Western North Carolina Counties Are Sites for Pilot Poverty Ministry
By Elliott Wright
New York, NY, April 7, 2009--Three counties in North Carolina are the focal points of a new United Methodist Church pilot ministry to eliminate poverty. They will become training stations for the denomination in the United States.
Anson County in the south and adjoining Wilkes and Yadkin Counties in the north are sites of an initiative aimed at bringing out of poverty those whose families have been poor for at least two generations. The pilot goal is 75 families over a two-year period.
Partners in the work include the denomination's Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference and its General Board of Global Ministries, along with church districts and congregations. A significant partner is the Circles™ project of the Move the Mountains Leadership Center in Iowa, which is providing the poverty-elimination model and training. Local governments, school districts, and social service agencies are also involved.
Five Global Models
"This is the first of five global models for dealing with poverty that are part of our Ministry with the Poor priority," said Rachel Lieder Simeon, interim deputy general secretary and executive responsible for the Ministry with the Poor task force at Global Ministries. "We expect that the pilot in North Carolina will inform our work across the US and in other parts of the world."
The Circles Initiative for North Carolina has roots both in the Western North Carolina Conference and Global Ministries. The conference-related RFD Community Development Corporation (CDC) is a major player in grassroots organizing that is the foundation of the effort. A pilot project of this kind is stipulated in a plan for United Methodist ministry with the poor that originated with Global Ministries and was subsequently approved by the denomination's Connectional Table and Council of Bishops.
Confronting Generational Poverty
"The Circles model is built on the understanding that knowing about poverty is not enough to end it," said the Rev. Alan Rice, director of RFD CDC in a telephone interview. "Action is also necessary. Circles works with people in generational poverty and uses social capital to lift them out. Each 'circle' has a leader who is in poverty and three 'allies' who are in a position to be of help. The approach was developed by Scott Miller, founder of Move the Mountains Leadership Center."
Scott Miller has visited all three North Carolina counties. Circles was highlighted at the March 28 Western North Carolina Conference “Summit on Poverty and Suffering,” held in Conover. Bishop Larry Goodpaster of the Western North Carolina episcopal area was keynote speaker, along with Rev. Rice.
"The summit was exciting and hopeful," said Jerald McKie, an associate general secretary of Global Ministries who is doing the Circles staff work for the agency. "It is exciting to see so many lay and clergy members of our church committed to helping people out of poverty in realistic ways. It is hopeful to see the degree of organizing that has already taken place."
The two North Carolina sites, Anson County and Wilkes-Yadkin Counties, are different in ethnic composition and cultural background, but they share many of the same economic challenges. Anson, which lies along the South Carolina border, has some 25,000 people about evenly divided between white and African American populations. Wilkes, with 66,844 people, and Yadkin, 37,797, are Appalachian counties with predominantly white populations. All three counties have fairly stable populations.
All three are also low-income areas and have high levels of unemployment in the best of times. "Even in 2007, when times were good," Rev. Rice says, "the poverty rate in Anson was 21.3 per cent, while it was 15.1 per cent in Wilkes and 15.5 per cent in Yadkin."
Circles expects to begin working with 7-10 families in each of the two sites and build over the next two years. The overall goal for the pilot is to bring 75 families to places of economic self-sufficiency within the society.
The Circle leader--someone from generational poverty--is paid for taking part in 13 weeks of training. Weekly sessions last for two-and-a-half hours. "Allies" also receive training. Move the Mountains provides training for the trainers. A team of four eventual trainers from North Carolina attended on-site training in Springfield, Ohio, in late March. The Rev. Heather Kilbourne, pastor of Longtown United Methodist Church in Wilkes County, was in the group.
"We spent five days in truly hands-on training in a real place with real people," the pastor said in a telephone conversation. "The training was for both circle leaders and allies, and our experience will be helpful as we recruit leaders and allies for our circles."
How will that recruitment happen? "We are working with ministerial associations, social service agencies, and school districts," Rev. Kilbourne said. "In our area, almost all denominations and government agencies are at the table. Circles is acting like a magnet. People are really responding to this chance to do something about poverty."
What about the members of her congregation, which has a membership of 140 and an average weekly attendance of 90? "They are incredibly responsive," she explained. "They understand the economic need in the community and are willing to do whatever is possible to tackle it. More and more of our residents are in situational poverty. They lose their jobs, and there are no replacements to be found."
Rev. Rice of RFD CDC said that the North Carolina Circles Initiative utilizes a variety of resources, including the books Bridges out of Poverty by Dr. Ruby Payne and Scott Miller's Until It's Gone, a description of the Circles process.
Move the Mountains Leadership Center, the originator of Circles, was organized in 1992 with a long-term grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Headquartered in Ames, Iowa, it has the goal of helping people to become economically self-sufficient and, thereby, eliminating poverty in the US.
Circles has a network of 40 communities in 18 states, with relatively few in the southeast. The North Carolina project is seen as a springboard for more Circles sites in that region. It is expected that within a year United Methodists will be coming to the three counties to be trained, as Rev. Kilbourne and her colleagues went to Ohio.
United Methodists are involved or considering involvement in several locales, including Syracuse, New York, where University United Methodist Church is a program center for a new Circles partnership with Housing Visions Unlimited, which itself grew out of the congregation.
Funds for the North Carolina pilot beyond what Global Ministries and the conference can provide are still being raised from foundations and church-sources. A small staff is expected to be in place by July.
Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Apr 07, 2009