A six-year-old boy was famished when he arrived for camp on the morning of Aug. 1 at Washington United Church of Christ. After devouring four bowls of cereal, toast, and fruit, he caught his breath and explained, “We didn’t have any food in the house yesterday,” he told Pastor Pam DeFusco. He had gone to bed hungry, so she let him have a few extra helpings in the morning. 

For Washington UCC, such situations stemming from child poverty are all too familiar, and the church responds as needs arise. When three homeless teens from Georgia arrived in July, food pantry director Ann Osterfeld didn’t just give them food for the night. She reached in a drawer and passed them a can opener from her stock. When a local family’s food stamps ran out for July, a camp counselor ran out on a Saturday evening and delivered two gallons of milk from the church’s supply. Around here, no one punches a clock or acts as a rigid stickler for policies. When kids have needs, the faith community provides, much as a parent or grandparent would.  

The number of children in this boy’s situation is growing rapidly. In September, a devastating U.S. Census Bureau report revealed that the percentage of children living in poverty has soared nearly 6 percentage points in just 10 years—from 16.2 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2010. I’ve contacted leading poverty research centers at more than a half dozen universities and have repeatedly heard that they don’t collect data on the impact of religious outreach on this population. Stories, such as this boy’s, help clarify what statistics on poverty miss. 

They show congregations serving in effect as stable extended families for kids who’ve known little in the way of social fabric and whose lives are otherwise marked by chaos at home, at school, in the streets, and elsewhere. Where people of faith are making a difference, they’re proving to be every bit as caring, forgiving and demanding as members of a robustly healthy family. Says University of Texas at San Antonio sociologist John Bartkowski, “Creating durable relationships with people—between congregants and disadvantaged persons or disadvantaged families—does seem to have a better prospect for success than just intermittent efforts at relieving poverty.” 

If relationships make a difference in the lives of children living in poverty, the question becomes, “How?” What enables certain congregations of modest means and limited volunteer power to have a dramatic impact on the lives of children who face myriad disadvantages? And how can those dynamics and blessings take root elsewhere? 

Seeking answers this year, I’ve interviewed dozens of people involved in outreach ministry to children in poverty. I’ve visited with children and volunteers, both in high-crime urban neighborhoods and isolated rural communities. Not surprisingly, challenges vary widely from setting to setting, but faith communities that do this work with joy and satisfaction seem to share a common ethos.  

This ethos says children of all abilities and temperaments deserve a chance to develop their talents. To do so, they need stability and assurance that they’re loved. When nuclear families lack stability, congregations step up in one way or another, offering what turns out to be an oasis in some kids’ cases, a launching pad in others. They do so by exercising a concept of family that’s not based on bloodlines. It’s built instead on God-given ties and robust, theological visions for what it means to flourish. 

The figures don’t lie: child poverty is a rapidly growing problem in America. In 2009, 15.5 million kids were living in poverty, up from 13.1 million in 2000. What’s more, 42 percent of American children (31 million) were living below 200 percent of the federal poverty rate in 2009, according to a 2011 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. For a household of four, that means living for a year on less than $43,512. 

The Great Recession has made tough times for children even tougher. In 2010, eight million kids had at least one parent who was unemployed, and 5.5 million had lost their homes to foreclosure. Children living in crowded housing or moving frequently are more likely to be insecure, in fair or poor health, at risk for developmental delays, and seriously underweight, according to a study published in August in the American Journal of Public Health. 

It’s a Monday afternoon in Cincinnati’s rough Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, and 18-year-old Kameron Shepard has come to First Lutheran Church for tutoring. Upon arrival, he passes three homeless women chatting on a stoop and a few men who’ve just left the church’s free clothing giveaway. He doesn’t want to end up in their situation. He’s a celebrated artist and hopes for a bright future. But he can’t go to art school or start an art-related business unless he learns to read. That’s why he’s here. 

Shephard’s shy, charming smile masks the tragic fact that he can barely read as a senior in high school. Contributing factors, including poor schools, are several. He’s dyslexic and gets little guidance from his single-parent father, whom he rarely sees. But he knows he’d better not give up. When he once missed an appointment with his volunteer reading tutor, she beat   a path past drug dealers and panhandlers and knocked on his door.  

“I went with his tutor, and we called up to his window: ‘Kameron! Kameron!’” said Leslie Cook, director of Over-the-Rhine Learning Center (OTRLC), which offers free tutoring as a ministry of First Lutheran Church. “He called out the window, ‘Sorry, I forgot.’ He closed the window, came down and we toddled off to class together. That’s what it takes. Any other program would have lost Kameron, who’s not learning to read in the public schools… And we’ve done [home visits] many times for students.” 

