Breaking Down the Wall

A quiet revolution is taking place as religious groups begin ministering to the poor using government money -- and succeeding where government couldn't. But eternal vigilance may be the real price.

When Latosha Hopkins finished high school, she thought glumly, "What's next for me?" Already 21, with a toddler, no husband and no job, she knew what employers would think when they saw holes like Swiss cheese in her meager resume. "They look down on you if you've been on welfare," she says. "Even my relatives used to say stuff like 'She's not going to make it.'" Her eyes go bleak, remembering. Then she brightens and leans forward, and you get the feeling that if somebody handed her a microphone, she'd use it. "Guess what?" she announces. "I'm making it."

Last summer, Hopkins' caseworker referred her to a new welfare-to-work program at Union Memorial United Methodist Church. It was a church-state purist's nightmare: She wasn't notified of any alternative, nonreligious programs; she wasn't Methodist; she didn't live nearby; the referral was random, arriving in the mail without explanation. Yet when you remind her that she had a right to choose a different program, or to complain if they "proselytized," she looks hurt. "I'm glad they sent me there," she exclaims. "It's a church home for me now." Ah, but did she want a church home? "Yes," she says shyly. "I did.

"They didn't put any of their religious things on us or anything," Hopkins adds, sensing reflex liberal panic. "In the life-skills class, Antonio talked about self-respect and self-confidence. He gave me all of that back." Was the experience different because it was "faith-based"? "Maybe you feel a little bit secure," she answers slowly, "knowing they probably won't mess you around."

Now a paid secretary for the church, she loves computers with Bill Gates' passion; she's preparing for college and enrolling her 4-year-old in Head Start. "It's good that a lot of churches are getting involved," Hopkins says firmly, "because they are concerned about getting ladies off welfare." Wasn't the state concerned? "Oh," she gasps, air knocked out by the very idea. She tries to explain. But laughter wins.

Hopkins' frank response might sting a bit, but both the federal government and the state Division of Family Services (DFS) have come to agree with her: Religion can do things government can't.

In the past, if a religion wanted to provide public services with public funds, it usually spun off a separate, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, comfortably removed from a physical church or synagogue, accountable to government evaluation and subject to federal laws against discrimination.

But in 1996, Missouri's own U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft tacked a "charitable choice" provision onto the federal welfare-reform legislation, and it passed (see sidebar). Now Union Memorial United Methodist can teach Hopkins and other state-referred clients in the church basement, surrounded by religious symbols. The church can hire only Methodists and discipline them if they're not good Methodists, all the while paying them with Hindu taxpayers' money. And though they can't use that money to proselytize, they could use their own money and proselytize to the same clients. The only condition is that "getting religion" never become a prerequisite for receiving services.

Ashcroft's provision knocked a layer of bricks off the wall between church and state. Religious groups can stand tall, sure their identities won't be attacked, and meet eager government funders eye-to-eye. The good news is spreading fast: According to a 1998 National Congregations Study, only 3 percent of congregations currently receive government funding, but 36 percent will consider applying under charitable choice. Even Sunshine Mission, a local Christian shelter and residential program that makes chapel and Bible study mandatory, says they may reconsider their historic avoidance of government funding and start a third program with religious activities optional, now that the state's being so generous.

"The charitable-choice provision is fairly revolutionary," remarks Dr. Derek Davis, director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco, Texas. "This is the first time Congress has sought to pass legislation that would put significant amounts of money in the hands of churches and what are known in the law as 'pervasively sectarian organizations.'" What triggered the shift? "The sense that we are in an unprecedented moral free fall," he answers deliberately, "and if we can just get the money in the hands of the really good people -- that is, the religious people -- we can get back on course."

Well, is it true?
Faith-based organizations (FBOs, in the new lingo) do bring extra social, physical and financial resources to bear. They have a history of community connection. They have employees who are driven by a desire to serve God, not just collect a paycheck. They're used to rolling up their sleeves and making do, without bitterness or cynicism. They're even rumored to be trustworthy, to care genuinely and unconditionally about everyone.

Because of who they are, FBOs can reach to the core of someone's beliefs about herself and the world, easing fears too raw to be covered over, extracting dignity from a muck of self-hatred. The very presence of faith suggests the possibility of forgiveness and a fresh start. In sum, FBOs promise hope. And when someone's living in a blighted neighborhood listening to family members tell her she'll always be on welfare, hope is not idle holytalk. It is balm.

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