Thursday, March 09, 2006

Garth George: Praise be for helping hand of faith-based organisations

An exciting thing is happening in the delivery of social services in New Zealand, and if it takes root and flourishes it will change the face of the care given to such needy groups as people with mental problems and wayward youth.

It seems that the Government is losing its dislike of faith-based organisations which are ready and willing to contribute to the alleviation of the suffering inherent in floundering state health and welfare systems.

So far it seems - and if I'm wrong let me know - that this development is confined to Christchurch.

But it is only to be hoped that it spreads throughout the rest of the country and that faith-based groups begin to play a greater "official" part in providing care for those in desperate need.

That can only be good, mainly because faith-based groups recognise that there is a spiritual dimension to such disabilities as alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, mental suffering and out-of-control children and youth.

They know that human beings are three-dimensional - body, mind and spirit - and that any attempt to treat just the body and mind is generally doomed to fail.

So they unashamedly introduce the spiritual dimension to the care and/or treatment they provide.

On top of that, these faith-based groups are managed and staffed by people who themselves have faith and for whom the outworking of that faith is to do what they can to help others, often without thought for themselves.

They are not in it for the money or for career advancement; they are not watching their backs or trying to climb or jump over those higher up the tree.

They are simply devoted to doing what their Lord commanded them to do - "to heal the broken-hearted ... to set at liberty them that are bruised".

So let's look at a couple of examples.

Back in 1989 a community worker with Spreydon Baptist Church promoted the idea of providing accommodation and rehabilitation for young people with mental illness - a supportive place to stay as part of a process to help people move independently into the community.

He and a handful of like-minded people prayed and researched resources for about a year before setting up the first house.

Today, Stepping Stone Trust, as it came to be known, is one of the biggest non-government providers of social services in Christchurch.

It continues to be part of the community ministries of Spreydon Baptist and in the past 12 months has experienced dramatic growth.

The trust has 120 staff - a 50 per cent increase over the previous year - and a Government-supplied budget of $4.5 million.

It operates 11 houses and nine flats providing 73 beds - a 60 per cent increase over the previous year - and works with 250 clients at any one time.

It provides 24-hour rehabilitation and has a diverse range of services to help people at various stages, whether just discharged from hospital or living independently but needing support.

Though it began with a focus on young people, it also works with adults and has been moving to assist the elderly.

About 50 of the staff are clinically trained, including nurses, social workers and occupational therapists; 40 have relevant degrees or diplomas and the rest are support workers.

Says director Glenn Dodson in an interview with the independent and non-denominational Christian newspaper Challenge Weekly: "Health officials are giving greater recognition to the impact of spiritual issues in people's lives, to the role of families in treating mental health, a lot broader view of what people's needs are, rather than just looking at mental health in isolation, which has often been the case up to now. We have a team to do this.

"We have kept a strong spiritual base. Staff pray together, we recognise the spirituality in each person who comes for care. We are upfront with the Government and the local district health board that we are a Christian service.

"The Ministry of Health seems to have greater expectation that organisations have to engage the spiritual. Official recognition of Maori spirituality has helped us in this regard. There has been a philosophical shift at policy level, encouraging us to be proactive in this area.

"I want," says Mr Dodson, "to take the best of the medical world and the best of the Christian world and bring them together to make something new."

Amen to that.

Not far away, the Christchurch branch of the nationwide parachurch OAC Ministries is involved in taking problem children on five-day camps, usually 70 or 80 at a time. Children are being referred to the camps by school principals, social workers and Child Youth and Family.

In an interview with Challenge Weekly, OAC's director Marty Scheib opines that the problem of having few places to which to refer problem children is causing social workers and other officials to rethink their reservations about Christian ministries.

Although it was acceptance with stipulations, he said, the important thing was that the camps worked.

"Agencies see that and put up with the Christian side of it because to a degree it is working."

OAC had surprisingly few discipline problems at the camps, although it took children from the more difficult end of the spectrum, and included in its formula for success were structure, fun, keeping the kids well fed - and prayer.

"We never underestimate the importance of prayer ... We send out a list of kids' first names to as many prayer people as possible and we certainly notice the difference as a result," said Mr Scheib.

Now, how's all that for good news?

* Garth George is editor of Challenge Weekly

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