This familial, never-give-up attitude is summed up near the Center’s entrance on a sign that reads simply, “It Takes What It Takes.” Twenty volunteers help neighbors learn to read and prepare for the GED, but area residents also receive help in areas that family members tend to provide for each other. Mrs. Cook pulls out a drawer filled with unopened letters; they’re for individuals who don’t have a reliable address and have mail sent to the Center. People also drop in for help filling out official forms or counting money for rent.  

These beyond-the-call-of-duty services can help stave off eviction or other disasters. They also fill a void by bringing know-how to bear in a setting where few can call a reliable relative to help address day-to-day challenges. According to a 2011 AmeriCorps VISTA analysis of Census data, an astounding 83 percent of children growing up in Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods live in a single-parent household. 

Being as family to the people who are poor in Over-the-Rhine doesn’t mean shedding boundaries. Staff and volunteers keep their home addresses and phone numbers private. They also limit how much they’ll do for someone since they’d rather teach self-sufficiency than dependency.  

Perry Byrd, 54, found reading hard when he began to receive tutoring at the Center about eight years ago. He urged his tutor to make the process more fun, less laborious. She said no, reading takes work, and reminded him of his goal: to be able to read to his grandchildren. He persevered and completed the basic reading program. Now his grandchildren can hear him read, in part because his tutor insisted on hard work and refocused him again and again on the task at hand. 

Many low-income people who’ve confronted their fears and insecurities at OTRLC credit the church’s loving, familial approach. Katrina Davis, a 36-year-old single mother, depends on food stamps and child support to make ends meet. She’s been eager to inspire her four daughters, ages 13 to 20, by continuing her education, but she didn’t pass the math and science sections of the GED exam this year. Preparing to try again, she dared seek help at OTRLC because she knew she’d be among people of faith. 

“I wanted to be surrounded by positive people,” Davis said. “When I came here, I felt as if I was walking into the Lord’s house. These people here, when they see me get frustrated, they don’t get frustrated with me. They make me feel loved. And I have not always felt like that in programs I’ve been to. People [in other places] give you a nasty feeling and make you not want to come there. They treat it like work… But when I come in this place, I feel the sun. It’s just shining. It’s here.” 

Three miles from Over-the-Rhine, Washington United Church of Christ runs a different type of ministry, one that works less with parents and more with young children. In its own way, Washington UCC acts as an extended family for children who can’t count on stable home lives. 

Generational poverty makes childhood stressful for many kids in Camp Washington, a neighborhood of 1,500. Here, 42 percent of households earn less than $15,000 per year. Nearly 20 percent of families have children and live below the federal poverty level. Among households with children, almost half are headed by a single woman. 

“People move in to Camp Washington and stay as long as they can afford to,” said an email from Steve Thomas, the AmeriCorp VISTA worker who analyzed Census data on the neighborhood this summer. “But after a few months of paying rent only when they can or failing to keep up with other bills, they’re evicted and are forced to find shelter elsewhere.  It’s just a fact of life in urban communities; if you’re poor, you’re going to have to move a lot.” 

To serve this unsettled community, Washington UCC specializes in caring for children. During the school year, the church operates an after-school program where kids get help with homework—away from TV, noisy siblings, and other distractions that tend to pop up at home. They’re fed every time they come here because they might not eat again at home, according to Pastor DeFusco. But the hallmark of Washington UCC’s children’s ministry is the summer camp that’s been operating on this site for 40 years. 

One August morning this year, the camp’s 35 kids had plenty of energy after breakfast. Upstairs in worship, they sang and danced God’s praises, heard about the Resurrection and jostled to be the one to say the closing prayer. In this activity, organizers are cultivating love and knowledge of God, much as they would in their own children or grandchildren.  

Research suggests it’s time well-spent. Low-income kids who receive religious instruction do better than those who don’t on a range of outcomes, from high school graduation rates to abstinence, and from smoking to leading happy lives in adulthood, according to a 2009 analysis of survey data by the University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty. 

After worship, they broke up into groups. Camp counselors joined with high school youth from St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Elmhurst, Illinois, to oversee drawing, paper mache, and outdoor games. With help from local foundations, they traveled on other days this summer to places they’ve never been, such as Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. 

For kids such as Jamaica Turpin, whose family has moved three times in the past two years, the camp’s daily routines play the familial role of fostering curiosity in a stable, loving environment. And the counselors’ focus on teaching conflict resolution without violence has clearly made an impact. 

