Poverty and Progress in America's Heartland: Religion and Social Services in 20th Century Indianapolis


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Poverty and Progress in America's Heartland: Religion and Social Services in 20th Century Indianapolis

  1. 1. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland: Religion and Social Services in 20th Century Indianapolis Prologue Occasional Paper Series vol. 1, no. 3
  2. 2. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland In the spring of 1893, Indianapolis lay evangelist William Wheeler frequently delivered open-air sermons to passersby. Although Wheeler was most concerned about saving lost souls, he could not help but notice that many of his sidewalk parishioners were hungry and poorly clad. Hoping to serve both their spiritual and physical needs, Wheeler and his wife established Wheeler Mission Ministries, known in the 1890s as Door of Hope. At the mission the poor listened to traditional evangelical sermons and received food and clothing. More than one hundred years later, Wheeler Mission Ministries continues to serve the city’s needy, even as the population has diversified and the programs it offers have broadened. Wheeler continues to be an important part of the city’s religious landscape because various faith traditions have historically viewed caring for the poor as a religious practice. Throughout the course of the 20th century, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews have carried on this practice in Indianapolis. At times faith communities have provided services not offered by other private or public agencies; at other times they have collaborated with the city’s other private and public agencies in addressing the needs of the larger society. Indianapolis residents inspired by their faith have provided many social services to the community. Their collective stories form an important chapter in the city’s history. SAVING THE CITY’S POOR In the late 19th century Indianapolis emerged as one of the nation’s leading cities. The city’s population grew rapidly as a large number of migrants from the upland south and a smaller number of immigrants from Europe sought employment in the expanding industrial sector. Both groups of newcomers believed that a better life would be found in the nation’s heartland. Yet, as William Wheeler observed, progress was all too often accompanied by poverty. Industrial expansion created opportunities and great riches for some and obstacles and drudgery for others. In Indianapolis and elsewhere migrant and immigrant residents often worked in industries where accidents were high and wages low. They often lived in neighborhoods where basic amenities were poor: houses built for single families frequently were divided among many families, and running water was a luxury. Even a short period of unemployment could send a family searching for basic necessities such as food and rent money. In Indianapolis the Township Trustees administered relief, but this meager public support covered only a small number of those in need. The poor who were left behind had no choice but to turn to voluntary organizations run by private citizens. Wheeler’s evangelical rescue mission, which sought to transform the poor by saving their souls, was one of many religious institutions serving the needy at the turn of the 20th century. The Salvation Army was another evangelical mission with a strong social program. Part of a national movement, the Army established its first Corps in the city in 1889 on east New York Street. An increasing number of mainline Protestants also offered services to the poor in response to the teachings of the Social Gospel, a national movement that tied individual salvation to social redemption. Moderate Social Gospelers provided basic material needs to the poor, including food and clothing, while more progressive advocates attacked other injustices, including low wages and long working hours. Though not all Protestants became advocates of the Social Gospel, The Polis Center at IUPUI 1
  3. 3. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland many of the Gospel’s methods became popular in Indianapolis, and an explosion of faith-based social service resulted. Fletcher Place Community Center and Mayer Chapel were among the city’s most prominent outposts of the devout Gospel. Not long after the turn of the century members of Fletcher Place United Methodist Church, located on the city’s south side, expressed concern that the once affluent single family houses surrounding their building were being turned into dilapidated rooming houses for the poor. It became clear to Fletcher’s members that a new kind of ministry was needed, and they responded in 1913 by establishing Fletcher Place Community Center. The Center quickly became one of the city’s key social service institutions, offering day nursery care for babies of working mothers, free dental and health clinics for anyone too poor to pay, and supervised recreation for children. In a typical year its clinics served more than 2,000 babies and 1,900 adults. Fletcher Place was not an anomaly. Not far away at Mayer Chapel, located at 448 West Norwood, members of the prosperous Second Presbyterian Church added an extensive social and recreational program to the Chapel’s already well-established religious services. Reflecting the Chapel’s new role as a neighbored center, its name was changed in 1917 to Mayer Chapel and Neighborhood House. RELIGIOUS BOUNDARIES: CATHOLIC AND JEWISH SOCIAL SERVICES The city’s Catholic population must have been enticed by the extensive social and recreational activities of Fletcher Place and Mayer Chapel because Catholic priests discouraged their parishioners from attending those Protestant institutions. In Indianapolis, as elsewhere, early 20th century Protestants frequently used social service programs to proselytize among Catholics and Jews, whom many Protestants believed would become “good citizens” only when they converted. Worried about the religious heritage of Catholic children and the future of their faith, Catholics in cities across the nation established parallel social service systems through which they proudly took care of “their