This article was originally published by The Mennonite

An opportunity to be “first responders” to social program cutbacks

Tom Sine is the author of the book,  Live Like You Give a Damn: Join the Changemaking Celebration (Cascade Books). He has worked for many years as a consultant in futures research and planning for both Christian and secular organizations. He founded Mustard Seed Associates to assist churches and Christian organizations to evaluate how the world is changing and how we need to change to me more effective in the future.

I have always been impressed at how Mennonite churches, as followers of Jesus, are consistently among first responders to engage crises facing their neighbors when tornados, floods and other natural disasters strike their communities.

Another kind of tsunami is likely to impact lives of many of our friends and neighbors starting in 2018. The projected deep cuts in a range of social programs including food stamps, disability payments and health care by the US.. government for 2018 will make it increasingly difficult for many of our friends and neighbors to sustain their lives and families.  As the specific cutbacks become clearer in the coming months, it will be easier to identify the impacts on both the people in our congregations and communities.

Don’t these coming cutbacks offer an opportunity for your church to become a first responder, before these cutbacks hammer the lives of those in your congregation and local community?

Couldn’t leaders in your church:

  • Immediately identify those in your congregation and neighborhood who are likely to be directly impacted by these projected cutbacks?
  • Start to work now, with others in your church and community, to develop a plan for compassionate response?
  • Join other churches that are moving from simply stocking food banks and offering handouts to creating new forms of social enterprise and neighborhood empowerment that will enable our neighbors to become more self-reliant to make it through these tough times?

Here are some examples of what innovative new forms of community empowerment look like that could enable those in your congregation and community to become more self-reliant.

Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) has successfully established businesses and social enterprises in poorer communities in emerging economies around the world to enable neighbors to move from dependency to self-reliance.  I find many people don’t know this same kind of economic innovation is happening in the U.S.

One of the best places to learn how to create new social enterprises is to contact ASSETS connections in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They report: “At ASSETS we create economic opportunity and cultivate entrepreneurial leadership to alleviate poverty and build vibrant sustainable communities.” ASSETS started with help from MEDA and the support of alumni from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

ASSETS offers a range of economic services from a women’s business center to providing consulting in starting social enterprises. They also sponsor the Great Social Enterprise Pitch, an idea incubator and business plan competition for concepts that use business revenues and models to have a positive social or environmental impact in the Lancaster community.

ASSETS shared one example of what this kind of economic empowerment looks like. Jennie and Jonathan Groff started employing refugees to help them produce Dutch treats at The Stroopie Company. For example, recently Kalidah, a Syrian refugee with five children, settled in Lancaster with the help of Church World Services. Jennie and Jonathan have made it their mission to not only hire and train refugee workers, like Kalidah, but they also offer free English classes every day at work. The Groffs have employed 16 refugees and are looking forward to continuing to use their business not only to make products but to support their new neighbors as they get established in the Lancaster community.

Messiah University,  Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, also offers a similar competition every April for students in the school of business. The competition is a major community event. One team of winners started a furniture building business using repurposed wood. They are committed to employing and train young unemployed men.

The Colonial Congregational Church in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota offers their own social enterprise  competition called Innove’. To participate all you have to be is under 35 and have a good idea.  You don’t even have to go to their church.

Leah Driscoll and her team one first place in the initial competition. While working on her master’s degree, Leah learned that the Twin Cities area has one of the largest “food deserts” in the United States. Almost 300,000 people have no access to reasonably priced food or fresh produce. They wind up spending an excessive amount of their income at corner stores that charge excessive prices and rarely have fresh produce.

Leah and her team won first place with their concept, Mobile Market.” They bought one old municipal bus and transformed it into a traveling market. It offers reasonably priced groceries and fresh produce and visits different neighborhoods every day. It pays for itself without church charity or government aid, and also provides a service to the community. When I met Leah last October, she told me that she and her team are going to buy four more buses to expand this social business.

It is important to add at this point that community empowerment involves more than starting social enterprises. It also includes initiatives like community gardening to increase the ability of people to feed their families.

In 2004, Arvada (Colorado) Mennonite Church, started a community garden that is still providing a place for immigrants from Laos and Russia to improve the diet of their families by adding fresh vegetables. Goshen (Indiana) College also has one of the leading programs in sustainability. Recently several grads from this program have helped the Pulse service program in Pittsburgh to transform some vacant land into the Kinkaid Community Garden.

In my most recent book on those in the millennial generation creating new forms of social innovation, I celebrate some very good news. Because millennials, 19 to 36 year olds, are the first digital generation, they are much more globally aware of the issues of economic, racial and environmental justice.  The even better news is that a higher percentage of these millennials want to invest their lives in serious change-making. As a consequence, a growing number of corporations are adding a social mission in order to hire millennials.

This presents an important opportunity to our churches, because they are facing some very bad news.  According to Pew Research, those in the millennial generation are disaffiliating from most churches in the U.S. at an alarming rate. Evangelical churches are discovering that putting on a “hip show” and having the pastor wear skinny jeans isn’t working any more.

So here are the two opportunities for Mennonite church leaders to prepare for the coming cutbacks in 2018:
  1. You can enable your church to be among the first responders to the 2018 cutbacks by starting to prepare now to create new ways to empower friends and neighbors before the cutbacks come;
  2. You can also invite the young people that are still in your church to help create and launch these new social innovations.

In this process, your church might not only play an important role as first responders to the new  waves of social cutbacks in 2018.  You could also discover, by inviting the innovative ideas and initiative of the young in your church, that you might gain a new generation of creative leaders to help guide your church into the turbulent 2020’s and beyond.

Please let me know what innovative ventures your church creates and launches and the way that young innovators are involved to share with others.Write me:

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