“At the beginning, kids were being all bossy and stuff,” Jamaica said after helping serve Communion in Sunday worship. “Now it’s like we’re more mature and everything.” 

Providing family-type support in Camp Washington means ministering with flexibility and a folksy touch. Before kids leave for the weekend, they get a little bag of non-perishables—much like what a grandmother might tuck into a child’s backpack—to help hold them over until they return on Monday. A church bus makes sure kids have a ride to camp or Sunday worship. Every Saturday night, Pastor DeFusco calls all the kids to remind them to be ready for pickup the next morning. Often, she’s the driver who gets them. 

“I make a loop and pick up the youth on my way in, which is good, because they help me get ready for worship,” Rev. DeFusco said. “Everyone who comes in from the suburbs also picks up some kids on their way.” 

In embracing the adage that “it takes a village to raise a child,” Washington UCC draws on an extended family beyond the local church. Other Midwestern congregations pay $200 per person to spend a week in this mission field. (Costs include housing in church-owned apartments). This brings in $42,000 to help run the camp. Thus a wider family of congregations comes together to provide both the funding and the manpower needed to be like family to kids in Camp Washington. 

Tough love shown toward the kids suggests these really are family-type relationships. Fighting or threatening gets a child sent home, but they’re always given a chance to come back and do better the next day. Two graduates of the camp now work in the kitchen, where they prepare camp meals and learn work habits. Being late for any reason is not tolerated. Sure, arriving five minutes late might not derail the day’s lunch, but this is about learning responsibility. 

“It’s a job where I can get paid, and it’s working with grandma Jean [Siddall], who I’ve been around since I was like six,” said 18-year-old Amy Higginbotham, who’s worked in the camp kitchen since age 13. “It’s definitely taught me a work ethic. Getting up every morning at six to be here at seven is not my favorite thing, so that’s been a big part of it.” 

The camp’s impact is measured in stories. Counselors are proud of “James,” a mentally disabled 11-year-old with an IQ of 40, who had never spoken in sentences until he started uttering two-, three- and four-word combinations at camp this summer. Pastor DeFusco has a list of stories of kids who’ve learned to be less disruptive. One camper has been accepted at an academically selective public high school. 

Taking a folksy, family-style approach can have drawbacks if it means everything isn’t done exactly by the book. On the day I visited the camp, Washington UCC received a surprise visit from an inspector. The church received a failing grade for not signing in every child and for not having a vegetable on the day’s lunch menu. Failing the Ohio Summer Food Program inspection cost the camp $7,000 in funding next year. 

“I feel badly that we lost this and that I wasn’t in compliance,” said Jean Siddall, a volunteer who coordinates camp programs and puts about $250 from her own pocket into children’s ministry supplies each month. “But the bottom line is that I know our kids are well-fed and that our meals meet all the nutritional guidelines. I know they’re being loved and nurtured in a safe place. That’s the important thing. But I regret losing the income.” 

Two-hundred-fifty miles and a world away in Oaktown, Ind. (pop. 650), Oaktown First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) serves a farming community where poverty hides behind closed doors. The ministries here exhibit many of the same family-type dynamics that offer stability, love and hope in Cincinnati. But in Oaktown, children of migrant workers enjoy the added advantage of strong support from parents and siblings, who teach little ones by example how to dream big and work hard. Meanwhile, year-round residents of the area have seen their family bonds collapse under the weight of drugs and economic pressures. Hence needs for support now come from some unexpected places. 

During summer, outreach efforts target children of migrant workers, who come from Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere to work in the fields. A five-week school, run by the local public school district, meets at the church to make sure migrant kids don’t regress in their studies over the summer. About 12 kids took part this year, mixing class work with field trips to historic sites and swimming pools. 

On Tuesday evenings, the church transforms into a space where tired migrant workers gather to receive assistance in the forms of health care, education, and nutrition. Outside on a basketball court, kids hop and do jumping jacks as part of a health clinic. Inside, women poke through just-harvested cucumbers and bell peppers. Donated clothing, free for the taking, covers folding tables. Men, including one who’s been working in fields with a broken, blackened finger for months, wait to
see a doctor who’s set up behind a portable partition.

