Warner has had doors shut in his face. But through his door-knocking campaign, he and his colleagues have reached 2,900 people, steering many of them to services they didn't know about.
Pedro rarely picks up groceries from food banks because he doesn’t want his kids eating canned foods. Too many preservatives, he says. In El Salvador, he went to college and got his degree in agropecuária, the study of agriculture and livestock. A snack for Isis is red-bean soup or fresh pineapple, not animal crackers.
Fruits and vegetables usually are a luxury when you’re poor, but his family eats them almost every day. “That doesn’t mean we don’t eat meat,” Pedro says through a translator. “We just don’t make certain things.”
He and his wife shop for the best prices: H Mart often has apples for ten cents less than Megamart; Sam’s Club has the cheapest plantains. For clothes, they check Walmart and Ross.
Pedro and Laura weren’t planning to come to America. They owned a house in El Salvador that had a concrete ceiling, a water tank, and a balcony where they could see the mountains and watch parrots fly by. Pedro had a job selling veterinary products. But Laura’s older sister, who lived in the United States, came home for a visit once and had only good things to say.
“What is life like there?” Laura asked.
“Perfect,” her sister said. “It’s very nice, and the kids have huge opportunities.”
Their son, Willian, left for America first. He was 12. His cousins were living in Los Angeles, and Laura’s sister offered to care for him. A few months later, he got into trouble with police for stealing from a mall. Pedro got on a plane to California and discovered that Laura’s sister had yelled at Willian and made him do chores the other kids didn’t have to do. Willian didn’t want to go back to El Salvador, and his parents wanted him to get a good education, so they moved him in with a family friend and tried to call him every other day.
“How are you?” they’d ask.
“Good,” he’d say.
On visits, Pedro saw something different. His son was lonely and cried a lot—he’d never done that at home. Soon Willian told his father he’d sought refuge in a gang. Pedro arrived in LA two days before one of Willian’s friends was murdered.
“The next time we come, it’s going to be to stay,” Pedro said. He wanted to see his son succeed. But it was hard to make it in El Salvador—he knew lawyers and doctors earning less than $1,000 a month. Gangs were rampant. He told Willian, “I’m not going to leave you again.”
Sometimes Tim Warner wonders how he made it out of his little town of Crestmont, Pennsylvania. He can count on one hand the close friends from his hometown who aren’t dead, incarcerated, or addicted to drugs. At its root, Warner says, poverty is powerlessness.
Warner’s family’s circumstances motivated him to go to college, but the people around him made that education possible: the elderly woman at church who got him so excited about reading that he couldn’t wait to deliver the scripture aloud in Sunday school, the chairman of the deacon board who he believes was called by God to shepherd him.
Warner’s stepfather started a janitorial business when Tim was in high school, and he got his first contract at Temple Zion, a synagogue nearby. Warner spent Friday nights finishing up basketball games and then going to set up for weddings. His parents dropped him off at American University in 1979 with a check from Temple Zion to the bursar. That money, along with scholarships and grants, was his down payment on tuition, room, and board.
His plan was to be a doctor—he was fascinated by the heart—but he got off track after one of his professors obtained a paid internship for him at a microbiology lab at NIH. Warner liked breaking cells open and studying DNA, and he found himself pursuing a career in molecular genetics. Before he graduated from college, he had a job as a bacterial geneticist for a pharmaceutical company, working on a vaccine for malaria. He was making more money than he needed.
At 25, he was sitting in first class on a flight to Europe, wondering if the doctors he was going to meet had any idea he had grown up next to the projects. He was traveling in circles very different from the one he’d been born into.
God had to have wanted more from me, he thought.
When Warner’s great-grandmother died, he was a midlevel corporate guy with a wife, two children, a big house, and two cars. He was frustrated because he couldn’t clear his schedule to be with his family right away.
Soon after, he got his calling from God, he says. He didn’t hear a voice, but it was a moment of clarity so profound that it scared him. He was sitting in the front row at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Rockville when the pastor started talking about Ananias and Sapphira, churchgoers who’d held back their possessions instead of sharing them for the common good.
Warner felt as if the message was for him. He quit his job in pharmaceutical research, went to seminary and was ordained, and took a job on the staff of a United Methodist bishop. A cloud is hanging over Baltimore, the bishop said, and you need to fix it.
Warner pitched tents and set up “saving stations,” where people could come for Bible study, clothing, and free medical checkups. He helped turn an abandoned, rundown church parsonage into a short-term transitional house for heroin addicts. “I lost track of the number of people we were sending to rehab,” he says. “We would pay for transportation to get them out of town.”
He was later appointed to be pastor of a church in Boyds, just north of Germantown, and ministered to inmates at the nearby Montgomery County Correctional Facility, where the warden sometimes sees mothers and sons locked up at the same time. The people he met there were a lot like the ones he’d worked with in Baltimore: Some deserved whatever came to them; others needed another chance. These are real people, Warner thought, not a set of numbers in somebody’s report.
When he asked the warden to send him statistics on where inmates go when they leave, the map he received was nearly an exact match for the one he had of the largest pockets of poverty in the county.
Next: Warner's work with immigrant families and the children of inmates.