Saints: Renewing America’s Cities

by Barbara
J. Elliott (Templeton Foundation Press, 2004), 320 pages

book cover imageSome 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

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 Casade 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 inbornneed 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
with the foolish idea that Christianity is the
domain of cowards who cannot confront the “real world” is
in for a remarkable education.

Elliot 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
, 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).”

E. Person, Jr.
is the author of Russell
Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind
Books, 2000) and Earl Hamner: From
Mountain to Tomorrow
(Cumberland House Publishing, 2006).