Cost of Poverty Experience (COPE): An Immersion Experience That Is Worth It!

My former pastor in St. Louis, Dr. T. D. Stubblefield, First Baptist Church of Chesterfield (Chesterfield, MO), often said, “Who do you rely on when there is more month than money?” What if this were your reality and not a hypothetical situation? In other words, what if you had to choose between paying the light bill or putting food on the table? What if time were truly a scarce commodity for you? What if you had to rely on public transportation to take your child to the doctor but that means no pay for that time away from the job?

Our friends at Think Tank have developed a simulation whereby we can actually wear the shoes of the socio-economically disadvantaged and experience in real time these questions posed above.  It is called COPE – the Cost of Poverty Experience.  Consider this from Think Tank’s literature, “COPE gives participants and volunteers an opportunity to experience poverty firsthand through the eyes of real families. It will deepen their understanding, especially those who have never lived in poverty, are isolated from it, or never recognized or understood the impact poverty can have on real families and communities.”

Two Made to Flourish pastors in Kansas City have participated in this simulation.  This is what they had to say:

“Think Tank’s COPE not only taught me how to see the systemic barriers for those entrenched in poverty, but I also got an emotional taste of the weight of poverty. Through the time of teaching, the exercise, and debrief, I have come to better see families and individuals who are wrestling to make ends meet through hard work and little to no wages. As a pastor, I not only knew better how to pray, but how to act. I not only felt empathy, but had a better sense of how to affirm the work of those entrenched in poverty. This experience will not only change your church, it might just change your neighborhood.” — Gabe Coyle, Christ Community Church, Pastor

“I’ve been in simulations where the environment was replicated, but I’ve never been in a simulation where the decision-making and emotional demands were replicated. COPE made me face decisions I’ve never had to make before, and I too quickly made some decisions that I’ve criticized others under the poverty line for making. I also saw ways the church presents itself irrelevant and new ways the church must be relevant. I can’t wait to bring others through this experience.” — Dr. Colby E. Kinser, Grace Fellowship Church, Pastor

When I first met Marlo Fox, Executive Director of Think Tank, I was blown away by this simulation that allows participants to be incarnational; a simulation that offers participants a glimpse into the lives of low-income individuals and families living in our community.  I was further blown away when she told me that the case studies that participants actually live out in this 2.5 hour simulation are based on true stories of the socio-economically disadvantaged. Sometimes the people whose stories are role played in COPE actually participate along with COPE participants by playing resource roles and facilitating or co-facilitating the COPE experience. And Think Tank compensates them for participating in this way.  What a wonderful way to bestow dignity on the poor!

The cost of the COPE experience varies based on location and whether it is included as part of a church-based strategic process for community flourishing known as ACTS.  For churches that wish to engage in this process to reshape their community ministries around holistic principles of poverty alleviation – there are additional tools and coaching that could be made available through the ACTS process. One such pastor did just that.  Kirk Lithander, a Made to Flourish City Director in Dayton, started out with COPE and then engaged with the ACTS process to bake their learnings into the DNA of their church.  Lithander said,

“The Cost of Poverty Experience was a transformable awakening for me!  For the first time ever I got a short glimpse of what it is like to be living in the “tyranny of urgency.”  I was not prepared for the dehumanizing treatment and constant battle of soul defeating struggles of the life of a person in poverty.  Just as COPE opened-up all of me to catapult me into my journey into the unfamiliar arena of poverty alleviation; ACTS strategic process has opened hearts, equipped and is transforming our staff and congregation at Fairhaven Church.  

ACTS has helped us transition out of being a mere transactional approach of “Giving To” in our benevolence ministries and “Doing For” our neighbors through our Community Service and Local Outreach ministries.  Fairhaven has ramped up!  Our focus is now on building relationships to “Do With”; an example is our Community Outreach Ministry for the under resourced.  Our church volunteers commit  to sharing skills, talents, life experiences and goals (“Doing With”) together in community and they also help in addressing local and national barriers of poverty (“Advocating With”) affecting our underserved friends and neighbors. The DNA of Fairhaven Church has forever been transformed through the ACTS strategic process.”

As the title suggests, this is an immersion experience worth investing in. For more information on these resources please visit their website.


Topics: City Engagement, Poverty, Shalom

About the Author

Luke Bobo serves as director of strategic partnerships at Made to Flourish. He worked for 15 years in the marketplace as an engineer before earning his M.Div. and Ph.D., eventually serving as the executive director of the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary.