Introduction: A society of free people can voluntarily provide for the poor, the addicted, those with a huge need. Over the ages, the Christian church has reached out to help the broken and hurting. We interviewed one of the world's leading charity headquarters in Los Angeles and an outreach of Angeles Temple, an evangelical church, called the Dream Center. The Dream Center, founded by Pastor Matthew Barnett, is a volunteer driven organization that helps the needs of over 50,000 individuals each month in the heart of poverty in Los Angeles. Originally a six-story hospital, it is now rehabilitating people with addictions, homelessness and abuse, including victims of human trafficking. Done without any direct assistance from the government or taxpayer money, the Dream Center has met the needs of a deeply troubled community in a way that no government assisted program could. It has been done with a Christian vision to see hurting individuals reach their potential, not through handouts but through programs that help these individuals become independent and off government assistance. In this one-on-one interview, Pastor Matthew Barnett explains the vision, motivation and success of the Dream Center, a story that explains what can be done when individuals take charge of their community and not the government.
Daily Bell: Thanks for joining us, Pastor Matthew! Tell us about the Dream Center's yearly budget?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: $8.4 million dollars.
Daily Bell: And this is all voluntary contributions?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Absolutely. It's 100% not government funded – all done by voluntary donations given by individuals, although we do receive indirect federal funding.
Daily Bell: Pastor, tell us about the Dream Center and when it began. Tell us about the motivation behind starting the Dream Center.
Pastor Matthew Barnett: The idea was started in 1994 – but we purchased the inner-city hospital in 1996. The motivation was we had seen a lot of government programs and institutions that were only trying to take care of people's immediate and surface needs. Nobody getting assistance and handouts was reaching their potential. We think that is the difference between the Dream Center and other government-run programs. People can easily write a check and try to solve a problem but we realized people needed physical and spiritual relationships. They needed connections. They needed to see the kind of Christ-centered, true Christian love we could provide on a daily basis, not just ministering to their physical need, but to help them reach their potential.
So we began to take people into our home and help them. They didn't need one more handout – they needed somebody who would walk through the fire with them, be there with them and would make it a life's calling.
I think that's the difference between places like the Dream Center and the government, particularly with faith-based groups. We have the largest volunteer army in America ready to serve. It would cost anywhere from $50 – $75 million dollars to operate a place like this if we had a secular organization with salaries to pay; if government-run, double that. But we have over 300 people volunteering and giving 40 man-hours a week. That adds up to millions of dollars in service.
Additionally, we can do this all without the huge bureaucracy. That's the whole thing, we can help people quickly – we don't have to wait for reimbursements, verification or politically correct approaches. We can take people in the middle of the night because we have business people who have made it their life's mission to financially support our organization.
For example, there is one lady who pays for the entire operation of our teen recovery program. The reason she does this is because she says, "We want to respond to needs quickly." So, when there's a need, we can deal with it within hours. I think the real advantage we have is our mentality to not wait until we receive the money or bureaucratic approvals and then we try to do something. We are going to do it right now. Jump in, follow the need and provide the recovery and help to self-reliance. This happens from individuals willing to give for all we do or for a specific project such as human trafficking. Sometimes it's several people who come together and take on one great need.
Daily Bell: Give us an example or two.
Pastor Matthew Barnett: We have a lady from Colorado, a businesswoman, who came by and saw the Dream Center. She had never been to LA in her life and she heard about teen girls who were homeless, living on Skid Row, and their mom didn't want them. The Dream Center takes these girls in and gives them a dream, a hope, a vision and guidance for their future. This woman, motivated by what she saw, decided to support us.
We want to invest in things that we really, really believe in and not be dictated by the government to be told which programs Washington wants to do. We deal with the hearts of hurting people. We know what they are dealing with on a daily basis and help.
Daily Bell: Tell us about how the Dream Center helps those who are victims of human trafficking.
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Some border patrol agents heard about our helping young women. They came to the shelter with a couple of girls that needed help – and we blew them away. They saw our facility and just couldn't believe it. They saw the 50 beds for the girls who had been involved in human trafficking and just about wept. They asked if they could bring these girls in and we said, "Absolutely!" They said there was no place like this.
So here we are, the largest region for trafficked girls in America, now with a 60-bed facility. Taking on a need that is almost unheard of on a day-to-day residence basis – actually taking the girls in, not just advocating for them. There are a lot of advocacy programs but we have a real program where they are living and having their lives impacted, growing and developing. These are the kinds of things that make it so special that the private sector can achieve results the government can't. We now need donors to sponsor another 40 beds, the need is so great.
