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Arkansas church creates innovative program to declare jubilee for those in need



Arkansas – When plans to return to their church building for Advent were canceled by the ongoing pandemic, the congregation of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church turned their attention from inward to outward and ultimately declared Jubilee.

Beginning in mid-March, the Little Rock, Ark., church began providing rental assistance and other financial and material help to neighbors in need out of their newly formed Jubilee Fund. The ministry gets its name from the biblical practice of “jubilee” outlined in Leviticus, where every 50 years, debtors were to be released from their obligations, slaves were to be freed, and property was to be returned to its owners.

Matt Dodrill, pastor at Pulaski Heights, said the ministry has provided the church some spiritual release as well after the disappointment of having to continue worshiping online rather than in person.

“I was concerned that would be a demoralizing thing for our congregation, so what I decided was instead of letting this put us in a rut, let’s have a time of reflection after the sermon every week where we talk about what we as a congregation can do that’s different from anything we’ve ever done before,” he said. “Here we are in this global crisis that’s affecting not just the world but our local community, and we are a church called out by Jesus Christ to address these kinds of issues.”

A collaborative idea

Out of those conversations, the church discerned that God was calling them to address issues of housing insecurity, debt, joblessness and the general shortage of food, medical supplies and clothing that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. A committee — whose members had expertise in social work, politics and laws related to property rental and tenant matters — was formed to consider the possibilities. The resulting Jubilee Fund was unveiled Feb. 16. To begin building the fund, church members were challenged to give $10 to $20 weekly for the duration of the pandemic.

“The response was naturally very positive because this venture grew out of their discernment,” Dodrill said. “The way I presented it to them was, ‘Here’s your ministry; here’s the thing we’ve been talking about all through Advent.’”

People who want assistance through the Jubilee Fund must complete a thorough application based on a template provided by a member, Patrick Lee, who is an attorney with expertise in these types of applications, and then it was customized for Pulaski’s purposes. The application is available online, but it also has been distributed to the Salvation Army, local shelters and other organizations that address homelessness and housing insecurity.

To begin building the fund, church members were challenged to give $10 to $20 weekly for the duration of the pandemic.

“A part of what we want to do is simply get into the broader Little Rock network of service providers who can, if they don’t have any funds, point some people in our direction and vice versa,” Dodrill said.

Applications are reviewed and processed by the same Pulaski team that developed the ministry. If the application is completed online, it gets forwarded automatically by email to all the team members. Whoever sees it first calls a meeting, and they review the application together to make a decision.

Fund started in March

Pulaski Heights began providing aid through the Jubilee Fund in mid-March. One of the first applicants was a man who was two months behind on rent, while another was a woman who just needed some basic supplies like gas and food. Dodrill said one of the challenges is that some people are not familiar with the resources available in the community.

“One of the reasons why this is such a vital ministry is Arkansas has probably the most draconian and oppressive rental laws in the country,” Dodrill said.

He explained that about one-third of Arkansans rent their properties, and the state is one of the few if not the only state in the country that does not recognize an “implied warranty of habitability,” which makes landlords responsible for maintaining the property. Without that provision, a tenant is on their own if the plumbing breaks, the electricity goes out or other repairs are needed.

“That’s not to say that there are not good landlords who will take care of that,” Dodrill said. “Most landlords will. It’s just that they are not legally required to do so, and so in that case, renting cheap properties in Arkansas actually ends up being more expensive for you.”

And in Arkansas, renters can be charged with a misdemeanor if they fail to pay rent on the day it’s due. They also can be jailed for up to three months if they’re not out of the property within 10 days of receiving an eviction notice.

“So, we’re not just trying to provide financial relief; we’re also trying to prevent people from unjustly getting put in the criminal system,” he said. “It’s a real problem in Arkansas and it’s something that predated COVID-19.”

More than financial support

To help get a handle on that, Dodrill said Pulaski Heights provides advocacy in addition to financial support.

“Before we just start doling out money, one of the first steps we make is to talk to their landlords just to let them know that the tenant has an advocate and ‘you can trust the tenant and you can trust us,’” he said.

Dodrill said the church has a modest goal starting out of paying off one person’s rent per month, and then at year’s end they’ll review the ministry and look at making the Jubilee Fund a bigger part of the regular budget.

“We anticipate that as the applications start to become more known, we will receive more inquiries about rental assistance, but we also are interested in providing debt relief,” he said.

He explained that if an applicant has a small amount of consumer debt or even student debt that is hampering them and they just can’t seem to catch up with the interest, they’ll consider helping with that too.

The Jubilee Fund application also refers to “mutual aid,” a term Dodrill said some people may not know but that is becoming more popular.

“In my estimation, mutual aid is the most practical way of cultivating the common good. It’s monetary and material goods,” he said. “The best example is found in Acts 2, where followers of Jesus who had just received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost shared resources according to need. We’re trying to embody a gift economy that sort of jettisons the more barbaric effects of our capitalist market economy.”

To that end, the church cleared out a room, installed shelves and began stocking them with non-perishable food, linens, toiletries and clothing.

“If we run an application and determine that somebody really doesn’t need rental assistance or debt relief but they could really use some food this month, then we’ll invite them to come to our pantry and pick out a few things, or we can mail it to them or find somebody who can drive it to them,” he said.

Empowered by the Spirit

Dodrill said he is proud of the way in which the congregation created this ministry together.

“This was a community effort,” he said. “It’s been really cool to watch this church ask where in this time and in this place is God’s Holy Spirit at work. We think God is calling us to help those who are on the margins of our community and to exercise jubilee.”

Dodrill noted that while the jubilee first mentioned in Leviticus was to be provided once every 49 years, Jesus’ declaration in Luke that he came “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” was him saying that jubilee comes through him.

“As long as we are a church empowered by the Holy Spirit, we have a responsibility to proclaim the year of God’s jubilee every day,” Dodrill said.