Shortly after President Bush’s first address to Congress, the nation got a taste of those who might be manning faith-based and community initiatives at the local level. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Rev. Randall E. McCaskill, director of that city’s faith-based outreach, was facing charges of theft and mismanagement for allegedly pocketing $6,200 of funds given to his clergy organization to print sample ballots and pay campaign workers.
Rev. McCaskill’s indictment was only a two-day story. Still, it was a powerful reminder of all the things that could go wrong with the faith-based initiative and added fuel to the growing criticism of the president’s signature proposal. By spring, Bush was winning on tax cuts, but losing the initiative. Many formerly supportive politicians, such as Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, were backing out. Prominent religious conservatives had jumped ship, calling the initiative a threat to the independence of religious charities. Everyone wanted the administration to be more forthcoming with details on how the initiative would work in practice.
From the earliest moments of his career Bush has fought for faith-based organizations so he could widen the reach of effective charitable organizations. His first faith-based fight came six years ago, a short time into his first term as the governor of Texas. The popular drug rehab program Teen Challenge was involved in a dustup with the Texas bureaucracy. The Commission of Alcohol and Drug Abuse was threatening to shut it down for not using licensed counselors, among other regulatory violations.
Then-Governor Bush sided with Teen Challenge and established a commission to study the matter. The commission’s recommendations were never really in doubt—the governor had loaded it with representatives of the religious community—so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the commission came back with the idea of setting up an alternative regulatory process faith-based organizations could use to get state approval. Bush then pushed it in the state legislature. The changes took effect in 1997 and applied primarily to drug rehab and child care.
The idea worked. Scores of churches signed up the year the state began to consider funding for faith-based organizations. Texas churches have long been involved in helping the unfortunate, and it’s too early to determine the impact these changes have had. But those who run faith-based organizations say they can now find people in the government who understand their approach—the bureaucracy is now less hostile to religious help.
It remains to be seen if Bush can repeat that performance now that he is in the White House. The details of his initiative—especially how the “bright line” between funding social services and proselytization will be drawn—remain sketchy. But one ancillary benefit of Bush’s focus on religious charities has been to highlight the effectiveness of these organizations in alleviating poverty, addiction, and other social ills. For every McCaskill, there are ten examples of faith-based groups partnering with government to achieve real results.
Take Michael Hays, pastor of Britton Christian Church in Oklahoma City. Nearly six years ago, Hays and several others in the church realized Britton’s neighborhood outreach had grown too large to handle. It was time to found a separate 501(c)(3) organization with its own staff that would work side by side with the church. The result was Urban Impact.
Last year, Urban Impact had a budget of only $250,000, but worked with hundreds of children each month—531 in one program alone in December. Not all of the children show up voluntarily. The local district attorney assigns juveniles sentenced to community service in the northwest part of the city to Urban Impact through a program called the North Highlands Project. That project’s director, Alonzo Cheatham, has offenders engage in typical community service activities—picking up trash and cleaning toilets. But his approach goes a few steps further.
Urban Impact runs several athletic programs, including a tae kwon do school at which Cheatham is the instructor. The kids can’t work off community service hours by going to tae kwon do, but they show up in droves anyway to enjoy the athletics and each other’s company. But Urban Impact has bigger goals than fitness and socializing. Tae kwon do isn’t just a workout: it requires discipline and teaches children who are prone to misbehavior how to interact appropriately with their peers.
Sometimes the results are immediate and amazing. One 13-year-old boy went from punk to respected classmate in three weeks. He was new to tae kwon do, but immediately started picking fights with the black belts, looking for attention in a negative way. Cheatham came up with a solution. One day he called the boy to the front of the class and asked him to break a board. The boy hit the board with all his might, but it didn’t break, even after several tries. The boy was embarrassed and wanted to quit. “Alonzo wouldn’t let him,” Urban Impact executive director Marie Burns remembers. So the boy kept hitting the board and on his sixth try it finally broke. The whole class clapped. He was the star, this time for something positive. “His attitude changed right there,” Burns said. The boy had found acceptance.
So where’s the religious component? Primarily, it is the motivation for the project, the thing that keeps Hays, Burns, Cheatham, and others coming in day after difficult day. Faith is also in the background of each program. Children who are taught how to socialize in tae kwon do learn a valuable lesson about personal relationships and about relationships with a community. That can be a building block for developing a relationship with God, Burns said.
“It’s about giving these children good peers,” says Hays. That can lead some children to come to Bible study with their friends—and has drawn some parents into the local church after their children built friendships there through Urban Impact.
