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.

Even the stats support religion. "Faith-based substance-abuse programs tend to work better," notes Susan Orr, who tracks welfare reform for Reason Public Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's easier to quit if you can say God is helping you." Study after secular study names religious participation as a hedge against crime and substance abuse. When Carol Clarkson, associate director of Sunshine Mission, went to D.C. to meet with government agencies, one official told her the success rate for long-term rehab programs like Sunshine Mission is 70 percent -- for government programs, it's 20 percent.

Loving Thy Neighbor
Tucked upstairs in the massive limestone Third Baptist Church building on Grand Avenue are the lively offices of the Center for Faith Action and Response (C-FAR -- get it?), an interfaith network that's balancing a dizzying array of community-church-government partnerships. The phones ring constantly: "Yeah, things are moving fast -- just not fast enough," executive director Linda Kessler tells a caller, after fielding questions about a job fair and a new referral list.

Kessler's passionate about the opportunities of charitable choice, but she's not the least bit naive about the barriers, compromises and church-state nuances. When the most recent group of welfare-to-work participants came for orientation, she had them sign a covenant saying they have the right not to be evangelized, coerced or converted, but it's fine to talk about faith's role in their lives.

"We so firmly believe that individuals need to be reconnected and re-engaged in their community," she explains, bubbling enthusiasm into the day's first quiet moment. "The church is the logical body to do that. One, it's their mandate: You can't do ministry in the absence of community. Two, these families have no social capital. If they can start building relationships where they are, with the church as a cocoon of support ..."

For too long, she hints, churches have cocooned only their own members. Irony of ironies, it's the new government contracts that are reconnecting FBOs to their neighborhoods, to one-on-one relationships instead of safe handouts of canned food; and to the age-old social problems they've distanced themselves from, emotionally and sometimes even physically.

Kessler sees charitable choice as a way to revitalize, to recapture the mission. That's why she was puzzled a few weeks ago, when she attended Call to Renewal's National Summit on Churches and Welfare and kept running into people leery of the new contracts, clueless about religion's new role. Even in her own faith home, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, "many of our colleagues are involved in Americans for the Separation of Church and State," she notes wryly. "They have grave concerns that we have accepted this funding. Our response is: 'Then you provide the funds we need to reach these families.'"

C-FAR, like the other welfare-to-work contractors, receives $1,800 per person (plus or minus bonuses and fees) from the state. With that sum, they must find clients, persuade them to sign a contract, find them services, impart life and communication skills, prepare them to work, train them in computers or job skills, help them find a job, and oversee their progress for a year afterward. If a client has a family crisis or stops showing up for work, they're still responsible until the contract ends, even if they've already collected (and spent) the allotted funds.

Church-state debate's a luxury. These programs don't have time to spout dogma, let alone worry about hypothetical conflicts. Just getting referrals was a bureaucratic obstacle course: Initially, all the state did was divvy up alphabetical slices of the welfare rolls. "They gave us 150 Joneses and Johnsons all over the city," groans Kessler, "and only three in the ZIP code we'd specified. We were ready to rename our program the Jones & Johnson program!"

Daycare wasn't available when it was supposed to be, she adds, so several families were forced to bail out on work programs or even jobs, and clients with substance-abuse problems couldn't even get into the notoriously overbooked Medicaid treatment programs, let alone move past addiction to job training. (DFS just met with the Missouri Department of Health to talk about capacity.)

Other obstacles are less obvious -- but harder to roll off the path. One client had gotten a good job, she had a car, she was ready to go to St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley and become a teacher. So she went to take her GED -- and failed part of it. "When she came out, she was crying hysterically," recalls Kessler. "I found out that the morning she went to take the GED, she convinced her mom to come babysit her little boy and they had a big blowup. Her mom said, 'Why are you even doing that? You're always going to be on welfare.'"

The young woman failed obediently -- then fell off the face of the earth. She's still working, Kessler's heard, but she hasn't gotten in touch with C-FAR. "One consequence for us is we don't get her incentive dollars for her being at work, because you have to be able to verify employment, and she hadn't given us her security number." The pattern's not uncommon: "They take flight when they don't succeed."

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