Daily Bell: Are you concerned with the direction of the US government?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Yes. For example, there is a lot of talk about the "1%" and taxes. Really, people like us get hurt the most when money is taken away from these people because we are the ones who benefit from the 1% or 2% and those who can give generously. So it really impacts organizations like us when people aren't free to do with their finances what they want to do.
Daily Bell: There are a lot of politicians and a lot of people in government who say that private charities and faith organizations are just too inefficient, too scattered and too ineffective and really, the government needs to step in and handle these different functions that you are doing. What do you say to that?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Well, I see results with our organization breaking cycles of people who have been on welfare for generations. We've seen people whose families have been on welfare for 2 or 3 generations and because our volunteers are holding their hands, calling them on the phones and working with them. We've seen them break that cycle. It has been the most extraordinary thing to see this again and again because we have volunteers who believe they are called to help people break these cycles. They feel it is their life's purpose, their life's job to reach out to their community. The government, on the other hand, just blindly resources people without knowing what their life skills or situations are and ignores the spiritual. I think that is the advantage that comes in with the private sector, to be really close to the ear of what is going on in our communities. There are a lot of volunteers who have taken the step of faith and have spent their life risking it all to help these communities.
The evangelical church in America is the largest volunteer army in the country. For example, we had 7,000 Christians 18 and over last year come to the Dream Center and live on our campus for one week – 7,000. If you calculate the charity hours behind that it is incredible. What would they help with? Foster care intervention, where we go into the city and help families who are at risk of losing their kids to social services; they will split families with foster care if the family lacks a bed, refrigerator, etc. We even get letters from some workers that say "Look, you saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars in just a few months alone by keeping these families together rather than having them be split apart."
I have seen millions of dollars come through this building of free labor from people of faith who want to give their heart. So the efficiency level is extremely high because we don't have the overhead of running this bureaucracy because of the fact that so many people are willing to serve.
Daily Bell: During this Christmas season you are giving away bicycles, turkeys and food to the inner city poverty stricken areas in Los Angeles.
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Yes. During Christmas we will be giving away over 1,000 bicycles and 15,000 Christmas presents to the community. During the Christmas season more people have drug and alcohol problems. They have addictions. They have depression and discouragement. Spousal abuse increases during the Christmas season. These are issues we will be addressing constantly because we are a 24/7 campus. I think that is the beauty of the private sector and the Dream Center. We are not confined to a short season of compassion. It is our life. It's who we are 24/7. In addition to that, of course, thousands of meals need to be served during this time. On an average day we feed 1,600 families, homeless – those in need. But Christmas it expands greatly.
Daily Bell: You seem to have a lot of programs… do you have more?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Yes, we have other programs. These involve:
But there are so many needs. One deals with emancipated teens. These are kids out of the foster care system after having lived with a dozen families. Once a child emancipates, he or she loses access to state-funded services. Nearly two-thirds are released without a place to live, severely limiting their educational and employment opportunities.
They find themselves on their own with no family or community support. In too many cases this results in insufficient education, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, incarceration and early pregnancy and parenthood.
Daily Bell: I assume if they don't end up on the streets they end up on welfare, food stamps and everything else.
Pastor Matthew Barnett: If you talk to the average prisoner in America almost all of them were emancipated minors and had nowhere to go when they turned 18. How can you when you have been in 23 homes before you even got to the age of 18? Really, we are zeroing in at the very beginning of 2013 solving this issue. It's a new entrepreneurship program. The great thing about the private sector and the Dream Center is that we are pioneers in new areas and meet new needs because we don't have to wait until the system allows us to do it. We can find the people who believe in helping emancipated minors and open up a building to aid 60-80 kids and just go for it. We are praying for funding and volunteers for this now.
Daily Bell: Have you found the economy, the recession, has impacted the giving to a place like the Dream Center and do you find that more and more people think that the government handouts and welfare system makes a place like the Dream Center not needed?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: A lot of the consistent donations have been more difficult during the recession. It's been interesting to see that more people who give higher amounts of money are giving more. I think they are saying "You know, we really believe that in order to help people we need to support places that will walk through the fire with them, that will get them training and get their lives together, get their character together." People who still believe that the role of transforming lives are the innovators, entrepreneurs, business-owners in our community. They can feel it – they can walk on campus and see the ministry that feeds thousands of people a day. That's the beauty of private sector organizations. They can go out there and see, on a daily basis, the value of their giving and the lives that are being impacted.
Daily Bell: Now, you have people visiting the Dream Center and then they go back home and start their own center … right?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Around 100 Dream Centers are using our model to reach out to the country with the love of Christ and really help.
