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Church earns ‘trailblazer’ honor for ministry amid welfare refo

CUMBERLAND, Md. (BP)–Cumberland, Md., has long been one of the most economically depressed areas of the state. But with the efforts of Richard Reilly, pastor of First Baptist Church, local residents are beginning to move beyond their poverty — not just in their financial lives, but in their souls as well.
The factories that supplied most of the region’s jobs closed in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving in their wake rampant unemployment and dependence upon welfare for those who chose to stay rather than follow the majority of the population to new lives in other locales. “Cumberland has been hemorrhaging for many years,” Reilly said.
Reilly’s 150-year old church tried to help however possible, but often encountered limitations. The money people received to buy food often was spent instead on lottery tickets or cigarettes; the relationships needy people could forge with church members often went unrealized.
But in 1996, statewide welfare reforms changed how those in need would receive help. The emphasis shifted from simply handing out funds to empowering people to create better lives for themselves. The Allegheny County Department of Social Services, newly prevented from both administering and operating programs to help welfare recipients, began to seek out help from private organizations to help those who needed it. In Cumberland, one such organization came forward and committed — First Baptist.
“I’ve seen family after family destroyed by the old system of getting money for nothing, no accountability, no responsibility,” Reilly said. “We’re designed by God to be productive, to have a purpose. There’s a mind-set [among some Christians] that welfare reform is the devil’s work. But we see it as a good thing. There’s liberty in not having to depend on cash assistance, and people are feeling good about themselves when they’re able to be productive.”
Nancy Darr, family investment assistant director for the Allegheny County Department of Social Services, agreed. “We believe very strongly in family strength and responsibility,” she said. “The most insidious thing that cash assistance does is destroy self-esteem. The real welfare reform is strengthening families so they can become more independent.”
Although Cumberland is still “a depressed rural area” where the unemployment rate fluctuates between 7 and 14 percent, something amazing has happened in the lives of its residents, Darr said. “We have reduced our cash assistance caseload since 1996 by 84.3 percent. We have led the state the entire time.”
First Baptist Church recently received the Trailblazer Award from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to recognize an extraordinary commitment by a community organization to help Maryland families pursue financial independence.
The award honored the church’s 1997 project in which they partnered with the Allegheny County Department of Social Services to issue Child Specific Benefits to mothers of infants. The department provided funds to the church, where a few people in the congregation learned of the mothers’ needs through regular contact with them. When the mothers needed items such as diapers, baby clothes, formula or medicine, church members would purchase and deliver the items.
“We were kind of like a mediator,” said First Baptist member Sharon Seifert, one of the volunteers. “It was a real blessing because we got to meet a lot of nice families.”
Seifert wanted to help because First Baptist members had helped her in a variety of ways when she moved to Cumberland in 1987, a single parent with a 4-year-old son and no car. “It’s like someone once said, ‘Sometimes we need God’s love with flesh on it.’ Sometimes when you just go out and witness to people, they can be offended. But if you meet their needs, they’ll see that you live out what you say.
“I don’t think the church can afford to just be their own little group within themselves. I think they should go out and reach people. God doesn’t just select a few [for that work]. He selects all of us.”
Churches can make social service programs more effective than they would be if only government agencies were involved, Darr said. “When you want to build trust and relationships, churches do that best.”
Since 1992, First Baptist members have offered a variety of services at the area’s Carver Community Center off and on, such as a food pantry and youth activities in the gym. Now they’re busy with another project, creating a “one-stop-shop” of services at the center. “I’m excited because the wall that was up [between churches and government social service agencies prior to welfare reform] is down and we’re pursuing the vision together,” Reilly said.
That vision includes job training, child care, support groups for mothers and even after-school clubs such as drama and rocketry that would each have a Bible study component. It also encompasses funding for residents to begin small businesses out of the center, such as a hair salons and a blacktop surfacing company. First Baptist is leading the effort with help from local government agencies and two nearby churches, Metropolitan AME and Kingsley United Methodist.
In job training, the church volunteers sometimes are helping are helping the same people they helped through the previous project, except now the mothers are coming off welfare altogether. “A lot of these women have never worked before. So this is a full-service ministry to help them with whatever they need, to hold their hands, to support them. We don’t say, ‘Well, you’re off welfare, so go get a job. That’s it. Goodbye.’ We help them make the transition. … People can’t live on entry-level jobs. They need to gain skills to move up the ladder to a job that’s right for them, that’s fulfilling.”
Reilly, said Darr, “is selfless. He wants the greater good, not self-aggrandizement, and that comes through never in words, but always in actions.”
The motive behind his church’s social service work, Reilly said, is to show that, “Christ is here; He’s not abandoned you to an impersonal government. He cares for you and he’s willing to walk with you.”
Reilly added, “I’m really encouraged by what’s going on and seeing a difference in many lives. We’re all shareholders in the community, and everyone has value no matter what their economic situation at the current time.”

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  • Whitney Von Lake Hopler