Delegates and visitors to the 2012 United Methodist General Conference had the opportunity to step away from their regular business and broaden their perspectives on the issue of poverty.
From May 1 to 4, a poverty-immersion experience took place in a Tampa Convention Center ballroom. For two hours, participants took on the role of a low-income person through the looking glass of one month in that person's life.
Think Tank has dreamed up the Circles Initiative, what they consider to be a "real world" solution to poverty. As the number of families living in poverty in the United States continues to grow, the Circles Initiative is an attempt to bridge the gap between haves and have-nots by building relationships.
The Circles program brings together lower-, middle- and upper-income people in a six-month alliance. Located at 70 sites in 24 states across the nation, plus one hub in Canada, Circles sites schedule weekly meetings where people come together, have dinner and then discuss personal and community poverty issues. One lower-income person is matched with several middle- and upper-income allies, all of whom agree to be in relationship for six months.
The idea is that through conversation and friendship, the group can work together to solve individual poverty problems, then spread outward, ultimately tackling community concerns and other bigger-picture poverty systems.
"We don't want to put a bandage on it," said the Rev. Don Ford, a United Methodist pastor who is part of the Circles site in Pagosa Springs, Colo. "We want to suture the wound."
Karin VanZant, Circles CEO, said the project is an opportunity to dispel misconceptions about those who live in poverty, discourage the notion of a quick fix to systemic poverty and bring an understanding of the challenges faced by people living below the poverty line.
For example, obtaining a minimum-wage job at McDonald's or Starbucks does not mean a financial problem is alleviated. Sometimes, VanZant said, it is worsened.
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"They go to human services to sign up for food stamps and find out, 'Oh, you have a part-time job; you are not eligible for food stamps.' And they say, 'What do you mean? I only make $400 a month,'" she said.
By helping people become more aware of the multitude of obstacles facing those who live in poverty - from governmental red tape to low-paying jobs that prohibit aid - people understand why welfare, drug-dealing or payday lenders are sometimes the difference between a downward slope and survival.
Circles organizers hope the poverty simulation will spark thinking in the participants, who might go back to their communities eager to learn more about what they can do to alleviate poverty, and perhaps, even start a Circles site themselves.
When people begin to care on a more personal level, they tend to have greater passion and think in a bigger way about how to solve problems long-term, VanZant said.
While she knows a two-hour role-playing exercise is quite different from having a brother living in a homeless shelter or a cousin on food stamps, having to experience the emotion of a personal journey is a step in the right direction.
The two-hour exercise was built to challenge the paradigms participants might have about low-income people, VanZant said. "The whole intention is to create an anxiety level among participants so they have an emotional reaction and can carry that with them when they walk out of the room."
After the simulation, the group leaders ask intentional questions to spark thinking: How did you feel? Imagine if this is your real life. What would you do to break the cycle?
VanZant shared that one participant with a master's degree lamented that she could not figure out how to navigate human services after her child was taken away during the simulation. VanZant said she hopes The United Methodist Church will use this simulation to help build awareness on the broad issues encompassed in poverty.
"I would love to see the day when poverty awareness becomes a part of every outreach committee on the local church level. Where they have at least one day a year to challenge their congregation and their community to get involved," she said. "A lot of the outreach focus of some of our churches tends to be events&ellipsis;instead of something that is ongoing."
The Circles Initiative is eager to build conversation starters to equip missionaries and outreach workers to be in ministry with the poor and hopes to see each annual (regional) conference start poverty elimination initiatives in the next two years.
The Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference has nine sites actively participating in the Circles Initiative and is moving to start other sites in the near future. Circles is also in talks with several other conferences throughout the United States to start programs for their communities.
*Nimmons is a communications specialist for the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference and Connor is editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.
News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.