An extract from Woodson’s book The Triumphs of Joseph, originally published in the American Enterprise magazine, January/February 1998.
Our welfare problem is part of a larger crisis in America. Every year, more American blacks are killed in urban violence by other blacks than the total number of blacks who died in service throughout nine years of the Vietnam war. Today, little children can stand at the scene of a homicide calmly eating ice cream cones.
“The crisis now facing black America is more devastating than the combined impact of slavery, racial discrimination, and drugs. For now, the enemy is within,” says Pastor Leonidas Young, a liberal Democrat who was formerly mayor of Richmond, Virginia. To continue to focus on racism as the principal enemy of the black community is to travel down a lethal path of self-deception. Our communities are dying from self-inflicted wounds.
And the moral dissolution that is devastating our low-income minority neighborhoods has also begun gnawing away at white, upper-income society. Carroll O’Connor, Gloria Vanderbilt, and other affluent celebrities have lost children to substance abuse or suicide. George McGovern’s daughter died a lonely alcoholic, frozen in the winter snow. Margaux Hemingway was found dead after a long struggle with alcohol and bulimia.
If race and poverty cause social breakdown, then why do we have cases like the Menendez brothers, who gunned down their affluent parents in cold blood? If lack of educational opportunities is the problem, why didn’t authorities assume that a Harvard degree would have prevented the accused Unabomber from plotting murders? Why didn’t prestige and privilege prevent a Nobel laureate from sexually abusing the children he worked with? Why are there so many wealthy people in drug rehab?
Many Americans live in lavish homes that echo with emptiness, and many wealthy children experience the same moral confusion as poor kids. Across society, a spiritual and moral free fall has created fear and unhappiness, and destruction. A majority of Americans say that the nation’s moral problems concern them more than its economic challenges.
The good news is that solutions to our welfare problem, and the larger moral crisis to which it is linked, do exist. But the ultimate answers lie beyond traditional responses like job training, education, subsidized housing, food assistance, or racial reconciliation. To locate solutions to our most dangerous social diseases we must look in some new places.
For there are embers of health and restoration even among the ruins of today’s inner-city neighborhoods. To make use of the hope they offer, we must open ourselves to new kinds of authority and expertise. Some of today’s most promising community healers have come out of our prisons, out of drug addiction, out of dysfunctional families and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Many have themselves fallen into trouble—but then recovered through their faith in God.
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Many of these moral healers are helping—with meager resources—persons conventional service-providers have given up on. Yet these healers’ effectiveness eclipses that of conventional professional remedies. For example, a faith-based substance abuse program established in San Antonio, Texas, by a recovered drug addict named Freddie Garcia has freed 13,000 drug abusers and alcoholics from their addictions. It operates at a cost of only $80 per person, per day, yet has a 70 percent success rate, in contrast to conventional therapeutic programs for substance abusers that charge up to $600 a day per client yet have far lower success rates.
Why haven’t we heard more about these social healers? Why haven’t we tapped their approaches to address not only the needs of the underclass but also the problems of apathy, despair, and isolation that are wrenching families of every race, ethnicity, and income bracket?
The main reason, simply put, is elitism. The moral and religious approaches emphasized by healers like Pastor Garcia are looked down upon by many in our cultural establishment, who prefer to view the poor as hapless victims waiting to be rescued by experts and monthly checks. After all, the poor are now worth $340 billion in annual allotments made by governments in their name.
Today’s civil rights establishment, the academic and governmental poverty industries, and their political affiliates will not easily relinquish their “ownership” of the problems of race and poverty. That’s why they have fiercely opposed welfare reform, particularly any solutions that compete with their clinical, money-based approach.
But after the failure of last generation’s War on Poverty, some private groups and individuals began exploring less conventional methods of aiding the underclass. In the process they discovered remedies that could potentially salvage our nation. Religious-based healers have successfully addressed problems that everyone agrees are at the core of our meltdown—the moral degeneracy that gets expressed in violence, drug addiction, sexual license, and family disloyalty.
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I didn’t discover the power of faith-based remedies through any deep religious convictions of my own. I was simply the founder of a policy institute looking for ways to combat poverty. For two years, I hosted town meetings around the country and invited local leaders to show me strategies of personal and community revitalization that have been effective. I still don’t entirely understand how faith-based organizations reach into the heart of the most severely damaged individuals and transform them. But overwhelming evidence shows they can do just that.
From Native American reservations in New Mexico, to black inner-city neighborhoods, to rural white mining towns, to Hispanic barrios, local residents and leaders have shown me that faith-based approaches work. I’ve talked to people who were in prison, who had infected their own sons with drugs, who were prostitutes, shattered people who experts said were beyond reach but whom I saw transformed. I met a white man who told me that for seven years while he was a police officer he was addicted to violence—against those he arrested, and against his own family. But he found his way to a grassroots ministry and his life was remade. He has now been violence-free for seven years.
Even within the most devastated social terrain, the embers of spiritual renewal are alive in the work of thousands of grassroots moral leaders. If these embers can be nourished by those who have wealth and influence, the flames of revitalization can sweep across the nation like a brushfire, bringing life and hope where there is now only cynicism, confusion, and despair.
Whenever I’m asked to describe my studies of grassroots social ministries and to explain their successes, I recall the New Testament story of the blind man. For years, he had no sight and was a beggar. Then one day he went to Jesus and was healed. The Bible says the scribes and pharisees were skeptical and tried to discredit Jesus and intimidate the man. They asked him, “Do you believe He is the Messiah?” The man replied, “Oh what a marvelous thing! That you great men of wisdom and knowledge would ask me, a poor and humble man, if He is the Messiah! All I can tell you is this: I was blind. And now I see. . . .”