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.

Feb 17, 1999 at 4:00 am
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.

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."

Now Kessler's calling everybody she knows in that neighborhood, trying to reconnect. That's better than burying the file, burned-out-social-worker-style -- but how many times will she be able to stand failing? "It's just real clear to me that for now, God wants me to use whatever talents he's given me here," she says. "It's not fun sometimes; I'm seeing too much pain and I don't like it. But I'm a big believer in community: What happens to one of us happens to all of us."

In Loco Parentis
C-FAR's emphasis is communal, but at Missouri Baptist Children's Home, they see their new welfare-to-work program as a highly personal form of prevention, a way to ward off the abuse and neglect that send so many children into their care. Case manager Marshea Culbreath used to work for DFS but adamantly prefers this atmosphere. "I can share my faith with my clients without worrying about getting fired," she explains. "I can pray with them, give them a Scripture. If I offend them, they can call, but I'm not going to lose my job."

"You might get a raise!" teases the PR director, Lori Dyess. But Culbreath's not smiling. "A lot of the people I was attempting to help," she says softly, "the only one who could help them was God."

Family Works director Von Hulin nods soberly. "Jesus talked to the masses, but where people noticed the big difference is where they were one-to-one with him. The state was doing this work with very little contact, very little accountability, very little relationship, if any. DFS workers don't have time to do what we do. When one of our first ladies got a job, we gave her a little clock. She just shined. We took some of our clients to Dress for Success, and they fixed them up to the nines. Maybe nobody had ever made them feel like they were worth fixing up."

Culbreath hears every day about people whose families function more like lead weights than boosters. "If you're used to your family member sitting home with you all day watching the soap operas, and then they decide to get up and do something.... " The problem's familiar: "It's that generational 'I didn't go anywhere, and I don't have any hope for you.' But this is the last generation of people receiving benefits; they can't do it the way it's always been done."

Culbreath's learning triage (in a recent list of referrals, one woman was six months pregnant and another had only an eighth-grade education; no way would either make it to full-time jobs within the contract year), and she's learning firmness. At first, she drove clients to job interviews herself -- "I'd just get so excited if they got an interview!" Then a young woman got the job but lost it because she couldn't manage to arrange transportation for herself. Culbreath had to report the woman for sanctions -- something everybody's been wondering whether marshmallow-hearted churchfolk would be able to do. But at Family Works, sanctions are seen as a practical necessity. "We're giving them opportunities, teaching them to fish," remarks Hulin. "At some point, you get to a place where you're not really helping them."

Unlike many of the new FBOs running welfare-to-work programs, Missouri Baptist Children's Home is an established 501(c)(3) social-service agency, long used to bureaucratic constraints. (When they hire, they can't even stipulate churchgoing, let alone Baptist, so they have to play games, like asking for a letter from someone's pastor.) Still, their Christianity soaks all the way down to the language on their brochure, which promises "preventive and redemptive services." Will the new government contracts compromise that mission?

So far, the question's merely amusing: The Family Works program doesn't even come close to paying for itself, and the contract requirements are so basic, no one could disagree. But Hulin says the program's board is perfectly ready to renounce state funding the minute it interferes with their faith. "We do what we do; we are who we are. If this stops working, we'll assume it's not God's choice for us."

Meanwhile, 15 clients are employed; one's volunteering at a potential place of employment; six are finishing high school or job training; seven are job-hunting; 15 just enrolled in the program.

"People are starting to trust us a little bit," finishes Hulin. "These women who've been on assistance forever, why should they bother changing when nobody ever checked on them? And without that piece of hope -- even for the staff, we need that, because sometimes what we do can seem incredibly hopeless." She shakes her head ruefully. "I don't know how people do it without God."

To Give and Not to Count the Cost
Union Memorial United Methodist Church is a large, oddly angled building that faces Belt Avenue with so much stained glass you could melt it down into a rainbow. Inside, you find all the peace of a sanctuary -- and all the tensions of a bureaucratic battlefield.

