The NC Council of Churches has been engaged with issues related to child poverty for decades. We were one of the founders of the Covenant with NC’s Children, a leading advocacy group on behalf of children, especially the most vulnerable ones. And we were instrumental in creation of the Caring Program for Children, enabling a partnership between Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC and many congregations which provided health insurance for the children of low-income working parents. When the federal government created the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and NC set up its CHIP program as NC Health Choice, the Caring Program kids were the first to be enrolled.
Part of what we know from experience is that childhood poverty is intractable. Eradicating it takes lots of awareness, lots of work, lots of money, and the wholehearted support of a community. So I was excited to learn of the campaign to end childhood poverty in Durham, and the Council was honored to be a co-sponsor of last week’s Faith Summit on Child Poverty, held at Union Baptist Church in the Bull City.
The Summit was conceptualized by Mel Williams, coordinator for End Poverty Durham. Mel has recently retired as pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church, one of the Council’s eight member congregations. He is especially gifted for this task, with a strong sense of justice (“It’s simply unacceptable that 27% of Durham’s children live in poverty.”) and decades of ministry in Durham. As the Summit’s co-chair said, “If you don’t know Mel Williams, you must have just moved to Durham.”
The Council came to be a co-sponsor of the Faith Summit in Durham through our relationship with Jack and Kay Crum and the Jack Crum Conference on Prophetic Ministry. Jack was a Methodist minister who served on the Council’s staff at the height of the civil rights movement and brought his great passion for racial justice to the Council’s work to end segregation. He is also a recipient of the Council’s Distinguished Service Award. We have been proud co-sponsors of the Jack Crum Conference since the Methodist Federation for Social Action created it, and we were pleased to be able to carry over that co-sponsorship to Thursday’s Faith Summit, which was also co-sponsored by MFSA, the Jack Crum Conference, and the NC Conference of the United Methodist Church. Other co-sponsors included Duke Divinity School, Duke Chapel, and Duke Medicine, along with the Durham Public Schools and Durham County Social Services, Durham Congregations in Action, Durham CAN, and a host of other organizations.
The turnout for the Summit was remarkable, both in numbers (about 450) and in the breadth of groups represented. I am grateful for the many Durham congregations with ties to the NC Council which took part; several of them were held up as examples of work already being done to address causes of childhood poverty. One clever (and cleverly named) program is Blacknall Presbyterian’s Calendar Girls ministry. It partners twelve women “of a certain age” – one per month – with young mothers-to-be in the congregation. (The church is having about 25 births per year.) The Calendar Girls are assigned to the young women based on the month the babies are due. The ministry is, first, one of prayer, and also one of support and mentoring where that is appropriate. Other featured programs included English-language tutoring for preschoolers whose first language is not English (done collaboratively by three Episcopal congregations: St. Luke’s, St. Phillip’s, and El Buen Pastor), a playgroup for mothers and children at Immaculate Conception, and even the creation of a “diaper bank” to provide diapers to parents who can’t afford to buy them (being done in conjunction with Watts Street Baptist).
Keynote speakers included J. Herbert Nelson, with the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness in Washington, and William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Goldsboro, and president of the state NAACP. Nelson insightfully emphasized the importance of schools, not only as places of education but also as community gathering centers. Barber issued a stirring call for those who care about children also to address legislative issues affecting people living in poverty.
The Summit was a powerful roll-out of an important initiative. What develops with this effort in Durham could become a model for congregations in other communities across the state.
–George Reed, Executive Director