In these ministries, the church offers space for a local hospital and school to deliver services, but parishioners and leaders go beyond that. Early in the season, Pastor Todd Barnhizer goes with an interpreter to the haciendas where migrants live and invites them to partake regularly of services, including school and health clinics for kids. Tutor Randy Wolfe has helped administrators understand what migrants need. For example, a bus scheduled to pick them up at 6 p.m. was going to prove useless, he explained, because migrants are still working in the fields then. In providing advocacy, as well as space for healing and learning, Oaktown First Christian does for migrants much of what stable family members try to do for one another. 

Kids clearly benefit from the supportive attention and positive outlets they get here. Their teachers raved about how well behaved they are, even on field trips, and how willingly they execute assignments. Poverty hasn’t tamped down these kids’ cooperativeness or self-discipline. One 11-year-old told me he shares a king-sized bed each night with as many as five of his nine siblings. Enrique Segura, also 11, has grown up in an Immokalee, Florida. trailer with three siblings and two parents, both of whom are field workers. They face plenty of disadvantages, but they’re overcoming them with help from stable family dynamics. 

Consider Enrique. Each summer day, he spends six hours in school, then works with his parents in the fields. Before bed, he writes in a journal about how he felt working in the fields. His brother did the same when he was younger. Now his brother is a lawyer. Enrique plans to be a doctor. 

“He’s up to 7,000 words in his journal,” said Enrique’s mother, Maria Segura. “I want him to realize that he can do better than just working in the fields. I’m telling him, ‘Alright, how does it make you feel as a youngie to be working in the fields—if you don’t have no choice and can’t go to school? Is that the way you want to grow up? Or do you want to do better?’ It’s a window of opportunity for him to look and say, ‘I can do better.’” 

Among Oaktown’s migrants, I saw example after example of kids benefitting from the familial influences of two hands-on parents, caring siblings, and a church. They seem on track for bright futures. But for others in Oaktown, teachers told me, the future seems to be growing bleaker.  

As recently as the mid-1900s, students at Helen Griffith Elementary School in nearby Washington, Indiana came from working-class families with employed parents and stable households, according to a teacher who asked not to be identified because she worries about on-the-job repercussions. Since then, jobs have become hard to find, families have frayed under economic stress, and addictions to locally manufactured crystal methamphetamine have left lives in tatters. It’s not uncommon, she said, for her to walk a child to the curb after school and greet a parent whose arms are pocked with meth sores. With neither jobs nor robust relational bonds to keep them strong against temptation, despondent families with children are tumbling from working class to poverty-stricken underclass at an alarming rate.  

In Oaktown, First Christian began addressing the quiet local desperation when a parishioner noted that meals offered to migrants would be much appreciated by year-round residents as well. That observation gave rise to a weekly Wednesday night meal that now draws about 60 kids, or 10 percent of the town. Kids get a chance to write prayers on cards. 

“Some of them break your heart,” Barnhizer said. “They say things like, ‘Please help my mom get off meth. Help get my dad out of jail.’”  

To examine these rural and urban ministries is to sense an irony. The familial, whatever-it-takes quality in these relationships can make all the difference in a child’s life. And yet that factor is virtually impossible to quantify or measure.  

It’s not just a Midwest phenomenon. This elusive, relational factor has transformed food pantry lines at First Lutheran Church in suburban Fullerton, California, from hotspots for fistfights into settings where homeless people now arrive early for a rare chance to relax in an air conditioned environment. Organizers at First Lutheran’s pantry introduced a lottery system to diffuse the competition that came with a first-come, first-served arrangement. They also set up chairs, water pitchers, and toys for kids during the wait. The key was mindset: they made a point to treat guests not as clients to be served but as if they were relatives visiting from out of town. Such subtleties elude statistics, but they make vulnerable children—who sleep in shelters, in cars, and under bridges—feel loved and secure for a little while. 

“People have said to us time and time again, ‘You’re the only place where we feel like we matter,’” said First Lutheran Diaconal Minister Barbara Martyn. “The food factor is totally essential, but unless it is coupled with hospitality and gracious welcome, [the ministry] would not be what it is. It’s stressing the fact that we’re to be the hands and feet of Jesus.”  

Data might convey whether a church feeds children in poverty, but they never capture whether those preparing and serving the meal actually sit down and eat with the kids and their parents. When they do sit down and eat together, durable bonds of trust form and grow into a web of support that can help kids in myriad ways, according to John Bartkowski, the University of Texas at San Antonio sociologist. The only way to make this discovery is to experiment—or do as Bartkowski did and hear the witness of those who’ve done it. 

