An Alternative to Handouts: 50+ People Hired off the Streets for Meaningful Work

Unemployment in Pastor Beier’s neighborhood of Woodlawn shuffles along at around 23%, and is one of their major burdens. How could they be a blessing to the underemployed and under-resourced neighbors and church members? Unemployment contributes to so many other painful realities. Consider these tragic statistics:  

  • 41% of children in our 60637 zip code are growing up in poverty.
  • Three of our six local elementary schools closed in 2014, the result of an exodus of residents and tax dollars.
  • 787 homicides and 4,368 shooting victims rocked Chicago in 2016.

Hope Works Launched

In 2010 Living Hope Church purchased a nearby pool hall—formerly, notorious for drugs, prostitution, and gambling. Church members, generous supporters, and many volunteer construction workers renovated the place. Sunday services began in this space exactly two years after acquiring it. However, during the renovations, many passerbys came to the building looking for money or other handouts. Instead of giving these passerbys money, Living Hope Church put these folks to work. Beier writes,

Our primary way of trying to help without hurting those in need was to invite anyone who came looking for help to learn new skills or to put their existing experience to work on this old building. Over four years, more than fifty folks were hired off of the street to earn money by doing dignifying work. A handful of people who would not otherwise seek out the church became members of Living Hope. Along the way, we realized that completing a day’s work together seemed to release a shared, God-instilled purpose and created a natural context for forming relationships.

In early 2014 Beier cast a vision for an economic development idea to his leadership team.  Later that year, Living Hope Church’s nonprofit, Hope Works, was launched. The mission of Hope Works “is to empower our neighbors to become catalysts of and participants in a flourishing South Side Chicago community.”

Beier adds, “Hope Works was built on the premise that jobs are critical to healthy families and a healthy community. And, of course, work is good for the soul, because we were created by God to work. When a family has a steady income through God-honoring work, the blessings positively impact their health, their children’s education, and the family’s overall peace. And when families have shalom (God’s perfect peace), it permeates a neighborhood’s ecosystem” (italics added).

Hope Works’ First Client

Mary*1 was one of our first clients. She came to Living Hope one of the first Sundays we were able to worship in our new building, and she continued to come every Sunday until she moved away in 2016. Mary loved to voice her requests during our corporate “prayers of the people.” She shared thoughts during Bible studies as well, but most of her prayers and thoughts didn’t seem very coherent to the rest of us. Mary’s past was one of addiction, life on the streets, losing her children to the state, and even delivering a baby while incarcerated. The baby, of course, was promptly taken away from her.  

Mary was also full of laughter. But the laughter was usually at the most inappropriate times. During quiet times of reflection or heart-wrenching sermon illustrations, Mary would suddenly burst out in a rapid staccato laugh. We got used to it. Over time, the more conversations we had with her, the more lucid Mary appeared, and the more her comments, conversations, and prayers seemed connected to reality. We gave Mary small jobs to help her make money to get bus fare. She was in the first class of Mobility Action Partners (MAP), a program we designed to address root issues of unemployment and pursue the holistic growth needed to achieve employment goals.

Another regular at the church and at Hope Works, Howard* is a former addict whose own redemption story includes campaigning for Commissioner of Cook County. One morning Howard came to Hope Works and recognized Mary, but barely. He said, “I’ve known Mary on the streets and I watched her deteriorate over the past 15 years; now I can hardly believe it! I’ve never seen her look so good! You guys are helping her so much. She looks so much more like God created her to be—human!” The image of God was being polished and revealed more and more as Mary moved from hustling to survive on the streets to doing dignifying work and finding true community.

Hope Works assists people one-on-one to overcome long-term unemployment and help them and their families to flourish. We offer case management and employment services along with economic, educational, entrepreneurial, and art programming for youth and young adults.

Flourishing workers presume a workplace. Work dignifies the worker because we were created to work. As workers flourish in the workplace, families and neighborhoods are direct beneficiaries. And as Living Hope Church has illustrated, the church can jump start the flourishing of the unemployed, the underemployed, and under-resourced by using its economic clout and moral imagination to provide meaningful work.

To learn more about Hope Works, along with eight other stories on churches who are finding innovative ways to seek the common good of their cities, download  Essays for the Common Good on Kindle now.

Modified excerpt from “In Chicago, Hope Works” by Brad Beier. Brad Beier is native of Louisiana. Upon graduating from Reformed Theological Seminary in 2001, Brad served in an urban church planting apprenticeship at Faith Christian Fellowship (PCA) in Baltimore. Brad and his wife Shannon moved to Chicago in 2003 to plant Living Hope Church (PCA). They have four precious daughters who keep them hopeful, laughing, and busy.

1.* Denotes names that have been changed to protect personal privacy.

Topics: Common Good, Job Training, Mission & Outreach, Poverty