Sunday, February 04, 2001

Can faith and funding mix?

Many groups say they won't change practices to get federal dollars

By Richelle Thompson and Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Rev. Carolyn Ford-Griffith helps Brandy Mills, 3, build a puzzle at Hope Academy Learning Center.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Men fresh from battling drug and alcohol addictions study the first chapter of Proverbs at a live-in rehabilitation center in Covington. A few miles north in Evanston, an after-school tutoring program at a spot once known as “The Killing Field” ends in prayer.

        Every day throughout Greater Cincinnati, faith-based groups help thousands of residents at homeless shelters and rehabilitation programs, with pregnancy counseling and job training.

        An initiative launched by President Bush last week would further open the federal wallet to scores of faith-based organizations that perform social work across the Tristate.

        The question is what role faith can have at an organization that receives government dollars.

        Storehouse Ministries in Covington isn't interested in the federal support if it means cutting Bible studies. In Evanston, the Rev. Carolyn Ford-Griffith is willing to limit the preaching because she sees more money as an opportunity to reach more people.

        “Am I going to preach to them? No,” she said. “But I can't help but talk about the Lord if they ask me. I'm still Pastor Griffith.”

        Although details of Mr. Bush's program still are fuzzy, its aim is to give faith-based organizations more access to taxpayer dollars and award federal grants to the most successful social service agencies, regardless of whether they are religious or secular. Mr. Bush is clear the federal government won't pay for church services or efforts to convert people.

        While the proposal has rekindled a centuries-old national debate about the separation of church and state, the reality in Greater Cincinnati is some faith-based groups already receive public funding, most often local or state. The door first opened with the "charitable choice” provision of the 1996 welfare reform law, which enabled religious groups to compete for some government dollars.

  At Hamilton County's Department of Human Services, five of the 105 contracts with local organizations are with three faith-based organizations. Each contract expires in June:
  • Jireh Development Corp.: A ministry of Bond Hill-based Christ Emmanuel. A $1.15 million, 18-month contract to provide intensive one-on-one counseling for people who are approaching their welfare lifetime limit.
  • Christ Emmanuel's Solutions Case Management: A $503,000, 15-month contract for assessing clients' needs and referring them to other social-service agencies.
  • Christ Emmanuel's Job Readiness: A $324,000, 18-month contract that assists people be better prepared for the work force.
  • New Hope Family Worship Center in Price Hill: A $233,000, nine-month contract for child-care training.
  • Baptist Ministers Conference in Avondale: A $173,000, 12-month contract to assist suspended or expelled students.
        In Hamilton County, the department of human services awarded faith-based organizations $2.4 million in five contracts — out of 105 contracts to local agencies.

        Still, many leaders of local faith-based groups are leery about what strings may be attached to federal support. They worry federal dollars will come with secular regulations, forcing them to limit talking about God or stop requiring clients to attend Bible studies as a condition of their rehabilitation. They like Mr. Bush's idea in theory. However, they say they do not anticipate a massive rush of people applying for the money.

        “When you give people the word of God, you give them something they can hold onto. You give them hope,” says the Rev. Mason Barker, who founded Storehouse Ministries 18 years ago. “I'm not going to give up preaching the Gospel for the money.”

Applauding Hope Temple

        When then-GOP candidate Bush came to Cincinnati for a fund-raiser in July 1999, he stopped at the Rev. Carolyn Ford-Griffith's Hope Temple Church Ministries in Evanston.

        The basketball court was once a trash heap. Volunteers had cleaned up discarded drug needles and turned a barren patch into a grassy playground. They built a roof and fixed the caved-in floor.

        The ministry provides parenting classes, after-school tutoring, crime diversion and “life skill” instruction.

        “I praise your program,” Mr. Bush told the Rev. Ford-Griffith, “because reform in society should start from the bottom up, not the top down.”

        Involving more faith-based organizations in social services was a a cornerstone of Mr. Bush's campaign — as well as former Vice President Al Gore's. But Mr. Bush said his challenger's plan didn't go far enough.

        Mr. Bush extolled Hope Temple's neighborhood outreach program as “exactly what we need more of. Government should be welcoming the help of faith-based organizations.”

        Nine years ago, the Rev. Ford-Griffith was denied local money to help build a basketball court.

        “That's what we were left with: the separation of church and state,” the Rev. Ford-Griffith said. “My reaction was tears, but I didn't let them see 'em. But their hands were tied.”

