Mission Possible: How Faith Can Build Communities

Richard Louv
December 12, 1999

Nancy Streeter didn't fully realize the importance of a network of supportive parents—until she learned that her infant son had been born with a serious birth defect.

A few years ago, just days before Christmas, she and her husband were told by physicians that their infant, Nathan, had cerebral palsy. For the next two weeks, fellow parents from Rancho Bernardo Presbyterian in Poway, California, brought a hot meal. "I never knew how meaningful it was for someone to give me food, until I experienced a moment of devastating grief when I couldn't even conceive of what to make for dinner," Streeter says today.

Since that time, the Streeters and their son Nathan have been deeply involved in what their church calls a "grace circle," a group of parents of young children who meet monthly to discuss the issues and pressures of raising children. Upon occasion, they cook food or baby sit for one another, especially when there is crisis—a surgery, a death, or sudden unemployment.

"We don't judge each other," she says. "We call each other on the phone and say, 'How you doing?' I can't tell you how important it is to me to be able to give and receive that kind of support, and how important it is that Nathan is in a church where his physical differences aren't as important as the person he is becoming."

Churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship have always made a difference in the lives of children and families. Traditionally, many have offered youth community choirs, church sports teams, hiking and camping youth groups, as well as parent support groups. But increasingly, these institutions are doing more. They're creating marriage maintenance classes and parent-teen dialogues on money, curfews, sexuality, dating, drug abuse, and becoming a young parent.

Some are reaching well beyond their own membership. Across the country, churches, synagogues and mosques are buying drug houses and evacuating criminal tenants, renovating run-down neighborhoods, offering low-income mortgages to families unable to get loans through banks, teaming up with suburban and inner-city congregations and child advocacy organizations to sponsor programs for abused and runaway children, the homeless, and other families in need.

Such activity has not gone unnoticed in the political realm.

Political leaders, including President-elect George W. Bush, have suggested using federal money to support social programs operated by faith-based institutions. The suggestion raises fundamental Constitutional questions about the separation of church and state—but it also suggests other interesting questions:

How are faith-based institutions helping children now—without government involvement? Are they doing enough? Could they do more?

Creating Supportive Family Networks

Not every religious institution is moving in this direction, but some of the nation's most successful churches and synagogues envision the church or synagogue as a hub of a wider network of support for families.

Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, California attracted many new members in recent years by offering several parent-support groups and parenting classes, including one called "Parenting Before and After Work." Coast Hills, an interdenominational church, also launched MOPS, a program for mothers of preschool children; the moms meet every Thursday for 12 weeks to discuss topics from discipline to "sex after children." Mommy and Me play groups are also sponsored by the church.

At Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase, Maryland, parent networking is part of the synagogue's theological mission. "A key concept for our congregation is the Hebrew word chesed, translated as loving care," says Rabbi Lyle A. Fishman. "Visiting the sick, comforting the mourner; these are examples of chesed. These acts of loving care tie people together over time and the generations."

When a child is born to someone in the congregation, Rabbi Fishman (himself a father of small children) sends a list to the parents of other Ohr Kodesh families with children born during the same three-month period. Names, birthdates, addresses and phone numbers are included on the parent network list. "Parents can pick up the phone and ask for help if a child is ill, or they can share a list of baby sitters, or trade baby furniture—or simply connect with someone."

"When my first child was born, I was often lonely; even going to the park wasn't that helpful. I met a lot of nannies," says Pam Gelfrand, 39, a member of Ohr Kodesh and the mother of an 11-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 9-month-old. As her first two children grew older, she found that parent connections came easier. "Once my two oldest kids entered preschool, a new world of relationships opened up for them and for me." However, because of the age gap between her first two children and her third, she feels that she's starting over with her parent networking: "I don't know many parents now with infants." She was pleased to receive Rabbi Fishman's list of parent contacts. "It was unexpected; if nothing else, it made me feel good."

Shelly Rothchild, 30, has already made use of the list. "When I got the list I called a mom I already knew through work, but not socially. Without the list, I don't think I would have called." A list of names isn't enough, Rothchild cautions. "Friendship demands ongoing exposure. Seeing other members of the synagogue at the service reinforces friendship." Ohr Kodesh, she points out, also offers "Tot Shabbat," a monthly, 25-minute religious service focused on children. Afterward, during refreshments, parents naturally make and sustain friendships.

"I find it ironic that people feel they must go to outside organizations to help them as parents," says Rothchild. "People often don't think about looking within their own congregations for help with parenting, but it's right here!"  

Tapping Community Resources

At the heart of this movement is an old idea: community—not only the community within the place of worship, but the community beyond.

"Many of us grew up in neighborhoods and towns where the church was part of the community, and support for families came naturally," says Maurice Graham, associate pastor of Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. "Today, with daily life spread out and so many of us leading hectic lives, we've got to make a conscious effort to recreate community. The church can help with that."

Graham now counsels parents and children. He believes that most parents need someone to listen to them more than they need a parenting course. His goal is to create a "friendship network" within his church. His church is training 12 members of the church, all of them parents, how to lead parenting self-help groups. "The leaders of these groups should be careful not to bring unneeded baggage to the task, to avoid giving advice or assuming that they can solve their fellow parents' problems," says Graham. "We believe that the best way parents can help other parents is not by judging them, but by walking beside them on their journey."

Not every churches or synagogue has the financial resources to serve as a community center or to offer elaborate programs for parents and children, but that doesn't mean parent connections can't be made.