own.” Although Catholics constituted less than 16 percent of the population in Indianapolis in 1906, they already had started building an impressive array of services to help the needy. Little Sisters of the Poor tended to the aged, for example, and the Good Shepherd Sisters provided care for orphans. Lay initiatives soon followed, including the Catholic Women’s Association, which in 1910 established a home for “friendless” girls. In 1919, Bishop Joseph Chartrand oversaw the creation of Catholic Charities, hoping to coordinate already existing Catholic social services and to encourage the development of new programs. The years following 1919 saw Catholics become key service providers, responding to the changing needs of the growing Catholic population. In 1921, St. Elizabeth’s Home for unwed mothers was established, and in the 1920s the Catholic Community Center became one of the city’s most recognizable institutions, offering a cafeteria, day nursery care, and emergency food and clothing. Although the city’s Jewish population was considerably smaller, Jewish leaders began offering charitable services almost as soon as they settled in the city. As early as the 1850s, when the Jewish community numbered less than 200 members, Rabbi Judah Wescslen encouraged the city’s Jewish women to serve the needy in their community. From this suggestion, the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society was born. It quickly became an integral part of the Jewish The Polis Center at IUPUI 2
  4. 4. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland community. As the Jewish population grew in the early 20th century, with Eastern European Jews joining the German Jews who had immigrated a half century earlier, other groups of Jewish women began programs. The South Side Hebrew Ladies Charity Organization, established Shelter House, a home for transient Jews. In 1904, another group of Jewish women founded the Nathan Morris House, a settlement house that honored the memory of an attorney active in Jewish charities who died attempting to rescue his young nephew from a house fire. With the rapid expansion of Jewish charitable efforts, the city’s rabbis began to believe that some kind of coordination among these programs was needed. In 1905, Rabbi Morris Feurlicht led the effort to create the Jewish Federation, an organization that coordinated the city’s various Jewish benevolent enterprises and centralized their fund raising. Jewish leaders took pride in taking care of their community, and they actively discouraged Jews from seeking support from the Township Trustees. For most of the 20th century, the Jewish Federation was the Jewish community’s most visible public presence. RELIGIOUS SOCIAL SERVICES For all that was so admirable about the city’s faith-based social service organizations, they often reflected and reinforced the inequalities of the larger city. No inequality loomed larger than the color line. African-Americans confronted the burden of race daily: it determined where they lived, where they worked, and even where they received social services. Among others, Wheeler Mission and the city’s YMCA centers strictly adhered to the color line, offering services only to the white population. The racial divide was fully brought to light when Christamore House leaders responded to the influx of African-Americans into their neighborhood during World War I by moving to a white neighborhood rather than serve the black population. Not until the late 1950s did either the YMCA or the YWCA become integrated, and only in 1960 did Wheeler fully open its doors to African-Americans. As was true in so many other areas of life, African-Americans responded to this discrimination by focusing inward. Black churches fulfilled some needs of their members, especially by providing clothing and food to the most desperate among them. But because the black population was largely poor, such efforts were limited. In response, white philanthropists and affluent African-Americans, including Drs. Henry L. Hummons and Dan H. Brown, raised funds for the Senate Avenue YMCA, an African-American branch which was established in 1902. In 1923, May B. Belcher proudly resided over the opening of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, an organization for African-American women, and served as its president for the next two decades. Although some of the white philanthropists who supported these efforts did so with a genuine concern for blacks, others supported them because they believed these organizations would help reinforce the color line. Nevertheless, African-Americans quickly made these institutions their own. The educational, recreational, and religious classes sponsored by the YMCA, and the YWCA provided the local black community a haven from the larger white society. THE GREAT DEPRESSION During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the city’s faith-based communities worked hard to meet the needs of the poor, whose numbers were increasing almost daily. Even as churches The Polis Center at IUPUI 3
  5. 5. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland across the city struggled to feed the poor knocking at their doors, Wheeler Mission and the Salvation Army expanded the number of meals and beds they provided. The Reverend August R. Fussengger, director of Catholic Charities, felt the anguish of the city as he realized that the larger sums Catholic Charities spent on relief could not keep up with the rising demand. The Jewish community, which in the previous decade had become solidly middle class, also felt the economic turmoil. H. Joseph Hyman, head of the Jewish Federation, responded by increasing the Federation’s relief efforts and establishing an unemployment bureau. Yet even with these changes, its efforts fell short as the number of requests for relief more than doubled from 1929 to 1935, while the Federation’s resources grew by less than one-third. However, the hardest hit were the city’s African-Americans, who were unemployed at a much higher rate than whites and who had fewer places to turn to for help. The city’s secular social service agencies, both public and private, fared little better than the faith-based