Woodson has seen "work."

In our postmodern culture, though, what's acceptable is a "spirituality" which believes that all spiritual journeys are equally valid and that everyone is free to get in touch with the higher power that best meets his/her needs. Effective Josephs reject this vague spirituality, believing it impotent for effecting deep internal transformations that set people on a healthy, constructive course.

Josephs assert that people must be accountable to objective standards of right and wrong, not just fashion their own subjective moral code. Submitting to an authoritative moral law–whether proclaimed by Muslims or Jews or Christians–provides people with firm guideposts around which to order their lives.

Secular social programs which, like the Josephs, emphasize personal responsibility, self-control, delayed gratification, and discipline can also get good results. But it's the faith-based groups that have succeeded with the worst cases, with "irredeemable" individuals who have participated in vain in multiple secular programs. As one former drug addict told Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), "Those [secular] programs take addictions from you, but don't place anything within you. I needed a spiritual lifting."

But Woodson clearly wants even those who do not share the Josephs' religious values to share his enthusiasm for their practical results. He advocates creative partnerships between the Josephs and businesses. Businesses can gain from such collaboration, he argues, because they need reliable workers and insiders' information about neighborhoods, and Josephs can supply both.

Woodson also outlines new guidelines for cooperation between philanthropists and Josephs. He supports Marvin Olasky's "effective compassion"–replacing distant, bureaucratic, indiscriminate charity with personalized, privatized services to the poor–but says it doesn't go far enough. "Effective compassion" is flawed to the extent that it relies on outsiders to come in and rescue the poor. Woodson wants the charitably inclined to enter communities as Joseph supporters, not as rescuers who view residents as passive beneficiaries of their programs.

This good counsel emerges out of the sad reality that some resource-rich outsiders have been patronizing despite their good intentions and have even sometimes undermined the effective, if modest, work of inner-city Josephs. But Woodson's caution should not be taken so far as to ignore the important role being played by what we might call inner-city "Nehemiahs."

Wise and compassionate, Nehemiah inquired into the welfare of the Jerusalemites while he was living far away from them. Upon hearing of their distress and of the deplorable condition of the city wall, Nehemiah wept, decided to become personally involved in the restoration of the wall, and journeyed to Jerusalem.

Once there, he personally examined the wall and then began forging friendships with Jerusalem's leaders, encouraging them to come together to rebuild the wall. He then invited everyone to participate in the great project–the skilled and the unskilled, men and women, the wealthy and the commoners. Like Woodson's Josephs, current-day Nehemiahs get up close and personal with the people they serve and identify with the community. They see the assets of the neighborhood and not just its needs. They invite residents to participate in the design, implementation, and evaluation of community improvement efforts. They insist on personal responsibility, and they enter distressed communities with a willingness to learn as well as teach.

"Brother Bob" Mathieu is a Nehemiah. A white Pentecostal preacher, Mathieu moved into inner-city Washington, D.C., in 1971 and immediately sought out black evangelical leaders in the area, admitting that he was eager to help but needed advice. Since then his D.D. Christian Ministries has helped hundreds of kids eschew drugs and stay in school.

Similarly, Wayne Gordon, a middle-class white guy from the Midwest, launched Lawndale Community Church in inner-city Chicago over 23 years ago. He began by coaching at the local high school and studying the Bible with young black men in the neighborhood. Since that modest beginning, Gordon and the Josephs he's helped to raise have transformed several city blocks. Within spitting distance of the church now stand the Lawndale Community Development Corporation, which renovates homes and capitalizes small businesses, and the Lawndale Community Health Clinic, which serves 4,000 patients each month. The church also runs an after-school tutoring program, a college opportunity program, a Christian counseling center, and a job training program.

I've met Nehemiahs like Mathieu and Gordon in low-income communities in Phoenix, Richmond, Detroit, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Baltimore. They've invested for the long haul, patiently building friendships, earning trust, and mobilizing residents to transform their communities. When I've interviewed neighborhood residents concerning their opinion of these outsiders who have become insiders, they typically say the Nehemiahs have succeeded because they practice what they preach and offer love and hope.

It is certainly true that in many inner-city communities important, if modest, institutions of civil society are too often overlooked. And it is wrong when well-doers barge in from outside and fail to see these people and groups, or simply dismiss them. But it is also true that there are atomistic inner-city neighborhoods that lack any signs of civic cooperation.

In these settings, a Nehemiah from outside the neighborhood can serve as a catalyst to spark a resurrection of cooperation and community-mindedness. And sometimes Nehemiahs, through their "indigenous leadership development" efforts, are the ones who identify potential Josephs, invest in them, and eventually turn over leadership of community projects to them. If we are too quick to judge all outsiders as potential problems for Josephs, we will miss the critical role being played in many communities by Joseph-loving, Joseph-supporting Nehemiahs.

Amy L. Sherman is director of urban ministries at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and an adjunct fellow of the Manhattan Institute.