Daily Bell: Any outside the US or are they all in the US?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: We have a few international. We have one in Lima, Peru but the majority are in America.
Daily Bell: Why would Libertarians or the skeptics find the Dream Center something of interest?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. Christ empowers us to serve our generation, to make a difference. The message is of Christ coming down to this Earth in the form of man to identify with humans, to see what it's like to struggle as humans, to feel the pain. That message identifies with us and it makes us want to identify with our culture, with our trafficking victims, with our homeless families.
The closer you identify with Christ doesn't mean that you identify with a lofty sense of superiority; it just means that you identify with humanity even more. Jesus healed people, He fed them and He took care of them before He even preached to them. That message of Christ coming down to identify with man is very important with Christmas because it allows us to feel in our hearts that the way of our God is to identify with man, too. To us the message of Christmas is Jesus came to Earth, He identified with man and His grace was given to all. We take that grace and we give it away as quick as we have received it in our communities.
For example, we are giving away bicycles. This little boy came through the line last year and they said, "Pastor, he wants you to pick out some of the bike winners." They said "How do you choose that Pastor? Out of a 1,000 bikes how do you choose the winners with over 5,000 needy kids?" I said what I simply do is look at the kids' shoes. I look down and the whole time I look at their shoes. This boy had holes in his shoes and I said, "Come on over here real quick" and he said, "What's wrong?" He thought he had done something wrong. I said, "I just want you to know that I picked you out to win a bicycle." His mother just cried and put her head on my shoulder and wept and said, "We haven't got our kids Christmas presents in years and now my child is getting a dream gift from the Dream Center." And I thought to myself, what a blessing to those donors and the kids we honor God in our giving.
I call this not social justice but social transformation. There is all this talk about "fairness" but let me tell you what social transformation is. Social transformation is where people have a dream for more than just fairness; they have a dream of taking them to places they never dreamed they could go. Justice tries to relate to people's pain but social transformation tries to speak to what people can become. That's the process that we walk through with people.
When people come to the Dream Center, we ask them, "What is your dream?" Many of the people, all they have known is homelessness, so this question shocks them. The moment you ask this question their belief system becomes elevated and all of a sudden the whole game has changed. These people are asking me what's my dream, and it's not survival.
Daily Bell: Most churches seem to be places to learn the Bible. But at yours, people learn the Bible and serve the community.
Pastor Matthew Barnett: To me, church is not a destination spot on Sunday. Sunday is the launching point as to what the church can become Monday through Saturday – and that's the difference. Society has viewed church on Sunday morning to be an arrival spot. You know, we go to church on Sunday, attend service and then church is done. We are trying to change that definition to the only church where we reach out to the dying and sick, creating hospitals, schools and orphanages.
That's why the Dream Center is called "the church that never sleeps," because we believe Sunday morning is the inspirational zone so that we can be the church Monday thru Saturday in the community. That is a thinking process that is upside down for so many people. For us, a church service is where it really begins in the course of the whole week. So that's what this place is. Church is not a destination spot but a launching point.
Daily Bell: For many readers, a church that replaces and surpasses government programs without government money but voluntary donations is unheard of.
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Boy, that's right. Alexander de Tocqueville in the early 1800s wrote Democracy in America about people volunteering to help people – all the readers should read it. He said, "America is great as long as America is good. If America ceases to be good they will cease to be great." That's exactly right. If there is no need for people to help one another, then the country will move into great apathy. There needs to be pressure with the individual – not government collectors – upon us as individuals to make the change, make the difference. But if we create a government where they will take care of everything it takes away individual responsibility to help our neighbor and creates an inferior system that is not qualified to truly help people.
When all is said and done, the argument with the private sector versus the government has nothing to do with a tax code – it's what the best way to help people is. I am 100% convinced that the millions of dollars we have invested into our community that has not been taken from the government has changed the whole atmosphere of the neighborhood. That is the way to do it. More churches are embracing this lost vision.
I don't think we are all there yet but I think the church is transforming in a wonderful direction of being these 24/7 places of refuge within our community. To me, I realized that if we take away the individual mandate to make a difference and we create a system that does it for us, we are going to be the ones hurt the most on the inside. Because the one that gives is more blessed than the one you are giving to.
Daily Bell: Can readers visit the Dream Center?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: Yes, I hope they would. I'll take them on a tour of our main campus. They can see the hundreds of outreaches and programs for themselves.
Maybe they would like to volunteer for a day or more.
Daily Bell: And if they can't visit?
Pastor Matthew Barnett: I would hope they would consider a donation to keep our vision and motives alive – to help those in need so they can be self supporting. They can contact me at email@example.com or 213.273.7030.