Rochester, N.Y.

Disrupting poverty through discipling relationships

By the Rev. Alan Newton

The day of our first meeting, my mentee admitted to me that he was nervous.

“This man is going to run the other way once he hears my story,” he thought.

He was only a few months out of federal prison. He had no job, no immediate prospects of a job, few family supports and a history of depression. The meeting was a meet-and-greet arranged by Focus Plus Mentoring, a program that pairs volunteers from the faith communities of Rochester, N.Y., with individuals who have made a commitment to take steps toward self-sufficiency.
 Volunteer mentors commit to giving one hour a week for at least six months to support individuals in meeting goals they set in education, employment, transportation, family stability, well-being, and financial security. The Focus Plus Mentoring Program is based on the Mobility Mentoring® process developed by EMPath, a nonprofit organization in Boston.
 Faith communities have great interest in reducing poverty in their communities, resulting in the donations of sometimes significant funds to help address poverty symptoms. Food banks, clothing drives, community meals and emergency assistance have been important ways to support persons who are unable to fully support themselves or their families. However, these well-intentioned efforts have done little to reduce poverty. In many instances, these efforts have made the situation worse by increasing dependency rather than increasing self-sufficiency.
 Mentoring provides the opportunity for a church to build relationships with persons who live in the neighborhood — sometimes right next door. It allows a church to become the supportive community that these families need. The weekly mentoring meetings allow for deepening conversations that move beyond achieving goals to deeper more personal questions about life and faith.
 In the past year, Focus Plus Mentoring has paired approximately 50 individuals with mentors. Success is measured by the achievement of the goals set by those being mentored.
 The foundational principle of mentoring is “love thy neighbor.” Mentors enter the relationship without assumptions or predeterminations but rather a willingness to unconditionally receive the other as they are and to support their mentee in moving forward in fulfilling their hopes and dreams.
 My mentee and I have been meeting weekly for six months. During this time, he has moved from crisis management to goal achievement. The first months were spent stabilizing his immediate needs for housing and other necessities. He has completed a job-training program in health care and re-established a relationship with his 8-year-old daughter. He has cleared up outstanding debt, purchased a car, insured it and obtained a permit to regain his driver’s license.
 Reflecting on his experience, my mentee shared that, while hesitant at first, he found it to be one of the best decisions he made.

“At times, I felt like giving up, but my mentor was there to keep me focused — so much so that I have graduated from the community health care program,” he said. “I actually told everyone in my class to sign up for a mentor, but I am not sure if they did. If they didn’t, that’s definitely their loss.”
 As for me, I have marveled at my mentee’s tenacity, despite the obstacles that society has placed in his way. I have learned from him the importance of sticking up for one’s self when facing injustice. And I know that I can count on him to be there for me in the same way that I have tried to be there for him.
 If the church wants to impact the lives of persons living in poverty, it will be through the building of discipling relationships — those that begin where the person is and support him or her in achieving his or her goals.

The Rev. Alan Newton is executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Rochester Genesee region. He has also served churches in Wisconsin and Rhode Island. In 2015, he worked with others to create the nonprofit Focus Plus Mentoring, part of a community collaboration that received a federal Health Professional Opportunity Grant to help low-income persons find employment in health-related fields.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.