Recently I was listening to an interview of Jacqueline Novogratz, a philanthropist and author who is changing the way the world tackles poverty. She said something that resonated with me: “The opposite of poverty is dignity.” She goes on to say: “Dignity is freedom. It is choice. It is having control over decisions in our lives.”
I’ve been thinking about that as I reflect back on the last three years of ministry with the Maker’s Place, a Hope Center and diaper bank. As you may know, I moved to Trenton to help launch the Maker’s Place in 2018. And as you may not yet know, this summer I’ll be moving with my family to the Boston area. After much conversation and discernment, my wife Elena has accepted a teaching position at Phillips Academy Andover. It’s a dream opportunity for her, and I’m tremendously excited about the opportunity for my family, even as I’m terribly sad to be leaving Greater New Jersey.
Still, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ponder, reflect and say thank you. These last three years, United Methodists have shown their dedication to mission and ministry with the poor. Together, we’ve collected more than 350,000 diapers and half a million baby wipes.
We’ve built a new Hope Center from the ground up. We raised money, hired staff, established a nonprofit board of directors and mobilized an amazing volunteer team that stepped up and showed up, even during the rages of COVID-19. More than 100 United Methodist churches have donated diapers, joined us as volunteers or partnered in some other way. Our new directors–Alyssa Ruch and Callie Crowder–are ready to keep growing Maker’s Place as a center for hands-on mission and ministry. Praise God, and thank you!
But how do we know if we have been successful? Building organizations is great. But Christ does not tell us to build great organizations. Christ tells us to love our neighbors. Which brings me back to that intriguing idea: “The opposite of poverty is dignity”–in other words, the economic, social, and spiritual freedom to be a maker of one’s own destiny.
Rev. Héctor Burgos once reminded me that no one thinks of themselves as poor. He’s right. People don’t typically self-identify as “poor.” There’s just no dignity in it. When I’ve hit upon difficult financial times in years past, I don’t think of myself as a poor person. I’m just someone who has to wait until Friday to buy groceries. And when I talk to people in my Trenton community, someone might say, “Well, so-and-so is struggling a bit right now.”
But pronouncements about poverty are for economists and fundraisers.
And yet, the struggle that many families face is real. It sits beside the cradle or crib and bites its nails in the line of the grocery store. In a recent survey of our Maker’s Place member families, we learned that 95% of the parents we work with worry about how they will afford diapers for their child. Eighty-five percent have had to choose between buying diapers and purchasing other essentials like food for their family. Since the pandemic began, our requests have increased between 85-100%–in other words, the number of families seeking help with diapers has doubled because of COVID-19.
How do you fight poverty and preserve dignity? As I look back on these last three years, I’ve come to recognize that the answer was with us from the start. It’s in our Methodist theology of the human person–our firm belief that everyone is a beloved child of God, already blessed with God’s gifts and a built-in desire (even if they don’t fully recognize it yet) to be an agent of God’s blessing to others. If the Maker’s Place has had any true success, it is because we believed from the start that our job is not to remind people of their poverty by highlighting their supposed needs (and by implication, the power that we have over them to fulfill those needs). No, our job is to connect gifts with gifts, strengths with strengths and neighbors with neighbors; to catalyze abundant community by pointing to the fundamental capacity of everyone to be part of the answer for everyone else. Novogratz calls it dignity.
We sometimes call it mutuality. And it’s fair to say that Jesus calls it the Kin(g)dom of God.
So, for example, after diapers and wipes, the number one request our families have is for baby clothes. The Maker’s Place didn’t have any baby clothes, but that didn’t matter, because our community did. So, we invited families to donate clothes their children no longer wore, and shop for free from other’s donations. The result was an explosion of baby apparel. Importantly, this “Swap Shop,” as I call it, allows people the joy and choice of reciprocity: one week I may receive diapers and donate clothes or extra food; another week I might volunteer, or pick up something for a friend. As we sometimes say, at the Maker’s Place, no one is needy–everyone is needed. That’s how abundant community works.
I believe that the Maker’s Place is just getting started. Great things are ahead. As I step away to new opportunities in New England, I know we’ve got great leaders in Callie and Alyssa. I’m also entirely confident that GNJ will continue to pray, give and serve alongside us–collecting diapers at Christmas, and joining in to the divine economy of abundance playing out in Trenton. The main thing to always remember is this: poverty can never be eradicated at the expense of the full selves of our neighbors. In the recognition of one another as beloved children of God, with each one of us called to both receive and share God’s blessings to the world, we can be part of a different kind of community. A different kind of place. The Maker’s Place, where we too are makers of the better future that God intends for all God’s children.
Thanks for your partnership in ministry. It’s been a joy to be part of what God is doing through GNJ. I look forward to all that lies ahead!