Cover Story

On the front lines

An exclusive WORLD survey moves the debate over the faith-based initiative from theory to practice

Issue: "Keep the faith," June 23, 2001

Five months after President Bush announced the opening of his White House faith-based initiative, politicians and journalists are still theorizing about it. Few reporters, though, have surveyed those at the front lines, such as the heads of faith-based homeless shelters, about the problems they see and the solutions they prefer. WORLD did that last month, receiving three-page questionnaires from 96 members of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, and following that up with face-to-face interviews on May 29 and 30 at the AGRM convention in Phoenix. WORLD asked about barriers faced by these shelters, possible discrimination against Christian programs, experience with government officials, interest in applying for federal grants, willingness to restructure programs to make them more acceptable to government officials, and preference for tax credits as opposed to direct grants. This brief report emphasizes the responses of those who are colonels in the armies of compassion. It's easy for journalists to interview the usual suspects-Barry Lynn, Marvin Olasky-but what's crucial are the attitudes of those doing the hard, everyday work of suffering with those in need. Here are four key findings:

  • If the Bush administration were to make grants to Christian missions, three out of five organizations would not apply at this time. The administration has clearly not convinced most of the shelter heads that the faith-based initiative will not discriminate against their faith. Many will apply only if they receive assurances that, as a Springfield, Mass., mission put it, "We can maintain 'God' first and 'Gov.' second." An Anderson, Ind., leader gave the typical response: "Not if it means no sharing of faith or prayer."
  • Asked to choose between three major ways of getting federal funding to faith-based groups, 78 percent favor tax credits, 5 percent favor vouchers, and only 4 percent favor grants; 4 percent were undecided and 10 percent opposed all three mechanisms. Typical views were like this one from Pueblo, Colo: "Any vouchers or direct government grants would NOT be acceptable to our ministry as these would undoubtedly lead to government controls and restrictions on the Christian religious nature of our ministry." A Utica, N.Y., leader stated that "Tax credits empower the donor ... discretionary grants are least preferable because the government may award them arbitrarily." And a respondent from Fort Wayne, Ind., noted, "We can't afford the grant writing staff that much larger organizations have."
  • If the federal government stipulated that faith-based groups, to be eligible for governmental programs, had to segment their activities, so that some were defined as "religious" (and thereby ineligible) and others as "nonreligious" (thus eligible), 81 percent would not segment their programs at this time. One Philadelphia program stressed that "Evangelical faith-based organizations cannot segment their programs into 'religious' and 'nonreligious' aspects. Christ is the center of all we do." Other typical responses were, "Can I say that only parts of my life are religious? I hope not" (Rock Island, Ill.), and "It is inconsistent with our understanding of Scriptural teaching that our life or ministry can be segregated into sacred and secular" (Toledo).
  • Despite their disagreement with parts of what President Bush's faith-based office has proposed, most of the shelter leaders support the overall Bush goals. "Yes, level the playing field," a Phoenix leader wrote. A Reno director wrote, "As long as no attempt to silence our gospel message is made, I will work with my president." Asked what they would like to tell Mr. Bush, the head of an Ohio shelter said he would say, "Please, don't stop now," and a Massachusetts respondent offered, "We believe you have a pure heart and are willing to help us better serve those in need. We need the freedom to give real help to hurting people."