So what about federal money? Urban Impact already gets federal funding—$50,000 last year. Cheatham used part of the money to launch a program that worked with public school kids who faced suspension. The idea was to catch them before they were expelled or dropped out. More funding could mean restarting that program.
Going Beyond Reform
In 1994, Republicans took advantage of a decades-long shift in public attitudes toward government-run social service programs to pass the 1996 welfare reform bill. States started receiving more money in block grants and demanding that welfare recipients seek work, while welfare programs were refocused toward getting people off the public dole.
The goal then was to reform the bureaucracy. The faith-based and community initiative has a different focus—retooling social services to direct resources to the most intimate level of personal interaction. The bureaucracy’s cookie cutter approach failed to solve complex and personal problems. For the president, reaching out to religious organizations seemed the next logical step.
That’s where organizations like Cornerstone Assistance come in. Cornerstone is a private organization in Forth Worth, Texas, with 14 full-time employees and twelve part-timers. Its five divisions—housing, community, resource network, development, and comprehensive—helped more than 17,000 people last year. Cornerstone receives federal funds, including $720,000 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, even though it is paired and works closely with Cornerstone Christian Organization.
The HUD grants fund an 18-bed housing facility for homeless men. (Cornerstone runs a similar, privately-funded facility for women.) Each occupant pays a percentage of his income as rent, shares basic housekeeping duties—for example, cleaning the communal bathrooms and kitchen and cooking for housemates—and is expected to work toward self-sufficiency.
Cornerstone works with families and individuals who continually scrape bottom, but it isn’t a faceless bureaucracy that hands the destitute a rent check, says good luck, and walks away. Its “comprehensive” division helps the non-mentally ill homeless, taking them into the “Community of Hope” to help them get back on their feet. Within its development division, it works with individuals to develop a written plan for rebuilding their lives. That sounds basic, but often changing small habits is the key to a new lifestyle—whether the problem is paying the rent, buying food, or holding a job.
The biggest problem most people face is “they just don’t want to be held accountable,” Cornerstone director Mike Doyle says of the people he helps. “They aren’t willing to own up to mistakes. They want a temporary fix.” Sometimes only basic discipline is required, “like buying canned goods at the beginning of the month instead of steaks,” Doyle says, so there’s food left at the end of the month.
Cornerstone doesn’t advertise, instead relying on church referrals and word of mouth. And in many ways the relationship between Cornerstone and local churches is a two-way street. The Resource Network coordinates donations and other charity from more than 200 churches, including running a 25,000 square foot warehouse that refurbishes donated furniture and other items before giving them to needy families.
Faith does play a role here. “We’re not a church, but we can refer people” seeking spiritual guidance, explains Doyle. More importantly, he says, faith requires that he be nondiscriminatory in providing help to the needy. Christianity compels us to love our neighbor, Doyle explains. When that neighbor is not and never will be a Christian, “God requires us to walk down the same path in helping them.”
A Stake in the Community
Sometimes it takes an innovative approach more commonly seen in entrepreneurs than bureaucrats to overcome poverty. Donald McCoy and Chris Mangum, two Mennonite minister, didn’t have the typical vision of job placement. One day, the two were discussing all the idle but able hands filling church pews in Raleigh, North Carolina. They thought churches were ideally situated to help poor individuals remove roadblocks to employment, whether it takes learning to be on time, getting a ride, or developing necessary skills. And, after speaking with business owners, they knew that it would be easier for them to take a chance on someone with no experience if a local church committed to help that person.
“Finding good employees has an effect on the bottom line,” because it costs thousands of dollars to replace an employee, says present national director Skip Long. Working with churches, it can pay for businesses to be responsible socially. So five years ago, he matched twelve local churches with businesses.
Now, the Jobs Partnership operates in 20 cities and has plans to expand into 15 more, including Washington, D.C. So far, 1,300 chronically unemployed people have used the partnership to help them start working. Amazingly, 82 percent of them are still employed years later, often for the same company.
The key is the personal relations that developed between churches, business leaders, and those seeking employment. Those relationships make it possible to provide the kind of help needed, at the right speed. Long runs the nonprofit with one assistant and a budget of about $100,000. Each city has its own chapter, leadership, and network of financial support. Federal money, in such a decentralized organization, would be targeted for specific purposes, such as starting a computer lab. The bottom line is that “the community has to own the program,” Long says. “You have to have your own skin on the table.”
Brendan Miniter is assistant editor of OpinionJournal.com, the Web site of the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.