Faith-Based Charities to the Rescue?

Spurred by the new federal welfare law, religious charities and congregations nationwide are redoubling their efforts to pull people out of poverty.Some churches and other religious groups are responding to what they see as a crisis facing people who have suffered from welfare cutbacks, but others say the law offers an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the nation's neediest people.Nationwide coalitions of religious groups are now at work on ways to patch the safety net for people who have lost aid, and more and more congregations are starting their own job-training programs and running support groups for people who are moving off welfare. Most of those efforts try to merge spiritual elements with comprehensive social services."A box of food isn't going to change their life," says the Rev. Paul D. Vyzourek, executive director of the Colorado Springs Rescue Mission, a Christian antipoverty program and drug-and alcohol-treatment center. "A relationship with God will."Many religious charities say they have been inundated with demands for help in the wake of the new law, which limits the amount of time most able-bodied people can receive welfare. Although the time limits do not take full effect for two to five years, many poor people, including approximately 500,000 legal immigrants, have already lost their eligibility for food stamps.But that is not the only reason behind the surge of new social-services efforts. Religious groups are also responding to new state and federal laws designed to encourage faith-based groups to assume greater responsibility for taking care of the poor.A provision of the welfare bill known as "charitable choice" allows states to distribute money authorized under the welfare bill to religious organizations -- as long as those funds are not used to proselytize or to operate worship services.Additional efforts to encourage faith-based groups have been passed in several states. In Texas, for example, Gov. George W. Bush signed several measures in June that are intended to encourage greater activity by religious groups. One allows the state criminal-justice system to use religious programs to help offenders turn their lives around.Blurring the Lines Between Church and StateReligiously affiliated organizations like the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities USA have long provided social services and received federal and state dollars to do so. But the growing role that government leaders have asked faith-based organizations to assume has prompted many concerns.Some critics worry about the potential blurring of the lines between church and state, especially when government money goes to organizations that see evangelism as central to their missions. Others voice concern that professionally trained social workers are being replaced with Bible-carrying parishioners who have little experience working with the poor.And some non-profit officials fear that many religious groups lack the money-management skills to make sure that grant funds are used well.Even without the promise of government dollars, many faith-based groups were moving ahead with programs to move people from welfare to work. Among the new efforts:World Vision, an international relief group in Monrovia, Calif., is creating five resource centers across the country to help churches better respond to the new welfare law. The charity hopes the centers will mobilize coalitions of churches to focus on such issues as job training. The resource centers will also offer examples of programs that have been successful in other congregations and a list of consultants who work with churches, among other things.In Mississippi, the organization Faith and Families pairs welfare recipients with local churches in hopes that the congregations will provide the services and spiritual support necessary to move people from welfare to work. More than 400 churches have signed up.In Lansing, Mich., the Church of the Nazarene has started the "Quality Living Program." The 12-week, parishioner-run program combines Bible study with training in how to budget in order to equip people spiritually and financially to stay off welfare.In Dade County, Fla., local churches have started a hunger hotline for legal immigrants who have been cut off from food stamps. Callers are directed to food pantries and soup kitchens run by local congregations. Fifteen churches -- with the help of the southern Florida office of World Relief -- started the project, but the group has now swelled to about 70 congregations. "If the churches hadn't stepped in, these people would have gone hungry," says Thomas H. Willey, Jr., who oversees programs in Dade County for World Relief.Putting Differences AsideBefore the welfare law was passed, many conservative and liberal religious groups were locked in bitter feuds over the best way to reshape the governmental system of taking care of the needy -- and that factionalism had hobbled many religious efforts to fight poverty.Now, many of those arguments have been put aside so organizations can concentrate on ways to make the new system work as well as possible. Jim Wallis, editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners and leader of a coalition of about 100 Christian groups working on welfare programs, compares the easing of hostilities among groups to the end of a rivalry among inner-city street gangs."We're dropping our colors and dropping our weapons," says Mr. Wallis. "The poor are