If congregations are to work effectively with children in poverty, it seems they need to embrace this irony and its implications. Foremost among them: it can be tough to rally support for projects that aren’t data-driven. Raising funds or attracting press coverage can be uphill battles when there’s a dearth of hard figures. Ministries might do their best to document what works, but they also need to be realistic in admitting that what works doesn’t always appear on paper. 

Where data don’t tell the whole story, congregations committed to child poverty outreach rely on robust theological convictions to guide their work. At St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, Jesus’ teaching that says “blessed are the poor” points to a reality seen each day at the food pantry: people on society’s fringes know God intimately as their provider. Their depth of faith rubs off on those who’re better off financially and tend to feel a less intimate connection with God. Thus the ministry is fueled by confidence in the maxim that wherever knowledge and love of God are growing, worthy goals are fulfilled—even in the absence of graphs and charts to document it.  

“The gift of this ministry is you just enter into a different lifestyle than your own,” said Joan Conway, coordinator of St. Camillus’ food pantry, which served 6,000 people in 2010, up from 1,000 in 2008. “As educated Americans, we think we can get what we need because we’re well-connected and have good educations, so if I lose this job I can get another one. [But pantry visitors] know that they have no control over their lives, and so they live completely dependent on God.” 

Working closely with vulnerable people, Conway said, bears witness to the crucial theological idea that God shares in humans’ suffering and thus enables them to overcome it. Solidarity with people in need produces “a constant conversion of the heart.” She recalled, for example, an encounter with a grandmother who’d come to the pantry seeking formula for a two-month-old infant in her arms. Conway at first declined because the pantry has a policy that only mothers and fathers can receive formula; at $15 per can, it must be rationed. She then asked where the mother was. The mother, it turned out, had been deported two weeks earlier. 

“So here she was with this two-month old baby,” Conway said. “She’s struggling to take care of this infant, and because she has the infant, she can’t work as many days as she used to. It just took my breath away when I realized: ‘Yes, I could enforce this rule, but I have to do it more lovingly.’” 

What’s more, congregations sense a calling to build bridges across class lines, and practicing radical hospitality turns that vision into reality. At First Lutheran Church in Fullerton, California, offering family-style hospitality toward poor and homeless children honors a calling to be Christ’s hands and feet. While kids wait for food, volunteers seat them together at a table with crayons and paper. At Vacation Bible School, they learn about Christ’s love in their native language, whether that’s English or Spanish. Even Fullerton area congregations that don’t have their own outreach find meaning in supporting First Lutheran’s efforts with volunteers and donations. Their family-style support for the work of fellow Christians is essential since the pantry receives no government funding. One Yorba Linda church collected 10,000 canned goods, plus donations, during Lent this past year.  

“People that live in Yorba Linda do not have the type of people that we have here in downtown Fullerton,” Martyn said. “They come over here to practice helping the poor.” 

The New Testament pushes family concepts beyond bloodlines. Jesus prays not to a distant or ineffable deity, but to “Abba,” or Father. He defines his brothers and sisters not as those who share his bloodline; they consist instead of “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven.” In my research, I heard time and again people quoting scripture to explain why they share not just resources with impoverished families but also their lives. It seems confidence in the God revealed in scripture needs to be nurtured and brought to mind often if a congregation is going to be energized, not drained, by this work. 

Lastly, without reams of hard data to draw upon, congregations mobilize support for child poverty outreach by bringing rigor to bear in storytelling. When evidence is largely anecdotal, they collect specifics from individual cases and tell stories of lives changed in rich, compelling detail. Those who pay attention and track what comes of unmeasurable, quality relationships find they’re blessed with material that can captivate an audience. Leslie Cook of Over-the-Rhine Learning Center, for instance, has collected enough material in recent years to write a book. Pastor DeFusco of Washington UCC can rattle off dozens of stories of kids’ lives changed by virtue of congregants’ caring attention to details. Just as those who learn to tell a good story sometimes make great films or write a classic novels, likewise some work effectively to build appreciation for outreach work among impoverished children. 

America’s congregations have their work cut out for them as more and more children fall into poverty and government programs pull back. Yet it’s work they’re uniquely qualified to do—not as replacements for public assistance, but as builders of strong relational foundations. Where poverty is worsening, families are buckling under pressure and stress. In many cases, children need the kinship-style embrace that congregations can deliver. This drama is playing out at a tender time for religious institutions. Many churches are struggling to focus and define their missions. Yet for some, the answer to the question “Who are we to be in this place, in this time?” has turned out to be surprisingly close at hand. They’ve become as family to kids and parents who know insecurity all too well. And children’s lives are the better for it.