Building a wall between heart and hand

"Building a wall between heart and hand" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

So long as the conditions for federal dollars include a prohibition of "inherently religious" activities, many Christians prefer privately funded ministries. Chris Plummer, executive director of Community New Start (CNS) in Austin, Texas, calls the Faith-Based Initiative a farce: "They want to tell you the way you can say Jesus."

A subsection of the Initiative's instructions to ministries confirms that charge. After posing the hypothetical question, "If someone asks me about my faith, can I share it with them?" the White House pamphlet answers, "You should set up a time to speak with that person later. In this way, you avoid using government funds for what might be taken to be an inherently religious activity, and the program is kept on track." Most truly faith-based ministries might better describe such a lost opportunity for evangelism as pushing the program decidedly off track.

Mr. Plummer's ministry operates largely on the support of a local church. Since 1996, CNS has worked in one of Austin's lowest-income communities to develop relationships and do holistic ministry. Offering job placement, after-school programs, help with drug and alcohol recovery, medical checkups, food distribution, and the fluidity to broaden its scope as needed, CNS could likely qualify for large sums of government money. But Mr. Plummer insists, "There are too many strings attached."

Besides governmental requirements to compartmentalize sacred and secular activity, Mr. Plummer says taking federal money can potentially hurt fundraising in other areas. Many evangelical philanthropic organizations harbor healthy suspicions of ministries financially dependent on the government, noting that such ministries tend to slide toward secularization.

The CNS after-school program does not compromise. Currently available in two elementary schools and one middle school, Smart Start uses school property for its four primary activities: tutoring, organized recreation, Bible studies, and singing praise to God. CNS has yet to experience resistance to conducting such explicitly religious behavior on state-owned land. The reason: The academic aptitude of students participating in the daily three-hour program has improved by an average of one full letter grade. "Teachers love it, because they see the change in students," Mr. Plummer said. "We present ourselves as a free option. Kids don't have to be in it. We just want to use their rooms. It's hard to say no to that."

Such sub-radar flight would not be possible were CNS connected to federal funding and the pervasive spotlight that accompanies it. Even in the shadows of private support, however, Mr. Plummer anticipates resistance. An overzealous teacher, a disgruntled student, a story in the wrong newspaper-the possibilities for problems seem endless. "If we can build up momentum," he said, "then when those battles do come, and they will come, we'll have enough acceptance to fight them."

Strong community relationships are central for establishing such broad acceptance and for achieving ministerial aims. Recording the progress of relational successes, however, is difficult. Private financial supporters may not restrict express religious activity, but most prefer to view documented results before signing any checks. Both CNS and Camp Alandale must continually make efforts to quantify the respective fruit of their ministries.

For CNS, grade improvements, employment rates, and church attendance tell at least part of the story. Alandale records how many campers go on to become camp counselors (80) or staff members (six). The most provocative illustrations of success, however, do not rely on statistical data but rather come from individual stories: a young Hispanic farm girl moving from the nightmare of daily sexual abuse to high-school gradu-ation, financial independence, and spiritual renewal; an American Indian boy escaping from a reservation culture that had ensconced his parents in drug and alcohol abuse.

The stories are additional evidence of what Amy Sherman of the Hudson Institute notes: "The most effective groups challenge those who embrace faith to live out its moral implications in every significant area of their lives, from breaking drug or alcohol addiction and repairing family relationships to recommitting themselves to the value of honest work." Given that evidence, government programs should not pressure organizations to choose between passing out soup and communicating biblical truth.


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