Measure Up?

Michael Metzger

The story of the boy throwing starfish back in the ocean is sweet. But does it measure up to shalom?

There once was a man walking the beach. He came upon a young boy throwing starfish back in the ocean so they wouldn’t die. The man asked what difference this made, as there were miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish. The boy picked up a starfish and threw it in the ocean. “It made a difference to that one.”

We love to tell this story. It’s sweet. But the boy gets it only half right if we’re talking about shalom. Shalom is universal flourishing, the flourishing of all, since God made all. He loves all. He seeks the flourishing of all.

We see this in older church traditions. They measure shalom by solidarity. Solidarity is feeling a kinship with the poorest in your city, the most vulnerable. It asks a particular question: Is this flourishing? The boy gets this half of the story right.

But shalom is also measured by subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is seeing problems as systemic. They require systemic solutions. The man gets this half of the story right. Hundreds of starfish on miles of beach must be the result of some systemic problem. The boy is not taking a systemic approach. His solution doesn’t measure up to shalom.

We see the full measure of shalom in God’s command to the Judeans in exile in Babylon. “Seek the flourishing (shalom) of the city, for as it flourishes, you flourish” (Jer.29:7). Translated: Your church flourishes only to the degree that the poorest in your city flourish. They flourish, we flourish. Measure shalom this way and you’ll discover the lack of flourishing is due to systemic problems. So our solutions must be systemic. This is how the faith community measures up if it’s seeking the shalom of the city.

Good news. Christians are recognizing this. Take foster care. According to the 2011-12 National Survey of Children’s Health, kids placed in foster care are two to three times more likely to suffer from a host of problems. This is not shalom. A better model is replacing foster care with systems supporting biological families.

This is what the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) is now doing. In 2004, 38 people attended the first CAFO summit. Jedd Medefind, the current president, says attendees “realized they were working in isolation or even competition with each other.” This is typical of the faith community. In 2014 McKinsey reported that the nonprofit (NFP) sector is “deficient” in collaboration (What social-sector leaders need to succeed). CAFO started thinking systems. This past month, hundreds of faith-based organizations attended the CAFO summit at the Southeastern Christian Church in Kentucky. They discussed ways to collaborate and scale systems to replace foster care.

Or look at what Bible Way Church in Washington DC is doing. Twelve years ago it began to address the problem of grandfamilies. These are families where grandparents take in their grandchildren because one or both parents are incarcerated, divorced, or dead. As of 2017, 2.6 million grandparents were raising 2.8 million young people, about 4 percent of American children. Nine out of ten grandfamilies are African-American.

This is a systemic problem. Bible Way sought a systemic solution—Plaza West, a brand-new, $90 million, private/public funded apartment building in Washington’s Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood. The project reserves 50 of its 223 units for grandfamilies, putting them in healthy systems of healthy families.

Recidivism is another systemic problem. Recidivism is the rate in which ex-cons reoffend and end up back in prison. In Maryland, it’s 41 percent, almost entirely African-American men. They are typically breadwinners for a circle of four others. When these men are incarcerated, a total of five sinks into poverty. Statistics bear this out, a correlation between recidivism and rates of systemic poverty. It’s a systemic problem requiring a systemic solution. At Clapham House, we’re assisting an African-American woman who recognizes this, helping her develop a business plan for creating a systemic solution that would bring an end to recidivism.

In every case—CAFO, Plaza West, and our friend—the key is whether these solutions are systemic—bankable, repeatable, and scalable. We’ll know by doing. But it’s better than throwing starfish back in the ocean one at a time. That’s a sweet story, but it doesn’t measure up to shalom.



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  1. Mike, throwing one starfish back isn’t a systemic solution, but most such solutions begin from the insights we gain from small actions. The more of us who do micro acts of shalom, the more the chances insights will emerge that can lead to larger flourishing. Encourage “boys” to keep making a difference for those individual starfish.

  2. Bob: Good point. It’s both/and. I’d just like to see more collaboration so that the many micro acts actually begin to merge into macro solutions (like the examples I cite above).

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