street saints

Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities by Barbara J. Elliott

Some of the world’s greatest people are largely unknown, for they accomplish positive, life-changing deeds in quiet, unannounced ways. Their work is unreported and largely unknown outside their immediate circle of influence. A great number of such people lack political connections and every characteristic of celebrity, and their only claim to recognition springs from one small source: they desire to help others in practical, uplifting ways, often in obedience to God. They are the men and women who work in faith-based initiatives in America’s cities, and their lives affirm the belief articulated by St. James, that faith without works is dead.

In Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities, Barbara J. Elliott tells the stories of these Christian servants in a straightforward, warts-and-all manner, revealing their life stories, struggles, and triumphs. An authority on civic renewal, Elliott has interviewed hundreds of activists (predominantly Christian) working amid conditions of squalor and hopelessness who are seeking to fashion a sense of order, faith, and community-mindedness that has been long forgotten in many inner-city neighborhoods.

These “street saints” have learned, as one such man told former Sen. Daniel R. Coats (writer of the book’s foreword), that while government programs can accomplish many things, those programs cannot change the human heart. For that change to occur, the hand of God must be at work, moving to heal, to correct, to straighten, and to uplift. And that is where faithful people, working with imagination, patience, and a great deal of shoulder-to-the-wheel effort, enter to point the poor in spirit to the source of their hope.

To cite one example among many, Elliott introduces the reader to Kathy Foster and Bill Jones, founders of Casa de Esperanza de los Niños (Children’s House of Hope) in Houston. Casa de Esperanza was established to be a refuge and place of nurture for babies born to drug-addicted mothers, toddlers who are physically abused, and children with AIDS. At Casa de Esperanza, these medically fragile and emotionally disturbed children are, in Elliott’s words, placed “in homes to be intensely nurtured in a family-like setting saturated with love.” The challenges of tending to these children on a day-to-day basis are tough and the cost—in terms of patience, if nothing else—is high.

At Casa de Esperanza, Foster, a former nun and social worker, and Jones, an infant development specialist, “saw the turmoil of families in crisis, and the abuse of parents under stress they could not manage.” Elliott describes how they took action: “With $500 in donated seed money, the two of them took a small house in Houston’s Third Ward that had been gutted in a crack cocaine fire, with dumpsters on one side and an abandoned vacant lot on the other. They thought it was perfect. Some friends put up sheetrock; others painted and fixed the plumbing. Another friend who was a pediatric nurse agreed to help care for children on the day shift. Babies began to come to them, some left in phone booths, others in dumpsters. Social workers warned Kathy, ‘You’re taking the worst children in the city.’ She replied, ‘That’s exactly what we hope to do.’”

The author goes on to describe the success Casa de Esperanza has seen, where children’s inborn need for loving human contact and interaction is restored and nurtured. She tells of one child in particular, an infant boy named Daniel, who, upon first coming to the center, would not eat. A doctor diagnosed him as a “failure-to-thrive baby:” a child who senses from before birth that he is unwanted and unloved, and (in effect) seeks to end his own life by not eating. (Daniel’s young mother was a rape victim and a drug-abuser who had attempted unsuccessfully to abort her baby.) The doctor explained to Kathy Foster that even if the baby were fed through IVs, he would still die since he did not want to live. Learning this, the staff and volunteers at Casa de Esperanza vowed “to love this kid so much that he would know he was loved and wanted.” In the months that followed, Daniel was cuddled, spoken to, held, comforted, and in time adopted by a supportive, virtuous family, growing into “a radiant child, beaming with joy and love.” Foster concludes Daniel’s story triumphantly: “This child will be graduating from college soon. It is no wonder the great Apostle St. Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, ‘In the end there remains, faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.’”

This is but one of many such stories in Street Saints, wherein two remarkable characteristics emerge: first, lives are changed for the better; secondly, the street saints set out to accomplish these changes through personal sacrifice, grit, and a Father-Brown-like identification with the common humanity—with all its glory and shame—of those they help. Their sense of mission is directed and strengthened through prayer, hard work, and appeals to the local community, without extending their hands to the state, municipal, or federal government for block-grants and matching-funds at every turn.

But the most striking aspect of Elliott’s book is the contrast that springs to mind, implied but not stated bluntly, between the Christianity of “cheap grace” (in theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term) and the Christianity of the changed heart. All too many of today’s churches provide mere lip-service to the Christian life, providing entertaining spectacles and shallow and catchy songs, all geared toward a “Christian life” that bears little relation to the transcendent truth of the Gospel. In contrast, Elliott portrays men and women who have rejected lives of convention and ease to live among the poor, the unskilled, the abandoned, the illiterate, imprisoned criminals, recovering substance-abusers, at-risk children: people who make the fair-weather Christian uncomfortable. Anyone who takes up Street Saints with the foolish idea that Christianity is the domain of cowards who cannot confront the “real world” is in for a remarkable education.

Elliott concludes her series of inspirational true-life stories by citing the contact information of numerous faith-based ministries, adding:

Anyone who goes to serve with street saints discovers the joy that comes from being in their presence—refreshment from their contagious laughter and their spiritual warmth that beckons. We all have time, talent, or treasure to give. The question is whether we are willing.

The call is urgent. The need is great, but the joy in fulfilling it is even greater. Go, as Mother Teresa urged us, and do “something beautiful for God.” What you do is less important than how you do it. She said, “There are no great deeds. Only small deeds done with great love.”

Just so. In considering the high costs and genuine rewards of performing the work Elliott so ably describes in Street Saints, the reader may well think of T. S. Eliot’s description of the Christian life: “A condition of absolute simplicity / (Costing not less than everything).”

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