Shelters also reported on many of the barriers they face. Some are silly: A York, Penn., shelter learned several years back that "our Lighthouse Youth Center kitchen [had to] be licensed with ALL commercial equipment. We only serve juice and cookies." Others are run-of-the-bureaucratic-mill: An Eau Claire, Wis., leader pointed out that building codes "make it very expensive and difficult for a new shelter to open. The bureaucrats who write them seem to think that it is safer for a homeless person to stay on the street." Some barriers seem to evidence anti-religious discrimination, at times minor: When a Fresno, Calif., shelter received government funds for providing emergency shelter services, T-shirts with a Christian theme were not allowed. Other requirements strike at a Christian organization's central purpose: HUD officials told the head of a Flint shelter that it "meets the criteria for funding in every way except one-our faith-based mission statement. We were instructed to remove the phrase-'To demonstrate the love of Christ'-from our purpose statement. Then, and only then, would we be considered for the funding available. We did not, and will not, make that suggested change to our mission statement." These stories are from the perspective of the shelter directors, and government officials may see things differently. Overall, though, the testimony of the shelter heads is sadly repetitive, as a couple of Indiana examples suggest. A Lafayette shelter director relayed his instruction from a government official who said "we must remove biblical teaching to receive funds from them." A Muncie shelter director reported, "We have been receiving surplus food for many years through a local food bank-not being required to sign a contract stating we would comply with their requirements. Of course, one requirement being that no one receiving this food was required to attend a religious service. This year the signing of their contract was mandatory. We refused and thus do not receive surplus food from the government any longer." Shelters from Norfolk, Va., to Stockton, Calif., had trouble receiving USDA surplus food, which is supposed to be distributed to feed the hungry. Some voluntarily gave up their shipments "because we require chapel attendance"-and that's against the rules. In recent years homeless individuals who come to Christian shelters have also frequently lost use of food stamps (see WORLD, June 2, 2001). Numerous nonreligious groups have received funds for providing emergency shelter, but a Christian group in Philadelphia learned it was "not eligible for funds for sheltering people in emergencies because of mandatory chapel." Some groups have preserved their independence by hiding. A Philadelphia group noted, "We have purposefully stayed away from the regulators by remaining small and calling things by church names. Daycare is babysitting, treatment program is discipleship program." An Albuquerque group avoided problems because it described "programs in such a way to avoid being required to have licensing ... Learning Center rather than Medical Clinic." Sometimes ignorance has been bliss: A Nebraska faith-based group reported receiving "state funds since the early 1990s. The state has always viewed us as just a homeless agency. I'm not sure they know we have a 'religious' component to our programs." Most groups, however, have had their options limited by a commitment to honesty. Officials told a California group applying for funds to help with cold weather shelter expenses that it should "ignore" the clause in the contract mandating no religious service. The director, however, said he "could not deny or lie about our Christian gospel services, so we lost the funding." Local officials were often more favorable to shelters than their state or national counterparts. Missions in Kalamazoo, Birmingham, Portland, and Modesto, Calif., were among those reporting cooperative relationships. A Fort Wayne director reported that "Local government departments and workers are regular donors. They are helpful to us when we have questions about zoning and regulations.... The mayor sends food gifted to him over to us." The Salina, Kan., shelter director reported that "After purchasing our building from the State of Kansas we learned of furnishings to be discarded after all state agencies had a chance to receive these items. We were invited to make a list of all we needed ... we received many nice items." But relations with federal and state officials sometimes were bitter. The Findlay, Ohio, shelter head noted that "Our local government is very supportive," but "federal and state government could be more supportive of our programs by understanding that religious services are an integral part of services and do not represent a threat to individuals." The Reno shelter director observed that officials "choose to discriminate because we preach the gospel. They choose to overlook the tens of thousands of people we feed, clothe and house." The Madera, Calif., experience with government bureaucracies was, "To get any help from any of these we must do away with our program and revert to their ideas." Shelter directors tend to share two attitudes toward federal and state programs. The first is skepticism about the administration of high-sounding programs; as the Reno shelter head wrote, "Whatever is said or done on a Washington level is one thing. That which is mandated on a local level is something else." Along these lines, Robert Cox of the Kokomo shelter deserves a Wry Comment award: "We investigated the Indiana 'Faith Works' program as a possible funding source for the purchase/ remodeling of a building for a homeless women and children's shelter. We were refused help because the program to be operated in the shelter required participation in religious (faith) activities. That is why faith-based programs work." The second attitude is skepticism about consistency. A Philadelphia manager responded, "I don't trust the rules to remain stable." (His shelter limits its own involvement: "We are subject to termination of some of our food programs at any time. Therefore, we take a minimum amount ... so we do not rely on them too heavily.") Several of the shelters said they would accept government money for capital expenses, but the Philadelphia response was, "In four or eight years someone might come in and say we couldn't do evangelism in the building where government money has been used-after the fact." (That's what the Clinton administration did last year to a shelter in Clinton, Iowa, that faces HUD demands for a $100,000 payback because of violating a "no religion" clause.) President George W. Bush has recently returned to his campaign theme of protecting religious institutions. He speaks frequently about trust. On May 22 he told leaders of Hispanic faith-based groups that "one of our commitments is that we will work tirelessly to make sure that bureaucracies don't stifle the very reason you exist in the first place, and the power of your ministries, which is faith." Two days later he noted, in Cleveland, that "there are many in our society who fear what interfacing with the federal government can mean. And my pledge to the faith-based community in America is my administration will do everything in our power to make sure that those who do interface with government never have to sacrifice their mission, their reason for being." That's what his administration will have to prove to those who have been burned in previous dealings with Washington. A Modesto, Calif., shelter reported that "We are unable to apply to receive any public funding because our programs are permeated with our Christian beliefs." A Roanoke Rapids, N.C., shelter urged President Bush to "Remove all restrictions on religious conduct and activity, and focus on accountability." The White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives could gain from these shelter leaders a lot of street-level expertise. The Galesburg, Ill., shelter suggested that before offering funds officials should "Make sure the faith-based organizations are well-established ones ... not fly-by-night, new start-up, religious con organizations." The White House, to earn the support of the leaders of Christian armies of compassion, needs to show its understanding of what the Toledo shelter proclaimed: "All that we do, whether providing meals or beds or clothing or counseling, all is done to the glory of God and for ONE purpose, to share the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and to disciple men and women in Christ.... To deny this is to deny our most basic purpose for being." But many shelters would deny that such a strong statement means they are any more faith-based than organizations that implicitly espouse secularism. As a Modesto, Calif., leader said, "Every organization is faith-based. Our faith happens to be Christian." It's still not clear whether the White House will propose what the shelter leaders clearly want. The Pueblo, Colo., director was insistent: "The ONLY one of the possibilities that would be acceptable to our ministry would be tax credits." But they also want their experience to be taken seriously. As the Madera, Calif., shelter head observed, "The government does not know what is best. We are on the front lines, not them."

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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