What does it take to revive a dying city?
That’s the question Fairhaven Church faced in 2008, when Forbes magazine named Dayton, Ohio, as one of the fastest dying cities in America. After the article was published, we interviewed the mayors of Dayton and neighboring cities, and we discovered the greatest problem facing these cities is chronic poverty. Research shows that chronic poverty requires a long-term, holistic solution.
The only program with a holistic and relational approach and documented results was the Circles USA (CUSA) Campaign. Our church governing board commissioned our local outreach pastor to begin a Circles Chapter to our community in 2011. With a faith-based approach for our Circles chapter, we were blessed with the privilege of watching God work through the lives of so many people.
TESTIMONIES OF TRANSFORMATION
Tara, who took part in our first class in February, 2011, was homeless and unemployed, a battered wife raising three young boys in a shelter. Today, Tara has a very stable home life and an excellent job. She completed her undergraduate in 2016 and will start the second semester of grad school, earning a master’s degree in social work at Wright State University.
Billie, who was in our second class, is also a mom to three children. She was unemployed when she came to us, but she now serves on our new Poverty Alleviation Initiative Leadership Team and Development Team. She completed her associates degree and transferred to Wright State University, and she was working on her undergrad in accounting when she suffered a serious medical setback. Since recovering, she has begun pursuing a divinity degree. Through her healing process, she realized her true passion—to be a pastor.
Monique, a single mom of one son and a caregiver for her mother, will graduate this spring with a degree in psychology. Monique is an America Corps Vista member on our PAI staff and is also on our Development Team. Our community will be assisting Monique this spring as she begins her search for a full-scholarship graduate program for her master’s degree in psychology.
Two young boys who were part of our Circles youth group are now staying in high school and have jobs helping run the technology for our four Sunday morning services.
It is not only the participants that are experiencing true love and transformation—our volunteers are also experiencing transformation and sanctification. Mark, an ER physician, learned that listening, loving and modeling a Christ-centered life taught far more than any of his lectures. He got to see how difficult it is to maneuver through a life in poverty. His new perspective changed how he and the doctors working under him engaged with the under-resourced people. Mark taught them all to respond in love first and to not be judgmental or negative in any way. What a difference it made for him personally, for the entire staff, and for those being cared for in love.
Undoubtedly the greatest discovery for everyone involved in the Circles is that everyone is broken, that everyone needs to be in relationship with Christ, and that He meets each of us where we are. And they learn that real transformation only happens together in community.
As we built deeper relationships and involved participation from all sectors of our community, we grew into a capstone and mentor chapter for other Circles. In 2014, the national office of CUSA recognized us as a faith-based Circle and asked us to facilitate workshops at their national conferences. CUSA also called on us to support other Circle chapters with churches or faith-based nonprofit lead organizations, and our coordinator became a national trainer for other faith-based chapters and served on the National Strategic Planning Board for CUSA.
Unfortunately, there were challenges to being a faith-based chapter in a secular organization. We were not permitted to quote Scripture or teach biblical principles during any part of a Circles meeting, activity, or event, which was challenging as our allies, volunteers, and some Circle leaders were committed believers. This restriction created confusion and frustration—visitors and members in our community could not understand why we wouldn’t pray or offer comforting scripture when someone was suffering or in crisis.
In 2016, the Circles national office’s directive became more stringent. The official position is that Circles is an inclusive program where absolutely no expression of religion or faith is permitted. They no longer recognize “faith-based” as an option for a Circle chapter, requiring all chapters make no reference to any religion, religious belief, or any form of faith or prayer.
This directive was a defining moment for us. Our hope that CUSA would embrace the faith community was eradicated, but our commitment to the work we were doing remained steadfast. We knew we could only continue with Christ as our focus. With prayer, continued council, the full support of Fairhaven Church and with the endorsement of CUSA’s founder, we declined the renewal offer from CUSA.
LAUNCHING A CHURCH-BASED MODEL
Instead, we decided to create a new Christ-centered and church-based poverty alleviation model emphasizing the three transformative essentials: empowerment, community, and hope, the main building blocks to healing, restoration, and transformation. This decision was received by overwhelming enthusiasm and commitment of continued support by all eight of our church partners and all of our faith-based organizations, agencies, and business. Many from our current community team both the Circle leaders and the allies volunteered their time and resources to help us develop the new model and curriculum.
Our new Christ-centered, biblically based model is designed to be used by any Christian church or organization. It is both scalable and affordable, so a church with 80 or 8,000 attendees can have a successful poverty alleviation ministry. This network training platform is fully dedicated to the mission of ending chronic poverty, while holistically addressing brokenness. The training and monthly meeting model are relevant, with relatable learning experiences. We have defined and added essential tools and trainings, including trauma, informed care, mental health, first aide, crucial conversation workshops, and community service projects. Our first new class for the new training and network platform model will start in February 2018.
We began training and teaching our new curriculum in October, 2017 to our former Circle Leaders and Allies. With this new material, they have been learning even more about themselves and connecting with each other at a deeper level. Three of our former leaders attended Alpha classes, one has signed up for the Perspective Class, and many are now attending Bible studies. Others are attending small groups or house churches at the different churches in our collaborative network. Three of our former Circle Leaders are now receiving additional counseling as a direct result of the new trauma training, and two of our parents have gotten counseling for their children. Our former Circle Leaders and their Allies and eager to model what they have learned and demonstrate the new model in action for the new participants.
The new youth model includes high school students. One of our high school students was just accepted into the Law Enforcement Junior Academy. His goal is to earn an associate’s degree in Emergency Medicine and become a paramedic—and we have the contacts who can help him get the education he needs to achieve his dream.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Just from our one community we have so many more amazing stories of what God has done and is doing in people’s lives. We are even more passionate about the amazing youth model because it is with the youth where we truly end the cycle of chronic poverty. This new model is a dual-generation solution to chronic poverty.
Our hope is that others will desire to use this proven model in their church or organization and for all to realize it is through relationships and community where healing and restoration takes place. We were created by God to be in relationship with each other. With love, empowerment, and hope, we become equipped to provide what is needed people and families to grow and thrive. We have served over 156 adults and 343 children from 0-18, through our single site. Imagine what the Church can do with this model in multiple churches, in multiple cities in every state—we can end chronic poverty and foster a Kingdom-awakening across the nation!
To discover more about this cutting-edge, Christ-centered, church-based, poverty-alleviation initiative, contact Rev. Kirk Lithander, Outreach Pastor at Fairhaven Church. Pastor Kirk also serves as the Co-City Network Leader of the Made To Flourish Network in Cincinnati & Dayton and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.