WORLD Magazine’s current cover story is about hope in Afghanistan. This column is about hope in America. Occupy Wall Street cadres shout that selfishness rules America, but thousands of compassionate programs show that an odds-defying altruism remains. Some programs are Christian, some are secular—and let me say a few words about both kinds.
Regarding Christian ones: I had the privilege of handing out awards at the celebration dinner in Houston on Oct. 14 that concluded WORLD's sixth annual Hope Award for Effective Compassion competition. In January we asked our subscribers to nominate poverty-fighting ministries. We learned more about the nominated groups, selected finalists, sent reporters to profile and videotape programs, and chose regional winners, each of which received $5,000.
Our final four were Bowery Mission Women's Center (Northeast), Challenge House (South), Hope Now for Youth (West), and Victory Trade School (Midwest). Some 8,000 readers voted online to select the national winner, which was (drum roll) Victory Trade School of Springfield, Mo. You can read about them all and see videos at worldmag.com/compassion.
Victory received an additional $25,000 award. The priceless benefit for all four winners was the local and regional publicity they received. The priceless benefit for me at the Houston dinner was the opportunity to meet my heroes and heroines, the directors and volunteers at these programs who help others and receive for themselves little or no pay and not much recognition.
It's always great to congratulate the winners and then to look forward to next year. We'll officially ask for 2012 nominees in January, but while you're thinking about this I hope you'll send a note to June McGraw (firstname.lastname@example.org) giving the name of the organization you'd like to nominate and a sentence or two explaining why. She'll hold onto your nominations until we start researching the groups early next year.
The ideal nominee is local, small, and Christian not just in name but through having all aspects of its program based on Christ's teaching. It employs some professionals but also uses volunteers to offer challenging, personal, and spiritual help to the needy. It receives funds from individuals and churches, not government. It has a track record of proven effectiveness in helping to move individuals out of poverty.
Regarding secular poverty-fighting groups: As U2's "City of Blinding Lights" concludes, "Blessings are not just for the ones who kneel." One blessed example is Liberty's Kitchen (LK), a little New Orleans restaurant located near court buildings where at-risk youth slouch toward jail unless someone or something intervenes. The LK slogan, "Where Justice Is Served," is concrete rather than merely rhetorical: It combines good cooking with a training program for teens and young adults.
Justice at LK means giving students the opportunity to learn basic culinary and barista skills. Justice means not handing them anything but teaching them to make everything—pastries, salad dressings, soups, stocks—from scratch. Justice means giving active learners hands-on training in a highly structured 12-week program, rather than forcing them to sit at a desk in a classroom just this side of anarchy.
LK is similar in one sense to Victory Trade School because both teach young people how to become restaurant managers and workers. LK is different from the ministries in WORLD's contest, though, because it has no particular Christian emphasis—and it will be educational at some point to see whether a secular program can match Bible-centered ones in helping people not only get a job but persevere.
As Thanksgiving approaches, let's be thankful for programs of all kinds that do not merely enable people to stay in poverty: They help people rise above it. In city after city Christians and non-Christians see a problem and respond. Their social entrepreneurship is one of the astounding glories of America. None of the 40 other countries I've visited comes close.
A half-century ago John F. Kennedy said that if some doubt whether the West has the courage to stand up to Communism, "Let them come to Berlin." Today a sense of entitlement leaves some folks complaining instead of working, and sociologists doubt that Americans still have a pioneering spirit. Let them come to Springfield and New Orleans.