Pastor Lynn Mims urges you into his church-red carpeted office and hurriedly shuts the door: Babies are sleeping downstairs, their moms bent intently over computer keyboards. The three government contracts -- welfare-to-work, childcare and community organizing -- are going beautifully. Still, this first year's been a frustrating one, and he's exasperated enough to tell you why.

The church subcontracted with the Annie Malone agency, whose director is a member of their congregation, and found themselves stymied by their lack of autonomy. "You get cut off from communication with the state," explains Mims. "The contractor does that and is very jealous of your having that relationship. It's like being in a fog. We don't get paid (by the state), and we don't know why." Stacey Powers, who directs Union Memorial's welfare-to-work program, says they've been reimbursed only up to September -- and not in full. The director of Annie Malone's program, Peter Buckner, says the subcontracting relationship is "working out fine" and claims the state's just slow. Still, Mims has decided that "one of the dangers of charitable choice is that traditional agencies will use the churches for funding, and for access to proposals, and churches won't have the autonomy they need."

Even without it, Union Memorial's doing well: Powers says they've placed more than 50 clients already. According to Buckner, Annie Malone has placed about 13 of 29 clients, and the other (nonreligious) subcontractor, DART, has placed 2 of 50. "Why the difference? Because being a church, our concern is not just dealing with people socially and psychologically," says Mims. "The state has gotten the roll down 47 percent or so; they've gotten to their hard-core people, and a lot of the issues are spiritual problems."

Unfortunately, you need earthly resources to wrestle them. Mims' congregation has been pressed to subsidize the daycare program (the state requires a 4:1 infant/caregiver ratio that makes it impossible to break even, explains Mims), provide the van to transport clients, and run food and clothing and mentoring programs. (That way, Powers can run the welfare-to-work program with a firm, businesslike hand, holding people accountable without worrying that they'll starve.)

When theorists worry that FBOs will glue themselves to government money, losing their self-sufficiency and integrity, Mims just chuckles: "I wish I could get enough funding to become dependent on it!" As for religions' becoming, as one pundit warned, "toothless watchdogs of the state that feeds them," Mims wants just the opposite: "to work with politicians to deal with the policies of the state and the feds that create poverty."

That raises the big question: What happens a few years from now, when they're still pouring extra resources into a black hole of need? What happens this June, when the state starts cutting cash assistance? What if FBOs like Union Memorial find themselves responsible for everybody who hasn't found work?

"Why not be responsible?" counters Powers, her eyes lighting like a struck match. "That's the call of being a Christian, isn't it?"

The Sound of the Trumpet
Clearly FBOs are bringing fresh energy and transcendent purpose to a fight everybody else was ready to concede. But is charitable choice the best, most thoughtful way for this to happen -- or just the nicest way for the state to pass a torch that's burning its fingers?

Some secular experts worry that the very premise is a distortion.
"People like Ashcroft generally believe the churches have a healing and uplifting mission that is transferable to people on welfare," says Peter DeSimone, director of the Missouri Association of Social Workers. "What they are saying is that there is something wrong with the people on welfare. It's not an economic system that doesn't work for everybody, it's not racism, it's personal. I think that's nonsense. Most poor people are in bad shape because they don't have enough money, opportunity or education. The same things that are said about them -- that they are lazy, thick, lax -- were said about immigrants early in this century."

DeSimone also worries about the FBOs themselves. Until now, they've been haloed heroes, bailing people out of crises, picking up the pieces when the state wouldn't. "Once they allow themselves to get in the business of deciding whether someone is worthy of assistance, they may find themselves regretting it. It's essentially a church deciding to be a government agency."

That means reporting people to be sanctioned instead of forgiving them 70-times-seven. It means competing against other FBOs for contracts. It means setting up enough structure to withstand audits and program evaluations, and to measure performance in the units the contract dictates. "That really kind of goes against the grain of who we are as Christians," admits Kessler. "Many churches don't understand outcome-based funding; they just want the money so they can go do good with it."

