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Watered Gardens Seeing Lives Changed, Churches Emboldened

James Whitford has seen the growth and struggles that come with helping the poor escape the endless cycle of poverty, addiction and incarceration 

For 20 years, Whitford and his wife, Marsha – who both founded the non-profit Watered Gardens Ministriesin Joplin, Missouri – have helped equip those entangled in that struggle to escape through finding a church community, a job and a new life.   

The ministry, the Joplin Globe reported, involves an outreach center and overnight shelter, a Project Worth Shop that helps “empower the homeless and poor, and the Forge Center for Virtue and Work, a residential recovery program for men.

It’s not an easy road.  

Those who participate are required to work for room and board and meet certain requirements to stay in the program. Residents who work at Watered Gardens for more than three monthscan participate in the Forge Center for Virtue and WorkKOAM-TV reported. There, they learn biblical truths and work readiness in order to prepare residents for financial independence and dependence on God simultaneously.”

And many have taken notice of the ministry’s success.  

Watered Gardens was honored for WORLD Magazine’s “Hope Award for Effective Compassion” in September.  As part of the award, the mission also received a $10,000 cash prize from WORLD, which goes to ministry servicesWORLD also gave $2,000 each to four regional winners, the Joplin Globe reported. 

With more than 200 active volunteers, the ministry saw a 55 percent employment rate through their emergency shelter efforts and 100% among the graduates of their Forge program in 2018Whitford wrote in a first-person article in the Joplin Globe in October. 

That’s 294 people who were helped back to work after stepping through our doors homeless and unemployed,” Whitford wrote 

In a 2019 ministry report, the organization showed 23,983 needs met, 55 percent employed, 79 percent needs earned, 558 support networks formed, 14,635 shelter nights provided and 8,952 volunteer shifts filled. 

But Whitford also acknowledged setbacks and struggles with over dependence on government programs that tend to stifle more long-term solutionsHe shared about one man who was making progress through their ministry last year but then was notified he qualified for disability income following a “two-year wait. 

“We reminded him of his commitment and encouraged him to proceed with his plans to work,” Whitford wrote, “but it just didn’t add up to the $4,000 disability back pay lined up over the next few months, followed with a promised payout of $900 per month thereafter.” 

 He walked away, Whitford said. 

“With his food stamp card back in his pocket, he instead walked away from a promising future toward one of self-induced sickness and dependency,” Whitford noted. “It’s maddening that the government qualified this man as disabled when those of us who were close to him knew otherwise. It’s heartbreaking that a person on the right track was suddenly derailed.  

It’s the “free ride, Whitford wrote, that has been the “greatest hurdle to solving real issues of poverty.”

But with those disappointments come testimonies from people who stayed the course through the program, got a job and a place to live while also finding community through a local church.

In a video interview on the ministry’s website, a man named Robert shared how they ministered to him and helped him escape addiction and poverty.  

“These people got me my job, the house where I’m living. It’s got me to the churches I go to. It’s a community, he said.  Robert broke down in tears recalling a time when a woman told him he didn’t look like a “homeless person.” Robert asked, “what’s a homeless person look like? We’re all just people. It’s not the problems we have but how we deal with them. This has been a very rewarding experience.”  

Working with local churches is a key to the ministry’s success, ministry co-founder Marsha Whitford said.  

“Watered Garden Rescue Mission exists to serve the church in its mission to serve the poor,” she explained on the ministry’s website. “It’s why we offer studies, mentor training and educational seminars for churches.  

James Whitford added, “We believe that a thriving church community, one that’s like a watered garden, is the key for community transformation.

“When asked to define poverty, the poor and homeless pointed more to a lack of relationship than a lack of stuff,” he said. “It’s God’s heart in His people to develop relationship that will resolve real issues of poverty in people’s lives.  

It’s in relationship that we begin to see the poor as so much more than recipients of goods and services,” he continued. We see future employees. We see students. We see graduates. And we see Christians successful and productive with a future and a hope.