From the Worldwide Faith News archives

United Methodists see potential in faith-based initiatives

Date 09 Feb 2001 14:24:17

Feb. 9, 2001 News media contact: Joretta Purdue ·(202) 546-8722·Washington

By United Methodist News Service

Several United Methodists involved in providing social service programs
reacted hopefully to the President Bush's proposal for making federal
resources available for faith-based initiatives.

"I am very pleased that the government is, seemingly, recognizing the work
that faith-based organizations have been doing in their communities and sees
them as very important in the community," said the Rev. Randolph Nugent,
head of the United Methodist mission agency.  That said, he went on to list
several concerns.

The Rev. William "Bill" H. Robinson Jr., pastor of Theressa Hoover United
Methodist Church, Little Rock, Ark., and director of the locally based Black
Community Development Program, heads a multifaceted program that uses both
federal and state funding in providing a range of services.

"I would hope it would be an opportunity to get dollars to empower people,"
he said of the proposed federal plan.

Sarah Wilke, director of urban strategies for the North Texas Conference,
said the proposed program has value if it simply breaks down barriers that
have often existed between the private and public sectors of social service.

"Separation of church and state should take place but not hinder us from
working hand in hand," insisted Wilke, who was director of the Wesley-Rankin
Community Center in Dallas for 12 years before she took her current position
last year.

She points to the summer program for school children she and missionary
Shawn Jucht started in 1998. This year, the program will expand to six
locations in the Dallas area. Thirty college students, chosen for an
eight-week internship by the church, will be paid by the federal Americorps
program for their work with the children and volunteers. 

"Americorps makes it work," she declared. The North Texas Food Bank provides
food for the children, who are almost all from minority populations, mostly
Hispanic. "We raise the dollars for training the interns and any religious
activity," she added. The program is so successful that it now has an
after-school component.

Dean Pulliam, chief executive of the United Methodist Association of Health
and Welfare Ministries, Dayton, Ohio, said, "We're heartened that President
Bush has taken the initiative to push this kind of idea forward and we think
it is the right time for this kind of step on the part of government." 

He expressed hope that such a plan would reach some of the people who are
not being served currently by government social services but turn to the
faith-based community for help.

"In regard to the initiative, we certainly hope it will be welcomed and
funded by Congress because the faith community cannot respond to the
ever-increasing need without additional funding assistance," Pulliam

Wilke stressed the need for a collaborative approach. The commitment of
faith-based organizations enables them to serve more people for fewer
dollars, she said, but she does not want federal programs turned over to
religious organizations. Working in partnership makes programs more
effective, she advocated.

"The partnership between government and faith-based programs has been in
effect for a number of years," Pulliam said. "In fact, the institutional
ministries of the United Methodist denomination are some of the best
examples of the positive outcomes of that working partnership." 

Using a combination of federal dollars and charitable contributions, United
Methodist organizations have provided "a significant ministry on behalf of
the church to supplement the government's need for social services and
health care services all across our country," he explained.

The Black Community Development Program in Little Rock, a part of the United
Methodist Board of Global Ministries program with the same name, is a case
in point.

Robinson said the operation offers the only faith-based certified
substance-abuse program in Arkansas. The program works with youth who have
become involved with the courts or with gangs. Another component is a
program of sexual abstinence for teens. 

The services also include a domestic violence program; a tutorial program
that includes access to computers with the local school curriculum; an HIV
program directed at the behaviors that put people at-risk, a program that
offers testing and counseling and addresses public policy; and a housing
program that began with preparing first-time home buyers and includes
building houses with federal money. 

As a community-based organization, Robinson notes, the program is separately
incorporated and its organizational structure guarantees that the community
provides 51 percent of the board of directors. The church names the others.
He sees this as a way of making sure that "the community feels empowered to
work with the church and the church works with the community - rather than
the church works for the community."

Robinson said he thinks the opportunity to do faith-based services is a good
one, but he urges more clarity in defining the roles of government and the
faith-based organizations.

"We don't take on anything that is not a part of our mission," he said of
the Black Community Development Program at the church. "Make sure the money
doesn't take you away from your mission," he warned.  

That need for clarity and definition led Nugent to suggest that the
denomination have conversations about its understanding and expectations.

"There needs to be a denominational discussion about this," Nugent said,
"because what's at issue is the fragmentation of our community response."
Perhaps the church's General Council on Ministries might take the initiative
in establishing a forum for such conversation, he suggested, that would
include the church's financial administration arm as a partner.

Nugent also mentioned the importance of understanding that the faith-based
organizations are involved "as a matter of faith and not as a matter of
politics." The religious communities need to be careful "their message and
their advocacy for people not be watered down, or that the organizations not
become docile and captive or servants of government."

He expressed grave concern about how the selection of participating
organizations will be made if the program is implemented. "Are all
faith-based groups equal in the eyes of the government?" he asked. Choosing
which organizations could participate threatens to involve the government in
a way that it probably would not want to be and in a way he certainly does
not want it involved, he said. 

"Once you're in to faith-based things, faith in itself comes into play,"
Nugent remarked. Some faith-based organizations, he explained, may believe
their prayers or religious practices are what makes their programs work.

He also anticipated difficulty with assuring government funding long enough
to effectively eliminate - not just alleviate - fundamental problems. And,
he added, he hopes that money for these programs will not be siphoned off
from traditional services, such as education.

"What will the standards be?" Nugent asked. "What level of service is
acceptable? What will be the accreditation level and who is going to
determine that? What would happen to funding if a community program that had
several locations was doing poorly in a few places while thriving in others?

"Congress has not looked at the matter yet," he said, "so all of this is
still speculative."

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