A review of Street Saints, by Barbara J. Elliott

In Street Saints Barbara J. Elliott plunges readers into the world of American faith-based services. She wrote the book, she states, “to raise the visibility of street saints, those people who are doing the remarkably hard work of loving human beings into wholeness.” Founder and director of the Houston-based Center for Renewal, she is an advocate for faith-based community and social-service

“I want to be part of what I hope will be a revolution of the heart, to take their faith out of the sanctuary and into the streets,” she says. “I want people to understand that every one of us who is a person of faith has really been charged to go and be an apostle.”

In effect two books emerge from her efforts—one a directory of programs and people, mostly in inner-cities, doing good work to help the needy; the other an eschatological view of Christianity. 

In sum the book shows those working to resurrect their communities to be “saints” striving to create the Kingdom of God on earth. Ms. Elliott tells their story for outsiders who have yet to discover what goes on under the surface in neighborhoods that society has written off. Street Saints informs the reader that government programs are inadequate—the educational establishment, for example, is portrayed as distant from the life and needs of the families it is to serve. 

Enter faith-based servants, who, according to Elliott, demonstrate that human relationships are necessary for change. Why? Relationships hold in their midst the presence of the Divine, she argues. “Where two or more are gathered there I will be.” 

Ms. Elliott wants to lead secularists through a world unknown to them, attempting at every description to make them comfortable with faith-based service. Street Saints makes faith-based programs palatable even to secular readers by dispelling the notion that faith workers are always proselytizing to the needy. Moreover the credentials and material successes of the book’s “saints” are described—Ms. Elliott understands the non-believer will look to such criteria when forming their judgments. Yet she is keenly aware that credentials and money are no substitute for having been broken and healed, and then sharing that healing experience with another. Thus her book witnesses for the reader the spiritual healing taking place.

Her tour of various faith-based organizations is a cross-country experience. Her message: the “saints” are everywhere—go look in your own city and you will find them. Ms. Elliott’s language seeks to reinforce Judeo-Christian heritage while conveying understanding to those not familiar with the theology. She wants to make the modern faith-based services experience seem a natural part of American nature, deeply rooted in the country’s history. Spiritually, American is different from Europe and has been since its beginnings, she argues. The Founders perceived that our freedoms are God-given, she points out—thus they can only be preserved by a faithful society. Meanwhile Ms. Elliott seems to have a secondary purpose: She engages the reader in a discussion of the Christian faith and one’s purpose in life. She wants to move you to action, to involve you in your faith—perhaps even to become Christian. Readers are led to evaluate their own faith, their society, and its direction.

Another aspect of Street Saints elevates politics. Ms. Elliott supports President George W. Bush’s Faith-based and Community Initiative. Her background helps to explain why: she once directed an awards program for faithbased nonprofits around the country. Much of her philanthropic work is focused on getting private individuals to support faith-based and community organizations. Her advocacy is also an outgrowth of her faith. “The people who are working at the grass roots are reaching a place the government cannot touch and even the large social service institutions cannot touch,” she writes.

Street Saints combines motivating stories about people caring for others with facts that document the results of faith-based programs. Ms. Elliott compares their results to those of government-run programs. (See Joseph Knippenberg’s reviews of two social-science books on faith-based programs in the Spring, 2005 Local Liberty.) The faith-based approach out-performs the secular programs in every situation. She demonstrates, then, that people are changed through relationships with other people, relationships that are built on love—a Christ-centered relationship in which one person helping another as an equal makes all things new. “Christ fills us with love to give away, not to squander on ourselves,” she writes. But government-run programs do not provide service out of love; therefore low expectations produce inferior results.

Nor do government-run programs negate the need for Americans to help one another, she believes. Social services aren’t an appropriate reason to cease caring for one’s neighbor, letting the government do it. She expresses concern for the lack of personal involvement that has been developing in the United States, and approvingly quotes Habits of the Heart by Robert N. Bellah, which says that “the American experiment is a project of common moral purpose, one which places upon citizens a responsibility for the welfare of their fellow and for the common good.” Ms. Elliott, like Bellah, believes that Americans are not living out individualism but loneliness. She indicates that she believes the remedy for this loneliness is service, giving in love. She demonstrates this in the people and programs she profiles. These are committed people giving of themselves with no hint of loneliness.

The last parts of Street Saints, “The Big Picture” and the “Conclusion” are more than just a directory of people and programs; they are statements of faith. This almost seems out of place and could be a book on its own. Here Ms. Elliott leaves the streets and moves to the American beginnings. She ties the actions of today’s faith-based organizations to the founders and earlier American beliefs. Her sweeping portrait shows readers the past and present of faith-based organizations in hopes that they and those who participate in them will have a bright future.