Mark Harvey is a United Methodist minister who coordinates social services at Kingdom House. He believes devoutly in the ability of churches to "wrap their arms around people," but he's honest about the tensions of running a bureaucratic program as an FBO. "We do not intend to be sanctioners for DFS," he says crisply, "so we are being very careful on the front end not to sign up anyone we feel will make us go there. As a result, we've not been paid a penny, partly because we've failed to 'engage' clients. Some other contractors are coding families into the computer system to 'claim' the cases and begin billing upon referral, before they've even contracted the family. Their incentives make them get the paperwork in documenting 'pacts' and 'work requirements met,' even if in truth the folks are not meeting the work requirements at all. Our faith ethics won't let us go there. And that may undo us."

The Root of Evil
Money's the next problem. First, there's not enough. So if the state thinks religion will bring infinite nongovernment resources to these programs and reduce their costs dramatically, they'd better start praying themselves. "Religious communities certainly can do much of 'what works' but cannot provide basic sustenance," notes Harvey, "or manage major redistribution mechanisms in a climate with rapidly increasing income disparity. People need bread as well as communion."

Second, what money does exist could be an occasion for sin. Church-state expert Davis dreads "the temptation to take this money and use it for things that are unauthorized. There are going to be some abuses," he predicts. "You'll see them on 60 Minutes. And it's going to smudge the face of religion."

Rick Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has logged many hours evaluating community programs. "Will funding encourage charlatans?" he asks. "Oh, yeah. Sure. But car manufacturers produce lemons. That's no reason to stop the manufacture of cars." Nor is the inevitable competition any reason to exclude FBOs. When the spigot of funding starts gushing, it does dissolve old incentives to cooperate; you simply "have to be very watchful of trying to develop 'community partnerships' under those conditions.

"I think it's the very expression of religion publicly that bothers a lot of liberals," Rosenfeld says suddenly. "That's too damn bad for them. We are in a society that extols religious freedom, and you can't closet religion. There will be times when, like it or not, you will have to cast your gaze upon somebody else's religious ritual."

Rosenfeld's objection is not the expression of religion but the immaturity of a society that expects it to transform poverty. "We're forever looking for childlike solutions to adult problems," he remarks. "It used to be that we tried to solve all our problems through education, and look what happened to the public schools. Now we have turned the same set of demands onto the faith community. If you stretch the boundaries of an organization too broadly, you begin to erode its central mission."

Silent Rights
In theory, charitable choice protects individuals by guaranteeing their right to an alternative program, if an FBO makes them squirm in their seats. There's just one catch: The federal provision doesn't require states to notify individuals that they have this right.

Since the charitable-choice provision passed, Carl H. Esbeck, the Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has repeatedly recommended inserting certain language into the state's contracts with FBOs. Most significantly, he'd notify individuals that they may not be discriminated against on the basis of religion, a religious belief or refusal to participate in a religious practice. "If you object to a particular provider because of its religious character," his proposal reads, "you may request assignment to a different provider. If you believe your rights have been violated.... "

DFS never bothered. "We have done contracts with religious organizations for years," explains spokesperson Deb Hendricks. "Proselytization has not been an issue, and we don't anticipate that it's an issue here, either." Tom Jones, associate director for welfare reform, stresses that "participants are free to choose any program they wish." Then he admits they only learn of other programs by chance, through "advertisement by the program or word of mouth." What happens if the unthinkable does occur, and someone believes her rights have been violated? "She calls DFS." Calls, in other words, the agency that's already admitted it never won these clients' trust.

Agencies like C-FAR are taking it upon themselves to do the notification. But the state might not want to presume that every agency will make their clients' rights this clear; that no FBO would dream of proselytizing; that the boundaries aren't blurring in a new and challenging way; that clients aren't vulnerable. What happens when a woman's an atheist, or has had an ungodly number of abortions; or just realized she's a lesbian; or hasn't healed from sex abuse by her minister?

