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United Methodists see potential in faith-based initiatives


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 asserted.

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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