bringing us back together."Mr. Wallis's coalition, known as "Call to Renewal," has been meeting to come up with responses to the new welfare law. The coalition is sending a letter to all 50 governors that asks what steps each state is taking to include religious groups in their new welfare systems. Call to Renewal is also working with World Vision to help individual churches respond to the needs of the poor under the welfare law."The real issue from the religious point of view is not to end welfare as we know it, but to end poverty as we know it," Mr. Wallis says."This is at the heart of the Gospel for us. If the Bible is not clear about this, it's clear about nothing."At the local level, many religious groups are joining together to form coalitions and pool their resources to respond to the needs of the poor.The Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, for example, mobilized congregations last winter after shelters for the homeless overflowed because of cutbacks in welfare benefits, many local officials say. Seven houses of worship opened their doors to the homeless, and with no sign that the number of people living on the streets is dropping, congregations plan to set up makeshift shelters again this winter.The Interfaith Conference has also been holding meetings since June to determine what additional support congregations may be able to provide to help people become economically self-sufficient. Ideas that have been discussed include providing space and volunteers for emergency child-care needs and establishing a network of volunteers to help newly employed parents deal with everyday job distractions like doctor's appointments and school conferences.The Rev. C. H. McClelland of Holy Cathedral Church, which has been participating in the Milwaukee meetings, says that congregations have a moral mandate to help the poor. "You can't very well preach the Gospel to a man whose belly is empty," he says.Perhaps the most common approach that churches and other religious groups have taken is to set up so-called mentor programs, through which welfare recipients are paired with congregations or individual parish members. Churches find such arrangements appealing because they allow them to tap into one resource that they have in abundant supply: people.Many congregations are also drawn to working individually with welfare recipients because it gives them a chance to provide guidance not only on practical matters such as job skills, but also on spiritual issues.Statewide mentor programs are under way in Mississippi, Texas, and elsewhere, as well as at single congregations like the Antioch Bible Baptist Church in Gladstone, Mo., and the University Presbyterian Church in Seattle.University Presbyterian, a parish with 4,000 members, started "Project Farewell" a year ago. The church matches up at least four parishioners with a single mother on welfare. The teams then meet periodically to discuss issues such as employment, transportation, and Christianity.Heather R. McNair, who for five years relied on a welfare check to support herself and her 4-year-old daughter, says that Project Farewell has provided the spiritual support that she needed to become self-sufficient. She says that the four members of University Presbyterian who work with her have helped her realize that "I don't have to be the greatest because God is."Ms. McNair has benefited from the program in more tangible ways as well. Her church mentors have helped with such problems as transportation, finding a job, and preparing for interviews. "They've just been there for me whenever I needed them," she says. Ms. McNair is now off welfare and works as a secretary.Brian Flett, coordinator of Project Farewell, says that eight of the ten participants in the first year of the program have had similar success. Mr. Flett hopes to spread the idea to other churches across the state, noting that at least five in the Seattle area have already contacted him for information.For University Presbyterian, which has a budget of more than $2-million, paying for the $51,000 project hasn't been difficult."We're a large church," Mr. Flett says. "There's a lot of money here."Other churches are not as blessed in their financial resources. Liberty Baptist Church in Canton, Miss., for example, is part of the Faith and Families mentor program. The church is working with two welfare recipients, and the Rev. Isiac Jackson, Jr., is enthusiastic. "The Lord will make a difference in your life if you give him a chance," he says.But Mr. Jackson wonders how much help beyond the spiritual the church will be able to provide."We're not a megabucks church," he says, noting that Liberty Baptist brings in about $82,000 a year and that it took many years of frugality to build its present house of worship.The Rev. Ronald K. Moore, director of Faith and Families, believes that the spiritual element of his program will compensate for any financial shortcomings."If a person has been on welfare for two or three generations, their lives have to be changed," Mr. Moore says. "The church is the entity that has been given the power from God to do that."Financial struggles for participating churches are not the only problem that Faith and Families has run into. In the last two years, only 300 welfare recipients have been matched up with congregations out of about 44,000 eligible for the program statewide. Mr. Moore blames the slow start on state caseworkers who have been reluctant, he says, to refer people to Faith and Families