“The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden.” (Isa. 58:11)
This verse inspired James Whitford to start Watered Gardens Gospel Rescue Mission in Joplin, Missouri.
And James’ unique approach, based on a more personal and truly independence-oriented ministry, is succeeding where the government welfare “cycle of poverty” continues to fail.
Watered Gardens was born out of James Whitford’s “heart for the church and for those who are struggling in poverty and addiction and a lot of brokenness.”
His goal was to learn how to solve these problems both radically and effectively.
Recognizing that state and federal welfare programs often trap individuals and families in a “cycle of poverty” through a combination of perverse incentives and a lack of an individualized approach, James knew that local and community charities are far more effective in reaching the homeless and the needy.
As a result, James’ vision has built a ministry to the homeless and the poor that recognizes the individuality inherent in poverty and struggle.
The charity founded at Watered Gardens stems from compassion and relationships. Like love itself, Whitford notes, “charity is relational.”
True charity begins when one person sees another’s need and seeks to fill that need in brotherly – or neighborly – love.
Governmental agencies, Whitford explains, “don’t know people the way I know people in my neighborhood, the way you know people in your neighborhood.”
It’s often difficult for people to identify how they entered poverty or homelessness. Every story is different and equally painful, and Watered Gardens tries to discover each individual’s story.
Human lives “are far too complex” for effective governmental intervention, Whitford says.
State or federal agencies could never “engineer a blueprint solution that’s going to work” for everyone.
In that spirit, Watered Gardens hosts a Neighbor Connect program, which connects “one neighbor’s need to another neighbor’s skill.”
This program identifies material needs within the Joplin community and offers individuals the chance to fill those needs.
Today, Watered Gardens now meets over 20,000 individualized basic needs per year in the Joplin community.
Watered Gardens also provides an overnight shelter for those in crisis situations, but the ministry also has a long-term focus. Whitford believes that true charity “moves people toward a position in life where they’re flourishing.”
In order to help people move forward and out of poverty situations, Watered Gardens offers two main long-term programs: Forge and Project Worth.
Forge is a rigorous year-long program intended to help “struggling men develop virtue and a strong work ethic.” Classes, mentorship, and hard work combine to empower men “to be fully employed and contributing members of the community.”
Through Forge, men of all ages learn discipline and valuable life skills that prepare them to find work in the outside world. An important part of the program is the requirement to refuse government benefits and work to achieve financial independence instead.
Project Worth is built on the idea that “work awakens worth in people’s lives.”
James strongly believes that “capacity, potential, and ability” are found in every individual, and Watered Gardens seeks to awaken that potential through paid work.
The Worth Shop, located at the Watered Gardens headquarters in Joplin, “offers an opportunity for the poor and homeless to be creative and endeavor to build products that go to market.”
Individuals who sell items through this program keep the proceeds.
Additionally, Watered Gardens offers community members the chance to volunteer at the overnight shelter or in Project Worth and Forge. Volunteers log over 700 hours each month at Watered Gardens.
With both eyes open to the needs of the Joplin community, Watered Gardens continues to reach out to families and individuals. In fact, Whitford hopes to build a family housing center with space for children, as this is another prominent need in the area.
Learn more about the ministry and vision of Watered Gardens by visiting their website.
Pray that this ministry will grow and flourish, and pray for opportunities to engage with the poor and needy in your own community!