There is a popular story from pioneer church history that tells of the Martin-Willie handcart companies. Leaving late in the season and poorly prepared, they were caught in Wyoming in the winter snows. When Brigham Young found out about them, he cancelled the October conference that was then in session and sent wagons out to help them. Those who stayed behind prepared food and blankets and clothing and nursing care for them.

It was all about seeing the need and acquiring the skills to help people in distress, and the distress of that day was often physical, about people crossing the plains and in need of food and shelter.

We have a different need in our day, and that is, at its core, a need to shelter and nurture people who come from tremendously broken families. Often, that means they live in generational poverty, close to homeless if not already homeless.

Front porchI live in a small, inner city area 10 minutes from downtown Denver. No, it’s not Harlem, not even close. But I routinely walk out of my house to see eight or nine police cars on my street, taking care of some drug or gang situation, and there was a fatal shooting just five doors away from me two years ago. Two blocks from a liquor store, I used to find drunks passed out on my front lawn. I have to include a picture of my front porch so you know I picked the great house in the bad neighborhood, and I love it!

I was the Stake Public Affairs Director before I became the ward Relief Society President. I had also been a volunteer in our community. Because of that, I was in the right place at the right time when a community organization offered some special training on helping people in poverty.

The training blew my mind

I attended that training and was completely blown away by what I’d learned. I’d worked a great deal with homelessness and STILL did not know the “hidden rules of poverty” and the special skills and techniques that were taught in that workshop.

The workshop was based on A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Dr. Ruby K. Payne. I’ve listed some of her online resources; the book is a must read. If you’ve ever wondered why, when you’re helping someone who lives day to day in a motel, and they get some money and blow it on pizza and movies or getting their nails done, you need this book.

HINT: It’s NOT about being irresponsible. It’s about the inability to see consequences and to make plans for the future, and about impulse control, and many other things.

And the corollary to that training was What Every Church Member Should Know about Poverty. This books moves into the church setting and presents truly amazing insights, like, why would a person in dire straights divide gift money with their family and friends rather than use it for something they need?

HINT: It’s about the value system and the “hidden rules” of people in poverty.

I could go on and on about it but if you are serious about helping people in long-term poverty situations, please get this book and read it thoroughly. It should be standard training for all welfare committees.

Free supplemental online helps by Dr. Ruby K. Payne

Understanding and Working with Students and Adults from Poverty (Poverty Series I-IV)

Complementary downloads from Dr. Payne’s aha! process, inc.

Individuals who made it out of poverty
usually cite an individual|
who made a significant difference for them.

Personal testimonial

The innate gift that has always been part of me was to befriend people who were of a much different social class than myself. This gift came as a result of growing up with my dear mother. Mom was a social worker in her younger days and I picked up many of her insights and skills. But later in life, she became mentally ill and was a homeless person. 20 years of dealing with her and her friends and her street life gave me a whole different set of tools.

So, some of the things I did as a simple church member and then, as a Relief Society President, worked. It was all about relationship, inviting people REGULARLY to your home for dinner and “hanging out” with them by driving them to appointments and sitting with them in the hospital, or asking them to come over to help you in the garden or around the house.

My instinct, confirmed through this poverty training, was that what many people need is re-parenting. That is not done via phone calls and quick chats in the hallway at church. It takes lots of TIME and a good degree of PATIENCE.

Note: Don’t put yourself or your children in jeopardy. Be very smart about this. In my very early days in this ward, one of our bishopric members gave my telephone number to a mentally ill homeless man who was looking for a place for his cats. BAD IDEA! I got lucky but this fellow was in and out of jail and was violent and schizophrenic. I prayed that God would help him forget about his cats and where I lived and apparently, that worked. But I had to have a little discussion with the bishopric about not giving out people’s phone numbers or addresses to strangers.

Tough love

One young woman asked if she could call me “mom”. Why? I asked. “Because my own mother never sat with me in a hospital”.

It’s not about permissiveness. While you must be more accepting than you’ve ever been in your life, you need to learn about being stern and setting good limits. How else do these people who were raised by addicts and suffered much neglect and abuse ever learn about consequences and rules?

I sent one young lady down the hallway to put on some decent clothes before she went to report something to the police. Dressed in Daisy Dukes short shorts and a skimpy tank top, I told her she looked like a hooker. If she wanted the police to take her seriously, go get dressed. She said she didn’t respect the police, so I said, “Then show me that you respect yourself enough to get yourself heard.” So she dug out some longer pants and a shirt with sleeves and made her report.

Another young couple was frequently in the Emergency Room. That’s the nature of low-income health care, they use the ER as a clinic. The first few times I took them to the ER, I made them go back up to their apartment and put on clean, Sunday clothes. “Pull out the tongue piercings and comb your hair into a pony tail,” I told one young man. “They’ll treat you like a drug addict if they see you like that.”

They need to know how much you love them by your frequent and consistent actions

One girl, the one who asked if she could call me “mom,” told me I was the meanest Relief Society President in the stake. But she finally had someone that she KNEW she could count on, someone who loved her no matter what, someone whose opinion and counsel mattered to her, someone whose love SHE did not want to do without. She called me once to tell me that she’d turned down a job as a topless dancer. Why did you do that, I asked. “I told them my Relief Society President would kill me,” she answered. God bless her!

All of these sisters would call me to say, “I had a headache so I’m staying in bed, I just thought you would want to know,” or, “My kitty is sick today but I did this for it, I thought you would want to know,” or, “I saw this great movie and wanted to tell you about it.” Do you see? Never in their lives had they had anyone who truly cared about what they did.

Heavenly Father wants to save these dear children

I spent five years in this tough, inner city neighborhood and ward before I became Relief Society President. As I took on special visiting teaching or missionary or fellowshipping assignments — given to me because I was so close to where the person lived — I would run into very frustrating and disappointing situations. But the lesson was never to give up. God doesn’t show you these things to say, “You’re doing a great job but by the way, this person and this person and this person, you’ll never be able to work with.” He wants you to learn HOW to work with them.

When I was set apart as Relief Society President, the bishop informed me, in the blessing, that there were people the Lord had brought into our area to be helped and that only I could work with them. I can tell you, that was true. There were half a dozen young sisters from dismal, dismal backgrounds who, four years later, stay in touch with me and come to church. Some are not much better off than before, some are almost unrecognizably better.

It really helped me to understand these “hidden rules” so that I could more effectively and more gently work with these people in trouble. If you know they don’t comprehend consequences and can’t plan ahead, you can learn how to coach. One girl would regularly get to the grocery store with her mother, load up carts of groceries from her food stamps, and then call me at work and ask if I could give them a ride home. Sometimes, I would have to leave her stranded but would always find a way to coach her in a non-threatening, non-judging way. (You want to judge, don’t you, but when you learn the “hidden rules”, you realize what’s really going on). Sometimes, I would pick them up and gently coach there… and she would always have a piece of cheese pizza or a salad for me, so sweet to think of me and my vegetarian needs. Eventually, they learned to call me or whomever else AHEAD of time. Slow progress but very rewarding.

You can’t help but see that the world is getting darker and darker, and more and more people are coming out of dismal early childhood and the resultant foster care. They are coming out of teenage drugs and crime, and their families have long since given up on them. When they come to the church for help, we need to be ready to help them as effectively as when Brigham Young sent help to pioneers who were stranded in the snow.


One Response to “Poverty and the Church – A MUST READ”

  1. Judy Terry Says:

    Thanks for this article. Sometimes it is hard to understand why people are the way they are.

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