We were people who had driven by poverty all of our lives. We collided with an impoverished man and he taught us how to change the world.
He existed anonymously and silently in a homeless shelter with hundreds of other men in downtown Phoenix. Once a month, as a mission of our church, a youth group and adult mentors brought breakfast to these men.
One morning, one of these men stepped out of line, walked toward us and through a wall of poverty humbly asked for something. He did not ask for money. Looking back, we know he was asking to be part of a community, to be surrounded by people who help each other live into their human potential. That day, he asked for this: Would I be able to worship at your church? His name was Ernie and with him was his wonder cat named Cutie Pie.
We picked Ernie up the next morning and brought him to our congregation. We worshipped there and it was beautiful. Ernie wanted to come back. We picked him up every week for some months, sometimes stopping on the way for a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s. As we learned about each other, we began to realize that we were much more alike than different. The only thing that really separated us was our circumstances.
We visited the shelter where Ernie lived to understand his case plan to leave poverty and be restored to the community. We learned that there are many programs and they are all disconnected silos. Each program seemed to solve one problem but didn’t link together to create a comprehensive, step by step plan for self-sufficiency.
It was our choice — Leave Ernie at the shelter, knowing there was little hope of his restoration, or beyond any action we had imagined when we met him, tell Ernie we would take the journey to self-sufficiency and restoration with him. And that is exactly what we told Ernie at the shelter that day: We will do this together. And, because of Ernie, we became people who no longer wanted to drive by poverty. We wanted to change it!
In the beginning, we had no idea how to help Ernie become self-sufficient. But we knew a lot about his needs: healthcare, occupation, finance, transportation, housing to name a few. We also knew nearly everyone in our congregation had life experiences in all of these areas and some had professional expertise. So we told people we intended to write a business plan with Ernie for what he wanted his life to look like in a year. And we invited people to join a team that would help him implement his plan.
Each team member took primary responsibility for one part of his plan, including finance, education/occupation, healthcare, housing, transportation/insurance and others. We wrote the plan with Ernie and met weekly to implement it. We held each other accountable and connected to our own social and business networks for goods and services, including dentistry, legal and job opportunities. In eight months, Ernie became self-sufficient and told us he wanted to take charge of his own life.
When Ernie became independent as a result of his Table, he was financially self-sufficient, had a working automobile and owned a mobile home. The youth in our church held a car wash to raise the $2,000 cost of the mobile home he wanted to purchase. Ernie signed a no-interest, three-year loan note and we held a lien on the mobile home. On the fourth month, Ernie paid off the note and became one of the few outright homeowners in our congregation!
Though Ernie’s Table has ended, our lifelong friendships endure. We gather with him every four to six weeks for a meal and to catch up. Ernie emails photos of his cats, we talk on the phone. We are in each others lives. We are there for Ernie and we know he is there for us.
Now, in Open Table, those families that follow Ernie are also being restored.