institutions. The Township Trustees were woefully unprepared for the depression, and the resources of the city’s Family Welfare Society–the city’s largest private relief agency– quickly proved insufficient. Even with the Community Fund allocating most of its resources for relief, the residents of Indianapolis came to realize that the traditional ways of helping the poor would not suffice. As was true in so many other cities, the widespread deprivation brought about by the Great Depression forced citizens to reconsider the proper roles of private and public agencies in meeting the needs of the poor. People began to argue with greater frequency that the government had a fundamental responsibility to provide aid to the nation’s neediest. Such a trend wasn’t completely novel: the Township Trustees had for decades assumed responsibility for the poorest of the poor. However, in the 1930s, the federal government became the important actor, creating the work relief program known as the Works Project Administration and passing the Social Security Act, an act that guaranteed, among other things, federal support for dependent children, the elderly, and the blind. What happened to the city’s faith-based social welfare when public agencies began to assume responsibility for the needs of some of the city’s citizens? Some organizations continued to provide the services they had offered before the depression, but others found new opportunities in the emerging public welfare state. For example, evangelical missions continued to be the primary caretakers of the homeless. In 1930, Wheeler Mission, the Salvation Army, and the Volunteers of America sheltered most of the homeless. More than fifty years later, all three were still offering services and were joined by three additional shelters, all of which had religious affiliations. Other faith-based communities began providing social services either not covered by public agencies or services that they thought they were best equipped to offer. For example, the leaders of Catholic Charities believed the government had a “responsibility for the major problems of relief and unemployment”, but they also felt “the cooperation of the private agency with its specialized service in the personal, intimate relationships of life would be necessary.” [1] Catholics in particular were involved in social services. Leaders of Catholic Charities told their followers the Catholic social worker was special because “she brings the technical skills of the non-sectarian worker plus a deep sense of spiritual values.” Most importantly, “…hers is a religious approach based on Catholic philosophy, principles, and ideas.” [2] The Polis Center at IUPUI 4
  6. 6. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland Many men and women working in faith-based organizations cooperated with government to provide needed services. Although it is common to think of public and private social agencies as two competing or alternative entities, the two sectors have often engaged in collaborative endeavors. Committed to preserving the religious heritage of the city’s Catholic children, Catholic Charities made arrangements with many of the city’s public agencies, including Marion County Department of Public Welfare (MCDPW), to refer dependent Catholic children to them. The MCDPW not only placed a large number of Catholic children with Catholic Charities, but it also provided Catholic Charities with financial support to cover the costs incurred by the foster care homes and orphanage. Such cooperative endeavors were not limited to Catholics, and they did not always or even usually involve the exchange of funds. The Juvenile Aid Division of the Police department, for instance, interacted on a regular basis with the Church Federation, to which it often referred troubled youth. In a seven-month period during 1948, the Police referred 876 children to the Church Federation, which in turn referred the children to 217 different churches located throughout the city. [3] THE REDISCOVERY OF POVERTY With the economy booming and memories of the Great Depression fading, Americans in the post World War II era believed poverty would soon disappear. By 1960, however, no one could deny the fact that the poor were still present, despite increasing prosperity. Out of this realization the federal War on Poverty was born. Its story is a familiar one. Most Americans have heard of Head Start and the widely used Medicaid and Medicare programs, but fewer people know about the role played by religious organizations. Long before the 1960s, religious groups of various theological and social perspectives took on the care of the poor as part of their religious commitments. As the War on Poverty brought the plight of the poor to the center of public life, religious groups began to focus even greater attention to the needs of the poor. While long-established organizations directed more attention to the needs of the poor, others in the religious communities created entirely new initiatives. For example, the Reverend Miller Newton, minister of Fletcher Place church, established the Outpost Center in a run-down commercial district, where he hoped to attract “persons who don’t feel at home in formal church surroundings.” He explained that the Outpost was different from most Protestant churches because it “focused on the problems of the near downtown area in which it is located—housing, finding jobs, family problems.” [4] The city’s African-American ministers also launched new efforts to address several injustices that affected the poor and disadvantaged. During the 1960s, the city’s African-American population found a new voice as ministers involved in the Civil Rights movement began addressing the economic perils facing their community. Through Operation Breadbasket, led by the Reverend Andrew Brown, ministers protested the higher prices charged by grocery stores in the inner city and urged businesses to provide equitable employment opportunities for African- Americans. It was an economic and racial protest grounded in the ideals of the Christian faith: “Operating from a framework of Christian love, Operation Breadbasket will be instrumental in opening the door of complete economic opportunity which will allow our people to fully enjoy the bounties of God’s providence.” [5] Although less powerful than African-American ministers in other cities, Indianapolis ministers were often the only voice for poor African-Americans. The Polis Center at IUPUI 5