One resource for family support that a church or temple should not neglect is seniors. Debra Schwartz, a member of Ohr Kodesh, describes how an elderly woman adopted her children as the grandchildren she never had. "She comes over to us regularly after the services and holds the baby and talks with our older child. She invites us over to dinner, brings the children gifts on occasion. Because my children's own grandparents are so far away it's nice to have someone nearby with whom my children can feel free to be themselves, someone who can give them unconditional affection."

Some faith-based institutions offer intergenerational programs that help seniors, children and parent-age members of the congregation share their talents and services. (Rancho Bernardo's program is called Scrambled Ages.) Here's one suggestion for how seniors can help relieve parent stress: Once a month, seniors in the congregation can cook a potluck dinner for parents and children. And of course, the favor can be returned.

"My church, Trinity Presbyterian, with about 200 members, has the typical financial struggles of a medium-sized church," says Renee Connell, 38, a mother of two young children in Oroville, Ca. "We don't have a lot of money. But in a way, that helps us build community." Members of Trinity help teach weekday classes for children. Parents gather before and after the classes, to socialize. Parents also get together to clean the church, pull weeds, wash windows, and paint. "When I had toddlers, the church encouraged me to start a play group," says Connell. "They couldn't afford to finance the program, but they did provide a room." Several of the children and parents who attended were not members of the church.

That, she says, is important. It's a way to support parents and help children in the wider community.  

Leap of Faith: How Faith-Based Organizations are Reaching Deeper into Community

Many faith-based organizations are reaching out to children and families beyond their own congregations—sometimes in the simplest of ways.

For example, Suzanne Marbach of Fallbrook, Ca., has found what she calls "a painless way to shop." Her church, St. Peter's Catholic Community, held a holiday Alternative Gift Fair this year. Donations to worthy causes were "sold" at the fair. "After people filled out their shopping list and paid," Marbach explains, "they were given a gift card for each person on their gift list. This card informed the recipient what was purchased in their name." The church also sold donations of building materials for Habitat for Humanity, ranging from $10 for a bag of cement to $85,000 for an entire house. Some of the programs her church supports help children directly, some indirectly, and as Marbach points out, "the fair certainly educates our children about generosity."

The rising popularity of alternative giving—reported widely by news organizations in 1999—suggests that many faith-based institutions may be moving toward social action, after a long hiatus. Certainly many churches have engaged the public on the abortion issue, but direct community action, by conservative and liberal congregations alike, is increasing.

Places of worship house fully a third of all child-care programs today.

Welfare reform, by moving parents into the work force, is placing added pressure on a system already overburdened. In most states, low-income parents eligible for subsidized childcare are on waiting lists; in California, some families must wait five to six years.

In some communities, churches and synagogues are important members of public-private consortiums that open new child-care centers and create loan and investment funds for child care. In Miami County, Indiana, for example the Child Care Action Campaign and the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration have sponsored a collaboration between a church, a hospital, three businesses and the state. The state provides some funding; the church offers space; the hospital supplies cribs, equipment and training for teachers, and the businesses have pitched in to build a playground.

Barbara Reisman, director of the New York-based Child Care Action Campaign, would like to see every community mount a grass-roots campaign to create such community-wide partnerships with business, schools and local government and increase the availability of good child care. "Churches and synagogues usually provide the space but don't pay much attention to the staffing and quality," she says. "They can do more to recruit and train staff and volunteers, and subsidize child care for lower-income families."

Among other large-scale community outreach efforts:

  • In Norcross, Ga., the Hopewell Baptist Church started a Sunday tutoring program to help prepare children for the Gwinnett County school system's tough new testing program.
  • Faith-based organizations are important partners—sometimes the sole operators—of food banks for homeless and other financially-pressed families.
  • Especially during difficult economic times, a church or synagogue can help parents connect with potential employers within the congregation. For example, The Job Seekers Network is sponsored by the Foothills United Methodist Church in La Mesa, Ca. In the network's newsletter, job seekers advertise for free; the newsletter is sent to the 1,500 members of the church.
  • Some faith-based organizations are directly involved in community economic development. For example, in Columbus, Ohio, churches and nonprofit community organizations partner with Huntington National Bank to promote home ownership in poor neighborhoods.
  • Faith-based organizations are important supporters of teen centers and other after-school programs. In Atlanta, the Roswell United Methodist Church recently created the $3.5 million Dodson Youth Center.
  • In Dallas, 60 churches from a racially and economically diverse array of neighborhoods have formed the Dallas Area Interfaith, a citizens' action group that has set up after-school programs in six Dallas public schools and drawn commitments from businesses to create more than 200 jobs in low-income neighborhoods.
  • The Pennsylvania Council of Churches, along with the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, the Pennsylvania Head Start Association, and other civic groups, help guide the Pennsylvania School Reform Network. PSRN's purpose: to educate rural Pennsylvanians about unfair school funding system and to work for solutions.
  • In Boston's South End, a coalition of religious and education organizations has opened the Higher Education Resource Center. The center's mission is "to help parents and their children who want to go to college but need help sorting out applications, financial aid, Scholastic Assessment Tests and networking," The Boston Herald reports.

At the community level, religious organizations can help meld disparate political and civic groups into new consortiums for better childcare and health care, after-school programs, improved educational systems and safer streets. But the personal remains as important as the political. Supportive, sustaining warmth within a congregation—parent-to-parent and among the generations—cannot be artificially manufactured, but it can be nurtured. For a family under stress, such warmth can make all the difference in the world.

"A year ago, when surgery was performed on my son's legs, my fellow parents showed up again at my door, with food," recalls Nancy Streeter. "Without their enthusiasm and their caring for my son, my husband and I could not have given him the quality of life he has today."

Richard Louv is formally the senior editor of Connect for Kids and a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, the author of several books about children and community, including The Web of Life: Weaving the Values that Sustain Us (Conari Press).