The Olasky Interview: James Whitford


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, May 8th.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The Olasky Interview.

Today a conversation about poverty fighting.

It’s with James Whitford, who with his wife, Marsha, co-founded the Watered Gardens Gospel Rescue Mission in Joplin, Missouri. Whitford recently sat down with WORLD Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky to talk about fighting poverty in America’s heartland. This interview took place in front of students at Patrick Henry College.

MARVIN OLASKY, EDITOR IN CHIEF: Okay. First question, Watered Gardens, why that name?

JAMES WHITFORD: We’re not a lawn and garden care center, I’ll tell you that. We’ve gotten calls like that before. “Do you sell birdbaths down there?” No, we don’t, but it comes out of the Bible, and it’s in the book of Isaiah, chapter 58. God is actually chastising His people for just going to church and that’s all and not doing any more. He goes on to say, “Is this is not the path that I’ve chosen for you to feed the hungry, to shelter the poor, to clothe the naked, to welcome the poor into your house. And then you’ll be like a watered garden and like a spring whose waters never fail.” So the name of our ministry is really dealing with a blessing that is promised to God’s people when they’re busy doing what God wants them to do and helping people who are struggling. So that’s always been our heartbeat from the very beginning Dr. Olasky is to see the Church at work ministering to people who are in need. Believing that the church is the carrier of the gospel of Christ really does have the answer for man’s plight today.

OLASKY: So you’re deeply rooted now in Joplin. When my wife and I visited there several years ago, we saw the path of the tornado which roared right through Joplin and took out lots of homes. How did that affect your work when that disaster happened?

WHITFORD: What was really amazing about that time is to see everybody just coming together in a time of need like that. It reminds me of Edward Devine, Charity Organization Society general secretary, like 1897, said that we really do tend to think a little too much of the systems that we’ve created for charity and that if none of those systems for relief were there, probably most, if not all, the need would be met through spontaneous volunteer effort of neighbors and local community, and we saw that. That was I guess, the silver lining to the cloud was to see so much compassion poured out immediately from that local area.

OLASKY: So how did you start training people in the community to think in these terms?

WHITFORD: Well, we thought we’ve got to figure out a way to begin to connect organizations and churches and likeminded missions together in a community so that we can make sure we’re doing a better job of stewarding our resources effectively but also targeting out charity more accurately to really make sure we’re helping people was enormously helpful, and especially when the tornado came. We already had about 30 organizations connected online talking. So we were already very united in a collaborative effort, and that grew about another 30 organizations that came on board. So… we do lunch and learns and events and things like that and bring leaders together in that area to talk about rethinking charity. That it’s got to be more than just guttural compassion at work. That there really has to be some thought behind what we do if we’re going to effectively help people out of poverty.

OLASKY: Tell us about that. How do you get people thinking in terms of what the effect actually is on the poor as opposed to what the effect is on the giver?

WHITFORD: We teach these five steps to dependency that Robert Lupton wrote in his book “Toxic Charity” that if you give something to somebody once, they’ll have an appreciation for it. If you give it to them again, they’ll have an anticipation that you’ll do it a third time. If you give it a third time, they’ll have an expectation that you’ll do it a fourth. If you give it a fourth time, they’re going to feel entitled to it, whatever it is, and a fifth time, they’ll be dependent on you for it. Well, those things make a lot of sense, and I think people that are wrestling with some of the downside of charity that may not have a lot of thought behind it, when they hear those and are educated along those lines, some lights begin to come on, and they’ll change the way they’re practicing.

OLASKY: What’s wrong with feeling entitled to it? After all, this is a big country. In God’s kindness, it’s a rich country. Why shouldn’t we just give without asking any questions and let other people enjoy without necessarily having to work the bounty that we have.

WHITFORD: Well, I don’t think that it’s God’s design for us as people to simply be on the receiving end of someone else’s benevolence. We are, as Christians, to be a part of the entire redemptive process that is at work right now. So we know from reading the book of Romans, chapter 8 I think, there’s a groaning in the earth and things are not as they should be, but there’s a process under way of redemption that will become complete. And as carriers of the kingdom here on earth that is quite astray from where it ought to be, we have a role to play in the whole redemptive process, and if I can help others be redeemed from the position that they’re in or the struggles that they’re in, I have a responsibility to that end, and it plays into the whole redemption of creation. So how can I just feed or just clothe without digging deeper, spending more time, investing more of my own life to try to really help someone who’s in need?

OLASKY: I hear you saying that we understand enough about human nature from reading the Bible that in fact we are going to be happier being productive than just taking. You believe there is a way that the lives of these individuals who come can be improved. So your goal is not to keep them in poverty but challenge them to come out of poverty. How do you educate a community to think in those terms when in fact so much of the teaching we get goes counter to that?

WHITFORD: Well, there’s a number of things that we share with people. In the Journal of Applied Psychology, 2015, a study of more than 6,000 adults unemployed for more than four years but sustained by the state in another country. No work, but they’ve got everything that they need, and they measure five key psychometric measures. There were three of them: agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. They all dropped significantly compared to a control group. So they’re pointing to grumpiness as a result of people that are just not working. So we can give you everything that you need but it’s not makes a person flourish. It’s not having all of the basics. Part of flourishing comes in production and work. In fact, in our mission, we have a worth shop. We call it a worth shop because we believe that work awakens worth in people’s lives. So, let’s start with work on the front end of charity and then see what our outcomes are after that.

OLASKY: So what are the key parts of the True Charity Initiative?

WHITFORD: Well, a connection within a community. So we do a lot of different PSAs where we’re coupling compassion and common sense for radio listeners and TV viewers in our region to begin to rethink charity. That’s a big part of it. Lastly though, my hope is that we can see communities form up in that way where they’re rethinking charity, practicing in a different way, connected well together, and that that might set the stage for some policy change that would make sense where people aren’t able to just go down to the welfare office and say, “I want to sign up for a SNAP card that I can go buy whatever I want at whatever store,” but maybe first, I’m going to go to the local food pantry that’s going to engage me in a way where they really care.”

REICHARD: That’s poverty-fighter James Whitford speaking with WORLD’s Marvin Olasky.


(Photo/Handout, James Whitford)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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