Repent and Be Rich
More generically, what happens when poverty is cast as personal sin?
Jeanette Mott Oxford, executive director of the Reform Organization for Welfare, says she's glad to see FBOs play a part: "I think poverty is everybody's business, and we all have to pitch in together to solve it." But? "But many churches assume that poverty is a moral flaw and good welfare reform is about making the person feel ashamed of what they've done wrong. I don't believe we should coerce people with any kind of power over them, even if the power comes from God. Especially if the power comes from God.

"Some are probably doing it well, especially congregations that have poor people in them," she continues. "But they are often charismatic and evangelical, and no wonder -- if you are poor, your life needs a glimpse of heaven. Still, they're often oriented toward personal sin instead of social sin. Toward the next world instead of this one. And toward transformation through miraculous works, instead of the slow grind that's often necessary."

So what do you do, insist they keep their worldview to themselves? That's a violation of their free-speech rights. Monitoring evangelism is like barricading angels: There's just no mechanism for it. Even if you installed a full, unconstitutional surveillance system, hundreds of earnest, innocuous remarks would slip through, full of assumptions about who's good, who's bad, who's saved and how to live. And it's that kind of implicit judgment, arrogance, zeal and presumption -- not good ol' doctrinal argument -- that suffocates a nonbeliever.

States "generally have avoided legally binding definitions in their contracts, especially as to what constitutes proselytization," notes the Welfare Information Network's guide to charitable choice. "Instead, dialogue and 'gut instinct' are guiding the implementation of the ban."

What happens if you're gutless?
"The only thing we watch out for is to make certain the organization can meet the criteria outlined in the proposal," says Jones of DFS. They monitor the contract, in other words. And states can't refuse to contract with an organization on the basis of its religious character. So if frothing zealots write a good contract? "Luckily, we haven't been faced with that issue yet," says Jones. "We would probably meet with this group."

He's counting on the caliber of the FBOs already contracted. And the kinder, gentler clergy running those programs are assuming zealots won't apply.

Christian Nation?
Will the state sit up straighter if the new providers are Hare Krishna, or Sikh, or the Church of Scientology? Nobody's talking about that, because tacitly, everybody knows that the groups who get the funding will be mainline and mainly Christian. Running down the list of contracts, you'd never know there are as many Muslims as Presbyterians in this country; that the population of Hindus has increased 10-fold since 1977; that Buddhism, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ are growing far faster than Catholicism or Episcopalianism; that the number of Mormons doubled while the Methodists' rolls dropped 38 percent.

State Rep. Pat Kelley (R-Kansas City), who's also a United Methodist minister, is working on Operation Hope to involve more religious groups -- but so far, they're all Christian churches. "I'm of a Christian background," he says, "so I have more contacts there and have been invited to those churches. But this whole concept is open to all faiths."

It's open the way a door's open at the end of a dark maze; if you don't have a map or a compass, you might never enter. DFS advertises its open bids in newspapers, notes Jones, "and when we talk to different groups we let them know." Mims says that may be part of the problem: "The traditional mainline churches have the agencies and the leadership that's connected with the state. The Islamic community, for example, probably has not been involved because they have not had the same relationships and communication."

Lions and Lambs
It was conservative politicians who pushed charitable choice, but it's not conservative religions that are applying for the money. In fact, the political and denominational labels seem to be softening altogether, as the Pentecostalists, storefront churches and mainline Presbyterians confront basic human needs. Harvey's gone to national multifaith meetings vigilant for hyperevangelism, factionalism and right-wing idiocy; instead, he's found "an overarching ideology (emphasizing) empowerment and liberation, respect of diversity, meeting people where they are rather than imposing your thing on them. It's a more universal kind of faith understanding, centered in an understanding of Holy Spirit."

Harvey's so moved by what he's seeing, he won't even call himself a liberal anymore. "Liberals," he's decided, "are people who talk all the time and don't do a danged thing. I'd rather take one fundamentalist who's out there doing something -- because you can't stay locked in a simple literalism for very long if you're out in the world doing what the Bible tells you to do."

That, at least, is the hope.