  7. 7. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland RECENT TRENDS In the decades following the ending of the War on Poverty, Indianapolis’ various faith-based communities have continued to play an important role in the city, responding to new social problems. After the women’s movement made domestic abuse a public issue rather than a private family matter, the men and women running Episcopal Community Services created the Julian Center, a center that continues to serve the needs of battered women and children. In 1987, the Catholic and Episcopalian communities cooperated in establishing the Damien Center for persons infected with HIV. Like the city’s faith-based services for the homeless, Damien directs its attention to those often scorned or ignored by the larger society. Drawing on financial support from both the faith-based community and the government, many faith-based agencies have found a solid footing for their work. Although it is common to hear politicians and others praise the voluntary sector as an alternative to government-funded social services, the public and private sectors long have been interwoven. The federal government further solidified these ties when in 1967 the U.S. Congress passed amendments to the Social Security Act, making it easier for the federal government to provide social services through contract to private agencies, including faith-based nonprofit organizations. By the mid-1980s, more than one-half of all federal dollars earmarked for social services were channeled through non-governmental agencies. With the development of government block grants, faith-based groups in Indianapolis became involved in a greater variety of social issues. For example, Catholics, Jews, and Protestants gathered together in 1974 to form Community Interfaith Housing, an organization that responded to the housing needs of the poor. In addition, traditional agencies, such as Catholic Charities, used federal funds to initiate new programs, including counseling for the poor and support for refugees forced from their homelands. For well over a century a wide variety of Indianapolis faith-based communities have played an important role as social service providers. The welfare reform act of 1996 once again brought religious groups and religious issues to the center of public discussion. Yet when the act was initially proposed, it was shrouded by controversy. Among others, the leaders of Catholic Charities stood steadfastly opposed to the act, arguing its authors were concerned more with cutting back welfare rolls than reducing poverty. They were especially fearful that the act’s provisions for child-care, medical care, and job training would prove woefully inadequate. Furthermore, the men and women of Catholic Charities remained committed to their longstanding belief that the federal government has a fundamental responsibility for the nation’s neediest citizens. Other religious groups claimed the federal government had failed, and they looked to devolution—giving the individual states administration over social welfare spending— as the solution. The implementation of the welfare reform act has brought about a new round of debate as the public is becoming aware of the act’s Charitable Choice provision. This Charitable Choice provision allows congregations to administer the federally funded Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the successor to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). President Bush’s Office on Community and Faith-Based Organizations seeks to expand Charitable Choice to all government-funded social services. These initiatives mark a new The Polis Center at IUPUI 6
  8. 8. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland departure in Church/State relations. Congregations never before have directly received or administered government money even though faith-based agencies have received government money for decades. Before the welfare reform act, only faith-based nonprofits that were legally separate from congregations could receive these funds. Regardless of whether one supported or opposed the welfare reform act, or whether one supports or opposes Charitable Choice, it is clear the history of faith-based organizations can help put today’s discussions in a larger historical context. Over the 20th century, faith-based organizations have played an important role in the city. Before the New Deal of the 1930s, they were the backbone of the city’s social welfare services. Once the inadequacies of the mostly private system of poor relief were revealed during the Great Depression and the federal government assumed responsibility for many of the nation’s poor, faith-based organizations carved out new roles for themselves. Some have offered services not covered by public agencies, with care for the homeless being the most visible. Other faith-based organizations have collaborated with public agencies, supporting a role for both government and private social welfare agencies in meeting the needs of the poor. The stories told here suggest that as we seek to discover the city’s history of social service, we must explore the city’s religious history as well. Questions for Disscussion 1. What social service activities have your congregation been involved in over the past half century? 2. Do the historical changes described in this pamphlet apply also to your congregation? 3. Has your congregation expressed interest in Charitable Choice? How might the history of religion and social services help inform these discussions? The Polis Center at IUPUI 7
  9. 9. Poverty and Progress in America’s Heartland Endnotes [1] . Catholic Charities, Annual Report, 1937. [2] . Ibid. [3] . Federation News, Annual Report, May 1949. [4] . “Storefront Church Established For Inner City Ministry,” Michigan Christian Advocate, March 5, 1964. [5] . The Indianapolis Recorder, November 4, 1967. Author: Mary Mapes The Polis Center at IUPUI 8