IN PRISM'S BOOK BAG: Barbara J. Elliott's STREET SAINTS (Templeton Foundation Press)
reviewed by Heidi Unruh
I was in a grumpy mood for some reason when I arrived at a Christian Community Development Association conference several years ago. But stepping into a hotel elevator filled with urban ministry leaders, pastors, and community activists, I was almost instantly transformed as Hebrews 12:1 came alive for me: I was surrounded by a host of witnesses. That experience was rekindled by reading Barbara Elliott's remarkable labor of love, STREET SAINTS: RENEWING AMERICA'S CITIES.
This hefty volume spotlights those "on the front lines of our communities, serving the broken, the forgotten, the abandoned, and the abused." (A short companion text, EQUIPPING THE SAINTS: A GUIDE FOR GIVING TO FAITH-BASED ORGANIZATIONS, offers guidelines for donors and foundations for supporting the work of street saints.) The book's narrative focus widens from individual "saints," to best-practice programs, to city-reaching efforts, effectively conveying the breadth of faith-based social ministries without overwhelming the reader. Elliott spreads an inviting banquet of stories and makes it easy for readers to sample according to their ministry interests.
The emphasis throughout is on "what works and why." Each case study concludes with a bulleted summary of best practices and results. Illuminating the accomplishments of seasoned activists without intimidating novice practitioners is a tricky balance. While the stories reveal the costliness of authentic compassion, it might have been helpful to include more of the learning curve involved in becoming a model ministry.
The book offers compelling evidence that "faith is a force to be reckoned with." Elliott attends to the spiritual dynamics at the core of street saints' work as well as the web of other essential factors: strategic vision, innovative program methodologies, dedicated and skilled staff, administrative savvy, a network of ministry partners, and sufficient resources. The case studies demonstrate the diversity of what it means to be "faith-based." Profiled ministries range from "faith-saturated" programs like Teen Challenge in which spiritual transformation is an integral component of the curriculum, to organizations in which the spiritual character is more implicit, such as Brookwood Community, a residential facility for persons with handicaps, where a staff member comments, "We don't trumpet [faith] – we try to live it out." The concluding chapter highlights different streams of Christian tradition that converge in the call to compassion, from Dallas Willard to Mother Teresa.
An underlying theme of the book is that faith-based organizations play a key role not only in relieving suffering but in sustaining civil society. America was founded on Christian principles, according to Elliott, but today, "The soul of America is in peril." Elliott asserts that government has marginalized religion in public life and abrogated the responsibility of the church and local community to care for the poor. Faith-based initiatives help to "revitalize a rapidly decaying culture" by encouraging the caring, spiritually-grounded relationships that hold society together.
This analytical framework has several flaws. The premise that private religious benevolence has shriveled as public welfare expanded is factually questionable. The argument that civil society is in jeopardy is less compelling after over 200 pages of descriptions of vibrant local charitable enterprises. Moreover, while "relational one-to-one" ministry is critical, Elliott inadequately confronts the reality of structural injustices that call for prophetic engagement with government. Community organizers and political activists are notably absent from her roster of ministry heroes.
Ultimately, however, STREET SAINTS is not about social policy but personal commitment. "Where the rubber hits the road is where we put our own convictions into action in our own communities, with our own time and money." If readers are drawn to the "humility, contagious joy, and invincible spirit" of these servants of God's dawning kingdom, if reading their stories intensifies Christ's call "to be vessels of love to people who hurt," then the book has achieved its goal.
Heidi Rolland Unruh is associate director of the Congregations, Community Outreach, and Leadership Development Project, sponsored by Eastern Seminary and directed by Ron Sider.