For the last four years, the Rev. Pat Cannon has lived, breathed, and ministered in “the oh-four” – Toledo’s 43604 ZIP Code – which he called the poorest in Toledo and one of the 10 poorest neighborhoods in the nation.
The pastor of That Neighborhood Church, on the corner of Ontario and Bush streets in Toledo’s near north end, Cannon is waging a war against generational poverty, devoting his energy and his prayers to making an impact that will change lives.
“You’re not going to be able to help everyone, but you can do for one what you would wish to do for many,” Cannon said Tuesday night (May 6) at a Generational Poverty Training meeting. About 60 people, mostly white, middle class Christians like Cannon, attended the talk at Toledo’s Corpus Christi University Parish to learn about the problem and what can be done to help.
It’s a war that has been going on for at least 50 years, since President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in 1964. But the battles are still raging in neighborhoods like the ’04, where Cannon said the average person attending his church earns about $10,000 a year.
It’s not all about the money, Cannon said. In fact, money is just a tiny part of the generational poverty problem. It’s’ mainly about people who, for a variety of reasons, are doing without resources.
Shelly Bartlett, the church’s youth minister and pastor of ministry development, defined generational poverty as someone whose family has been entrenched in poverty for at least two generations. “Situational poverty,” on the other hand, can come and go swiftly as the result of job and family transitions.
She said those trapped in generational poverty have a “cultural mindset” – the way they approach life – that can be difficult to change. They lack basic resources that many Americans take for granted, from a “support system” to an education to emotional stability.
Many don’t have cars and live in a world typically limited to a five-square-block area, she said.
They are “very giving,” Bartlett said, and see money as something to spend immediately. Why save money, she said, when their future appears to offer three bleak options: prison, death, or gangs.
Cannon said the neighborhood where his church ministers is bounded roughly by the Greenbelt Parkway, Summit Street, Cherry Street, and the former Riverside Hospital.
The lack of education is a big obstacle to breaking out of poverty, and only half the people in the ‘04 will graduate from high school, Cannon said. Many lack the basic life skills to hold a job because nobody taught them how to hold a businesslike conversation, to set an alarm clock, or practice personal hygiene.
Bartlett said most Christian churches have abandoned the decaying urban neighborhoods and moved to the suburbs years ago. But those who do reach out to help the disadvantaged inner-city residents “are ministering to people who are hugely on God’s heart,” she said.
She said everyone asks her when she is going to leave, “because everybody else leaves.”
“They don’t want to get to know you if you’re going to leave,” she added.
There is “a lot of mistrust down in the ’04,” Cannon said. “It took us a good three years to get respect.”
Bartlett’s face beamed when she talked about the people being ministered to by That Neighborhood Church.
“I’m a Christ-follower. I’m a total Jesus freak,” she said. “People can see a light. They can see a completely different way of seeing things.”
Cannon, who has his church’s motto tattooed on an inner forearm — “Love God, Love People, Prove it” — has been in ministry for 30 years and started working in the North Toledo neighborhood eight years ago. He and his wife, Kelly, have four children and moved into the neighborhood four years ago.
In addition to holding Bible studies, children’s, men’s, and women’s ministries, and a Saturday night service (because nobody gets up for a Sunday morning service in the ’04, Cannon explained), That Neighborhood Church runs a number of outreach programs to meet the immediate needs of its neighbors:
- A food pantry that gave 3,000 bags of groceries to 1,351 families last year.
- A free medical clinic that opened Jan. 14.
- Free hot meals every Wednesday night, with 4,886 meals served in 2013.
- A clothing closet that gave away 2,000 bags of clean clothing last year.
- A free outdoor BBQ every Friday night in the summer.
The church is also planning to open a vocational training school this year, as well as a transitional “empowering” housing program and a “drop-in center” where prostitutes will have a safe place to get food, take a shower, rest, and receive clothing and personal care items.
Cannon said 96 percent of That Neighborhood Church’s annual budget of $150,700 comes from outside of the 43604 neighborhood. Like most urban ministries, the church can always use more money and volunteers, and seeks to keep expanding its programs. “We’re not standing still. We’re moving forward. We need to become a seven-day-a-week church,” he said. “When suburbanites come alongside urbanites, it’s a huge kingdom win” because stereotypes on both sides are broken down.
While the community’s needs are many, Cannon said the goal is not just to give things away but to give them a chance to break the bonds of poverty on their own.
“Just giving people stuff can be toxic,” he said. “God created us to create. We are created with a work ethic. If it’s not there then a big piece is missing.”
The key to helping people overcome generational poverty is to build relationships and to create environments where those who often feel neglected, abandoned or abused can instead feel love, trust, and safety, and not be judged.
“We can’t fix anybody, but we can create an environment where you can choose to change yourself,” he said.
Among those at the talk were Owen Riley, 21, who graduated from the University of Toledo just days ago with an economics and mathematics degree. He will be serving a year with the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky’s Floyd County.
“I had a chance to experience a lot of this in Toledo and in Kentucky,” he said of the poverty descriptions. “What he said reinforces much of what I’ve learned.”
Kathy Savord said she went to the lecture because she is retiring soon and is “looking for creative avenues for my next adventure.”