Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

In 1985, when Shepherd Community Center first began to offer hope and support for people trapped in the cycle of poverty, Google didn’t exist—neither did Amazon nor Facebook. Much has changed in the past 35 years as Shepherd Community has learned, adapted, and grown in serving its neighbors on the east side of Indianapolis. Yet much remains the same.

Far too many of our neighbors still struggle to feed their children, to secure family-sustaining jobs, and to find hope for tomorrow amid the hardships of today. Another thing that remains the same is our commitment to sharing the love of Jesus with neighbors who often feel isolated, excluded, and forgotten.

In Luke 8, a woman who had suffered from bleeding for 12 years touched Jesus’ cloak as He made His way through a crowd that pressed close to Him. Immediately, the woman was healed.

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

Everyone denied touching the Savior’s cloak, and Peter, as was his way, spoke up: “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”

“Someone touched me,” Jesus said. “I know that power has gone out of me.”

The woman realized she could not escape unnoticed into the crowd. Jesus was searching for her. So the woman, who under the Law of Moses was considered to be unclean because of the bleeding, fell to the ground and confessed her desperate, audacious act of touching the Master’s robe.

Notice what happens next. Jesus didn’t rebuke or shame her, nor did He turn from her in anger. He loved her. He showed respect for her. He blessed her.

“Daughter, your faith has healed you,” the Creator of the Universe said. “Go in peace” (Luke 8:45-48).

The woman exits the Scripture here. Although we don’t know what became of her, we can imagine the joy she must have felt and her sense of wholeness not only from the physical healing but also from the spiritual and emotional restoration Jesus gave her.

Amid all the hardships that the COVID-19 pandemic brought last year, at Shepherd Community we served more than 400,000 meals (the most in our history), provided medical care and health supplies to more than 700 people, and distributed $500,000 to families in crisis. Yet by far, the most valuable service we offered was to share God’s love with more than 400 families who came to us each week with deep spiritual and physical needs.

Just as Jesus loved and respected an “unclean” woman who others overlooked or even despised, we are called to love, serve, and value our neighbors who our society often forgets and ignores. We do this by living and working alongside our neighbors and helping them meet basic needs in every stage of life.

In 2020, we worked with several community partners to open the Minnie Hartmann Child Care Center in a beautifully renovated former elementary school. The center provides parents with the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their children are in a safe, nurturing environment while they are at work. In addition, the center is a source of jobs in the neighborhood, employing more than two dozen workers to care for children—infants to 4-year-olds.

For the past 20 years at Shepherd Academy, we have helped children from preschool to fifth grade develop a strong spiritual and academic foundation to prepare them for further success in school and in life. As with schools across the country, we faced an unprecedented set of challenges when the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to switch quickly from traditional classrooms to virtual learning last spring.

The challenges were especially difficult for our students and their families because many of them did not have internet access at home. As a way to help them, we immediately set up an online hotspot in our parking lot so children could do homework and parents could search for jobs and apply for unemployment and other benefits. We also distributed internet-connected devices to those who needed them.

In today’s world, internet access is almost a necessity like oxygen. Our neighbors need internet for nearly everything—education, employment, health care, and social connection. So we partnered with Spectrum Communications to provide free internet access in our neighbors’ homes.

At the start of 2020, virtual education and a partnership with an internet provider were not in our plans. We adjusted, however, because our neighbors’ needs changed. And that fact highlights an important lesson: Our mission—to break the cycle of poverty—remains the same. What changes is how we accomplish that mission based on our neighbors’ needs and current circumstances.

Before the pandemic, many of our neighbors worked in the hospitality and service sectors. When restaurants, hotels, office buildings, and the city’s convention center and sports stadiums shut down indefinitely because of COVID-19, many of the families we serve were suddenly left without jobs.

Sadly, even as the economy rebounds, high unemployment is still a reality for our neighbors because many restaurants have closed permanently, hotels and sports arenas have reopened at far less than capacity, and fewer building services workers are needed while offices remain closed.

To help our neighbors adapt to what may well be long-term changes in our economy, we have ramped up our job training programs and forged new partnerships with employers and academic institutions. Our childcare, education, and job training ministries are part of a continuum of support because breaking the cycle of poverty means investing in families so they can sustain themselves one day.

In 2015, we launched the Shalom project to focus on reducing poverty, crime, and violence outside the walls of our building. The Shalom team meets neighbors’ needs where they live—whether that’s an alley, apartment, or house. As with all of our ministries, 2020 brought an unprecedented set of challenges for the Shalom team, yet it responded with an amazing reserve of strength, courage, patience, and love.

Here’s just one example of the lifesaving work the Shalom team delivered last year: Hungry and in pain, the man was desperate for help when the pandemic forced much of the city to shut down. So he did what he knew to do: He called 911.

Even though the man’s needs were not immediately life threatening, a dispatcher sent an ambulance because often there’s simply no one else to send. But members of the Shalom team heard the dispatch, recognized the address, and knew they could help.

“When we arrived, the patient was in the back of the ambulance, complaining of a whole host of issues,” the Shalom team member and city paramedic said. “After speaking with the gentleman for a couple of minutes, we were able to decipher what the root cause of the 911 call was.”

The man, who has developmental disabilities, lived alone in a tiny room. He had only a mattress on the floor. No table, chairs, or lamps. No phone, TV, or radio to connect him to the world outside. In the past, the Shalom team and others had offered to help the man find a better place to live, but he refused to move.

Because of the pandemic-forced shutdown, the man had stopped receiving disability checks and couldn’t pay his rent or buy groceries. His medications had run out. Alone and overwhelmed, he didn’t know how to navigate the system to get the help he needed.

“We saved the patient an ambulance ride by spending time working on the root issues,” the Shalom team member said.

The Shalom team helped the man receive his disability checks and provided him with an emergency food bag from the Shepherd Community pantry. He also was added to Shepherd Community’s shut-in list so meals would be delivered to his room daily. The team scheduled an appointment for the man at a medical clinic and arranged to have his medications sent to Shepherd Community, which began delivering them to his home.

This is a story of one man in the crowd who needed to touch the Savior’s robe. We were blessed as Christ’s servants to be there to help just as Shepherd Community has helped tens of thousands of our neighbors for the past 35 years.

Thirty-five years is a long time in ministry. It’s enough time to serve a generation and then to serve that generation’s children and grandchildren.

It’s enough time to learn what truly helps a person in need and what doesn’t. It’s enough time to have your faith challenged and reinforced.

“Go in peace,” Jesus said to the woman in the crowd. As His servants, this is our message as well. Go in peace. Go in joy. Go in love with the One who heals!

Jay Height is executive director of Shepherd Community Center in Indianapolis (