Playing with fire?

National | The government gave money to the Victory Center in Clinton, Iowa, and now it wants that money back

Issue: "Linda Chavez," Jan. 20, 2001

Last year, the long arm of the Clinton administration extended all the way to Clinton, Iowa, where Sandra-a 29-year-old single mother-had a simple goal: "I want to start enjoying life instead of just surviving."

Surviving for Sandra meant recovering from a drug addiction, escaping an abusive relationship, and fleeing early last year, with her 2-month-old son, to the old lumber town named Clinton on the edge of the Mississippi River.

There she saw Victory Garden, a just-opened, one-story, green-shuttered, brown-painted women's shelter resting on a four-acre plot behind the local K-Mart. But it was the activity behind the walls that she found crucial: housing and job-skill training within a Christian program designed to build and strengthen participants' relationship with God. "That is the only thing that has saved me," Sandra said last fall, half a year after she moved in. "Now I can be stable and not have to worry that something is going to happen."

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Her choice now stands in jeopardy, because Victory Garden was built with $100,000 of federal money, and the plan was to keep it going with the rest of a $367,750 grant received by its parent organization, Victory Center. But the Clinton administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) last year informed Victory Center that it will lose the rest of the grant, and have to pay back what it already has received, unless it forms a secular entity to oversee Victory Garden.

The story behind the grant involves Ray Gimenez, a former baseball player turned pastor; he played in minor leagues from 1971 to 1975 and spent two weeks with the major league Detroit Tigers. Later, he set up an emergency men's shelter that developed such a good reputation that HUD in 1998 awarded his Victory Center a grant to build a transitional housing unit for women. His application included a statement that Victory Center's purpose is "to provide both spiritual and professional help and counseling to the needy."

Since anyone who visited his men's shelter quickly learned of the daily chapel services and Bible studies that form a central part of the program, Mr. Gimenez assumed his religious affiliation was not an issue: "On the original [HUD] application the question was asked of us if we were religious-yes or no-and we marked yes. Then a few months later we got the award." Mr. Gimenez then spent the next two years purchasing land and transforming an old railroad barracks into a shelter.

Last May, however, HUD made an on-site inspection, and in September, HUD officials notified Mr. Gimenez that he had violated a requirement that the women's shelter be under secular control; HUD allowed 30 days to provide proof of compliance. Asked whether HUD knew before the inspection that Victory Garden was a religious program, HUD public affairs spokesman Steve Shelley responded, "I honestly don't know if that's the case." A letter signed by HUD official Gregory Bevirt states that "It was not until our on-site visit and subsequent review that we became aware that the Victory Center was a primarily religious organization."

In October, the Victory Center board unanimously voted to lose its grant money rather than give up its Christian affiliation. Just before Christmas, however, Mr. Bevirt informed the board that Victory Center would also have to pay back approximately $100,000 already spent to establish the shelter. Mr. Bevirt refused to talk with WORLD about Victory Garden.

Mr. Gimenez said he will abide by the law for now, but intends to challenge HUD policy later this year. "I'm not going to just stay quiet," he said. "I am going to fight this all the way to Washington if I have to." Meanwhile, the women's shelter has lost all paid employees and most of its occupants, including 11 women and 10 children. Sandra remains at Victory Garden for the time being, but other women and children are now living in low-income apartments where crime abounds.

This type of shutdown is not supposed to happen in welfare programs generally. As part of welfare reform, Congress in 1996 passed "Charitable Choice" legislation that allows welfare-related, faith-based programs to receive government assistance while still maintaining a religious emphasis. But that law did not make a difference for Mr. Gimenez, since Charitable Choice at present does not affect HUD regulations, and the Clinton administration generally took a hard line against faith-based groups that emphasize preaching and prayer.

Victory Garden may have a second life, because President-elect George W. Bush hopes to expand the non-bias principle to all federal programs. But one legacy of the Clinton administration has been a strengthening of a sense among many religious nonprofit leaders that partnering with government is playing with fire. "I have an aversion to any help from the government at all," said Vernon Jackson of The Battered Women's Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas. "They don't want to see the Word of God in any of your literature."


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