Congregations are being invited to meet to consider the possibilities for creative new ministries that can come from joint action; ministries that address the big changes that have challenged our community in ways it has not been challenged before.
Big changes have happened in our community in the past 30 years. Family breakdown, always a problem that existed on the margins of society, is now a problem at its core. The rise in gang membership and pregnancy in teens can be traced directly to the inability of families to cope with the stresses that reduce families resources and challenge families' roles.
Community networks that existed in stable neighborhoods have eroded as families have shrunk and become disconnected from the geography of where people were born. There was a time in this community when a family that needed money for coal to get through a harsh winter could talk to "the right person" and a load of coal would be delivered in the morning. Families live now where jobs can be found, or where housing is affordable. Not only do these families not know their neighbors, they know they cannot count on the neighbors to come through for them if their family experiences difficulty.
In the same way, voluntary community institutions have changed from being significant providers of services for people in need as non-profit social service agencies have proliferated alongside government agencies to address needs with professional staff work.
Big changes are coming in the way the needs of significant numbers of Americans are going to be met, in the years ahead. Older people will face changes in how health care will be provided and in the ava8lability of such services as home delivered meals and in-home care. Unemployed people will find fewer job training programs slots available, and tighter requirements to be met to be eligible for welfare assistance when jobs can't be found. Working poor families will find longer waits on lists for affordable housing, and will be paying increasingly larger percentages of their income for the private market housing that is available.
Whether you believe that such changes represent the necessary belt-tightening of a government with too many current commitments, or the government's abandonment of responsibility for the needs of the less powerful in our society, it must be admitted that less help will be available for people than at any time since the inaufurat8ioin of the Great Society programs of the middle 1960s.
It is significant that area congregations are taking the lead in initiating discussions about joint mission now. Of the institutions that play an active role in addressing human need in our community, churches and synagogues have been in the forefront in developing innovative and important programs.
In the last 30 years, area congregations have: built affordable housing, repaired deteriorating owner occupied housing, opened shelters, meals programs and food pantries, counseled thousands of people, preserved and restored families, housed elderly people, prevented domestic violence, ministered to people with AIDS, along with their families and loved ones, visited isolated older people living at home, opened day care centers, resettled refugees from Southeast Asia, the Soviet Union and Bosnia, conducted pastoral visiting in health care institutions and prisons, built job-finding networks, developed neighborhood youth activities programs, and conducted community-wide programs dealing with racism and anti-Semitism.
These efforts were undertaken through individual congregational mission and through cooperation in such programs as: the Interfaith Social Action Corporation, Habitat for Humanity, Amos House, Dorothy Day Hospitality House and Shelter, Daily Bread Food Pantry, the St. James Community Service Fund, Covenant to Care, the National Council of Jewish Women, Brotherhood in Action, Loaves and Fishes, Birthright, Promise Keepers, the Ridgefield Clergy Association, the Salvation Army, Yokefellows, Interfaith AIDS Ministry, Catholic Family and Community Services, the Jewish Federation of Greater Danbury, and the Association of Religious Communities.
As laudable as this record may be, there is new work to be done. The January convocation will be an opportunity for clergy and lay members of area congregations to build on decades of vital ministry to our community and look at the new challenges facing our community in the immediate future.
You and your congregation can be a part. For further information on how you can be involved, contact your minister, priest or rabbi, or call ARC at 792-9450
Samuel E. Deibler, Jr. is executive director of the Association of Religious Communities