Partnerships enhance the health of our community

June 27, 2011 in Featured Question of the Week, Question of the Week, What is government's role in caring for the poor? Should churches and civic groups do more? by Sally Jones Heinz

On Monday, the Shelby County Commission restored funding for the Office of Early Childhood and Youth this week after first voting to cut the program, which works to reduce infant deaths and teen pregnancies.

Commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Terry Roland spoke against funding the program, arguing that churches and civic organizations — not government — should care for the poor.

“These type social programs should not and should never have existed in government,” Bunker said.

“I’m like my friend, Commissioner Bunker: This should be taken care of through the churches,” Roland said.

What is government’s role in caring for the poor in Memphis and Shelby County? Should churches and civic groups do more?

There are some needs that require more resources than faith groups have at their disposal. . .and that’s why I continue to believe that in a caring and in a just society, government must have a role to play; that our values, our love and our charity must find expression not just in our families, not just in our places of work and our places of worship, but also in our government and in our politics.

These words, spoken by President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast in February of this year, remind us of the vital importance of partnerships to the health of our society.  In a simpler time, when communities were more tightly-knit, it may have been effective to presume that churches alone could promote social welfare in their communities.  But the fabric of our current society is densely and intricately textured, with patterns that are difficult to discern and describe. Making our communities healthy requires partnerships between diverse entities, each of which brings its own expertise.  And our efforts towards health thrive on the interplay of the spirits which animate these varied groups.

An excellent example of the kind of partnership that draws together the resources of government, businesses, non-profit organizations, schools, religious congregations, and community groups is the Cities of Service program, a national bipartisan coalition of more than 100 mayors across the nation who have committed to work together to engage citizens to address critical urban needs through high-impact volunteerism.  The Cities of Service coalition was founded in New York City in 2009 as a response to the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act’s challenge to maximize the power of citizen service in addressing local concerns.

Memphis’s COS plan, based in City Hall, is called “One Memphis,” and will address three priority areas: youth wellness, cleaning & greening, and senior services.  At present, these local agencies are participating in projects: Memphis City Beautiful, Jewish Family Service, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Meritan, and MIFA.  Rhodes College, through its Bonner Center for Faith and Service, is also a partner.

In our complex and perplexing society, it is tempting to say, “THEY should take care of that.” Of course we cannot all address every problem.  But the more we experience the synergy of partnerships, the richer, deeper, and more beautiful the tapestry of our community will be.