It’s one of the strangest passages in Scripture. A crippled man waits at the Pool of Bethesda for someone to put him in the pool’s healing waters. When Jesus arrives, he doesn’t immediately put the man in the pool, however, but asks him what might seem an impertinent question: “Do you want to be made whole?”
This story means a great deal to Colin Pinkney, who runs The Harvest Center in Charlotte, N.C. In fact, he’s adopted the question as the motto for his organization.
“‘Whole’ to us means that when you get the help you need, you’re going to be able to help somebody else,” Pinkney says. “That you’ve been crippled all these years, but now you’re going to be able to walk. When you’re able to walk, then you can go to work. You can give back. You can serve in the community. You can be involved in the church. You can give your life away, just like we give our lives away.”
It’s a model that seems to be working. The Harvest Center began more than 30 years ago as a “feeding ministry” in the most violent neighborhoods in Charlotte. The west side neighborhood was an open drug market, plagued by poverty and homelessness.
But merely handing out food, while admirable and sometimes necessary, did nothing to break the cycle of brokenness in the neighborhood. That’s why The Harvest Center now provides clothing, groceries, transitional housing, and after-school programs. In 2011, The Harvest Center began offering job-readiness and life skills for adults transitioning to self-sufficiency. Its transitional housing program now serves 20 to 30 people a year. A new rent subsidy program will help 50 to 60 more move from homelessness to self-sufficiency. In all, more than 4,000 people take advantage of Harvest Center’s services each year.
Pinkney believes that restoring families and helping fathers “step up” are the keys to success.
“Fatherhood is the silver bullet, if there is one,” Pinkney says. It’s “what I’ve lived out in my life—personally, professionally, even in ministry.” Pinkney is the seventh of nine children, and his father abandoned the family when he was 9.
“When I look at the things that continually plague us, the communities that we serve, the high-poverty populations, the homeless population, the single-parent household population, it’s clear there is a fathering issue in our nation,” Pinkney says. “I believe that is the big opportunity for ministries like ours, and churches, to understand and appreciate the value of fathers in our communities.”
Pinkney himself is the father of six, and the bookshelf in his office is filled with books on fathering. When he served as the president of the PTA at his children’s school, Pinkney led a seminar on effective fathering. More than 100 people showed up, and the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools asked him to conduct the seminar at other schools in the area.
Pinkney, however, is quick to acknowledge that he doesn’t do the work of The Harvest Center alone. He leads a full-time staff of 12 and oversees a budget of $850,000. Last year, about 600 volunteers passed through the organization’s doors, mostly from local churches.
But one form of help The Harvest Center won’t accept is government money. “Zero,” Pinkney says emphatically. The Center’s funds come from individuals, churches, and a surprising number of corporate sponsors, including the Movement Foundation, which channels the profits of Charlotte-based Movement Mortgage into Christ-centered organizations. (Look for more on Movement Mortgage and its founder, former NFL player Casey Crawford, in a future “Restoring All Things” column.)
In addition to his collection of books on fathering, Pinkney also keeps an eye out for volumes on leadership and on effective charitable giving. Two favorites are Bob Lupton’s “Toxic Charity” and “When Helping Hurts,” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. They demonstrate that people must be challenged to play an active role in their own restoration, and that any help provided has got to be temporary. The goal is not to give people stuff, which will make them dependent on that stuff, but to allow them to become self-sufficient, no longer dependent on charity or the social welfare system. Most important, helping must have a spiritual component. It must acknowledge that material brokenness is a symptom of spiritual brokenness—that if you don’t work on the underlying spiritual issues, you’ll never permanently solve the material financial issues.
Most organizations that work with the poor fail—not because they don’t have enough money, but because they forget one or more of these principles. They forget that services must be delivered in a context of relationships. Everyone is different. To put it in theological terms, we’re all fallen, we’re all broken, but we’re all broken in different ways. One size truly does not fit all. This is one of the things that makes The Harvest Center different from a social service organization. It takes these individual needs into account.
That’s why, Pinkney says, “We’ve actually eliminated certain ministries as a result of getting informed by those ideas. We realized that if we aren’t empowering people, then we aren’t helping people. We’ve gotten away from entitlement-modeled ministry, and every chance we get, we’re looking to really boost empowerment through all of our ministries.”
Pinkney brings our conversation back to the story of Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda. “I always think of that story as we evaluate our work,” he says. “We’re asking tough questions. We’re having to reeducate this community to a better way than what they’ve been receiving in the past. Questions like, ‘What’s the best, and right way to do this?’ ‘Are we doing Christ-centered work, or are we just doing social-services work, but not really changing lives? Just passing people along?’”
He concludes: “We want to be not in the housing or the feeding business, but in the transformation business.”
Author’s Note: To hear my conversation with Colin Pinkney, which includes a walking tour of The Harvest Center, click here. And to share a story of what God is doing through His people to restore all things in your community, write me at email@example.com
Warren Cole Smith is an investigative journalist and author as well as the Colson Center vice- president for mission advancement.
Image courtesy of Colin Pinkney.