for fear of losing their jobs as the welfare rolls dwindle.Frustrated by DelaysThe lack of participants has left some churches wondering if they will ever be matched with a welfare family. Christ United Methodist Church in Jackson, Miss., for example, signed up when the program was announced in 1995. But the 4,500-member parish, which has an annual budget of almost $3-million, was not assigned a family until last June."When we didn't get a family for so long we decided to go ahead and establish our own mentoring program," says Martha W. Walton, director of missions at the church. Parishioners at Christ United are now working with a dozen families in the economically depressed North Midtown neighborhood.Faith and Families has also been criticized for not offering sufficient social-work training to churches that participate in the program. "As far as I can see there is no training," Ms. Walton says. She notes that University Presbyterian has a full-time staff member who directs its mentor program.Participants in mentor programs in other states express similar misgivings about expecting volunteer church parishioners -- who often have little or no training -- to have success where government caseworkers have failed. In Texas, the Family Pathfinders program, supported by the state government, has matched about 250 welfare recipients with religious or civic groups in the last year. Volunteers go through a 4-hour training session, but some say that is not enough."We give 4 hours of training, and we think they're going to have more success than people who have masters of social work degrees," says John Stoesz, associate director of the Greater Dallas Community of Churches, which has helped recruit congregations for the program.Another problem with faith-based solutions, say some non-profit officials, is that churches -- which are often run mainly by volunteers -- lack the financial expertise to handle multimillion-dollar budgets.James P. Wind, executive director of the Alban Institute, a consulting group in Bethesda, Md., that works with congregations, says that churches and synagogues often have inadequate bookkeeping systems. He worries that as more funds from both government and private sources funnel into religious groups, that will open up the door to corruption."We know that there are huge abuses of fiscal responsibility in every sector of American life," he says. "We have not yet had to deal with a congregation that got a major grant and the money got horribly misused. But it's inevitable that something like that is going to happen."Some experts also worry about the lack of research examining the effectiveness of faith-based programs. Although boosters of religious programs often point to their superior results when compared with those run by the government or by secular charities, few of those programs have been rigorously studied."We've always thought we ought to spend our money on programs and not on statisticians," says the Rev. Stephen E. Burger, executive director of the International Union of Gospel Missions in Kansas City, Mo., an association of almost 250 Christian-based charities that work with the poor.To help deal with such problems, World Vision hopes to use its new resource centers, the Internet, and other methods to provide information to churches that are increasing their social-services work. Mark Publow, the group's vice-president for U.S. field operations, hopes that churches will be able to turn to the centers for a range of information, from advice on how to organize a faith-based mentor program to a data base of consultants who work with churches.Churches are "in real danger of being burned out given the additional pressures that welfare reform is creating," Mr. Publow says.World Vision is also creating a World-Wide Web site, called "Churches at Work," that it hopes will serve as an on-line resource guide for congregations. The site will feature profiles of successful church-based responses to the new welfare system, as well as discussion forums where congregations can share information and experiences. Mr. Publow says that he expects the site ( to be available by the end of this month.In spite of the challenges facing religious efforts, there is little doubt that for some people, antipoverty programs that focus on spirituality succeed where government and secular efforts have failed.Debra S. Knight says that she could have returned to the welfare rolls earlier this year when she left her husband and had no means of financial support for herself and her two young children. Instead, Ms. Knight enrolled in Labor with Integrity, Faith, and Thrift, or LIFT, a seven-month, Christian-based program run by the Christian Research Institute for Social and Economic Strategies in Austin, Texas.She went through a job-skills "boot camp" that she says stripped her of bad work habits, and had weekly meetings with a team of church mentors that helped her with financial planning, child-rearing skills, and Bible study, among other things. She now works for the LIFT program as a liaison to local businesses that are looking for employees.Ms. Knight says that the program has provided not only material support such as food to get her through a rough time but also the Bible-based spiritual support that she believes will keep her off the welfare rolls forever. No matter what difficulties she encounters in her life, Ms. Knight says, "what I've learned now, nobody can take it away."


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