Jon Katov has seen it work. Understanding the powerful results, the Arizona resident was in Lake County today to share that knowledge with others. He calls it the power of the Open Table.
It started a few years ago. Katov recalls meeting a homeless man who had been suffering from depression, had lost touch with his family and friends, and was adrift.
That was in Paradise Valley, Arizona, home to the church that Katov attends, Paradise Valley United Methodist.
“When we met him, he was close to 50 years old, and he had suffered from depression during his life and as a result of that he couldn’t stick to one place,” Katov said. “He had broken relationships in his family. It ended up being just him.”
A mission group from Katov’s church tried to help the man, who was living at a local shelter. But what the church members quickly discovered, Katov said, was the putting a temporary roof over someone’s head and giving them meals did nothing to bring lasting stability to their troubled lives.
“We just seem to have participated in this giant transaction of giving food and other stuff away, and we didn’t see any change,” he said. “This homeless guy came up to us and said he wanted to worship at our church. We worshipped together and we fell in love with him, and in our feeble attempts at world change, he fell in love with us.
“But what we really learned is we make such significant investments in social change, but we’re not really doing anything to transform poverty, since the poverty rate hasn’t changed in 40 years,” he added. “It didn’t seem like there was a real way of him getting out of poverty. We were left with a choice. Do we just say, ‘Ok, we’ve done our best, now good luck?’ “
What changed was the approach that the church decided to take. They brought together leaders from the parish with the larger community, and asked their homeless friend to decide what he wanted out of life – what kind of job, what kind of home. Then they worked with him to develop a plan to get there.
And this time, it succeeded, quite beyond their greatest expectations.
“We gathered around him and worked on his plan, and in 18 months he was economically stable,” Katov said. “Eventually he came and told us that he was sick and tired of us being in his business and he wanted to be out on his own. We’re still very close with him.”
What the church discovered is a model for helping lift people out of poverty – a long term plan, a rolodex with connections, a few phones calls … and good things start to happen.
“We developed a business plan for his life,” Katov said. “He wanted to be a security guard and we were able to use our rolodexes to find a company that was able to give him training and help him find subsequent jobs.”
The church decided to call the program Open Table.
“In my church on Communion Sunday, my pastor will say ‘This table is open,’ and it’s very symbolic of the notion that if you want to find a path to God, it’s open to you no matter who are you,” Katov said. “Open Table is a movement, and our movement is about human potential. Human potential represents the greatest opportunity to change our economy, our social structure, what’s happening in the family, and helping people rise to the potential they have been given so they can start re-investing in their communities.”
Katov was in Lake County today, meeting with the Probation Services Division to create a local version of Open Table. It would encourage churches to partner with probation programs to set up tables to help ex-offenders get restored to the community.
Leesburg will be the first community in Florida to implement this program, and to invite convicted felons struggling to get their lives back together to come to an Open Table and help them develop a life plan for their future.
“The only thing that we really haven’t tried that has the potential for the greatest impact on poverty is further engagement,” Katov said. “And that is calling on citizens of the community to bring their social capital, their life experience, their ability to make fact-based decisions and research their decisions and work with other people, to the Open Table.”
Lake County’s Open Table model, he added, “will be a relationship we have with someone in poverty. This is the first Probation Department Open Table, law enforcement community model that we will have launched. If it works, Florida really will become a teaching center for other communities to see how it’s done.”
Although this is a faith-based program, Katov said everyone is welcome, regardless of their individual faith and beliefs. This is not so much about churches reaching out to help, but the entire community doing so, with churches guiding the process, he said.
“We all have relationship problems,” he said. “We all have relationships that are strong enough for people to come to the table for us to solve, like poverty. We are not ruling anybody out. We’re just saying strong communities can take the structures we use, and start sharing what they have in order to create change. There has to be a plan for somebody coming out of poverty – ‘How would I get to be a truck driver?’ They have no plan. It’s about their immediate needs, but also about an investment in them so they have a long term plan. We are trying to fuel smart plans to get to the next place they want to be.”
This model can be particularly helpful to convicted felons, he said, since they often face huge barriers after they get out of jail or prison, including the fact that a lot of employers won’t hire people with criminal records and a lot of landlords won’t rent to them.
“One of the most powerful things that’s happened to Open Table is the Probation Department has reached out to this model and the faith community to help create change,” Katov said. “The table has 12 people with highly developed rolodexes and all these community partners, and there isn’t anything that tables can’t do. While there may be employers who say they won’t hire ex-felons or apartments that say they won’t rent to them, if you invite others to be a part of this collaboration, things will start to change dramatically.
“Everybody wins when we all come to the table,” Katov added.
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