        She received final approval Monday for an $80,000 grant from the city of Cincinnati's Neighborhood Services to renovate a building for social services. It was her first successful effort at getting government money. But she looks forward to trying again under President Bush's plan.

        “I think everybody's missing the mark in that it's about the outreach, not the church.”

Studying the bible

        Tom Blakely was living in the woods, his life in pieces after a devastating divorce in August. Freezing, he stumbled upon Storehouse Ministries in December.

        The ministry runs a store where low-income people can shop for free for food, clothes and furniture. The soup kitchen serves 400 meals a day. Up to 25 men with chemical dependencies can live at the facility. It's a nine-month program but some have stayed five years.

        Before meals, the men pray. If they participate in the live-in rehab program, they are required to attend three hours of Bible study a day. If they don't attend, they have to leave.

        “When everybody else throws you away and forsakes you, they love you here, and they want you to succeed,” said Mr. Blakely, 42, formerly of Ludlow, Ky. After studying the Bible, “you realize you're somebody. And God wants you to be successful.”

        Federal money could help the center, he said. But if Mr. Bush's plan requires faith-based groups to leave out God, Mr. Blakely said, he wouldn't be interested.

        Neither would Gary Starks, 38, formerly of Florence. Over the years, he's been in jail, on the streets and addicted to crack cocaine.

        “When we come in here, if we don't allow God to make a change in our life, then when we go back out, we're the same person,” he said. “If an organization doesn't use God, then it won't work. You need spiritual food as well as real food.”

        At City Gospel Mission in Over-the-Rhine, people who need a warm meal for dinner better show up 45 minutes early. Chapel attendance is required before people can eat.

        “We believe life change starts with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” said chief executive officer Ed Perrine.

        Faith is interwoven into every program the mission runs. When counselors talk about controlling anger, they discuss how Jesus addresses the issue. When they talk about developing values and character, Jesus is the model.

        Mr. Perrine said his mission likely won't pursue federal funding. Already, he could apply for some government grants today. But that would require a sacrifice he's not willing to make.

        “If you take the money, you can't share your faith,” he said.

        Burr Robinson, executive director of Jobs Plus Employment Network in Over-the-Rhine, doesn't anticipate tapping into Mr. Bush's program either.

        His agency offers programs on work ethic, responsibility, and developing positive attitudes to help people obtain successful jobs. Seventy percent of the clients have felony records. About a quarter have a high school diploma.

        Mr. Robinson and his staff encourage people to get off welfare and develop self-responsibility. If Jobs Plus accepted government money, it would seem hypocritical, he said.

        More important, Mr. Robinson said, “we feel God will bless what we're doing in faith.”

Seeking federal help

        Despite reservations by some faith groups, others fall in line with the Rev. Ford-Griffith in seeing Mr. Bush's proposal as an opportunity.

        “If they're going to give it away, we want to be at the table,” said Rebecca Kelley, director of planned giving and grants at the Greater Cincinnati YMCA. “We can make good use of it in the Tristate community.”

        Of the organization's $37 mil lion annual budget, $5.2 million comes from the federal government for child care. The agency also receives local grants for teen and after-school programs.

        Taking federal money brings restrictions on how to teach faith, Mrs. Kelley said. The YMCA is an acronym for Young Men's Christian Association. Its mission is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.

        The Y balances its commitment to faith with federal guidelines by stressing character development and core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility. Kids don't pray before swim lessons, but they hear those buzz words throughout class.

        Despite the Y's deliberate efforts to not be “government-sponsored religion,” Mrs. Kelley said the agency has sometimes been turned down for government money because of its faith-based affiliation. Mr. Bush's plan “levels the playing field for us to explore areas where faith-based organizations traditionally have not been allowed.”

        Joel Kaplan, executive director of Jewish Family Service, said his agency also has been denied grants because of its name. People assume the organization pushes the Judaism.

        In fact, Mr. Kaplan said, “We're faith-based, but we don't practice our faith. We don't hold religious services. We don't preach to people about the religion.”

        The agency targets the Jewish community, but the services, including adoption placement and family life education, are open to anyone. The agency talks about Jewish culture and even teaches a parenting class solely for Jewish families — but it does not discuss the faith, he said.

        Jewish Family Services receives about $100,000 of its $2 million annual budget from the state. The money goes to programs on pregnancy counseling, caregiver support and teen violence.

        Mr. Kaplan said his agency would be an ideal candidate for Mr. Bush's proposal, but he worries about separation of church and state with other organizations that may be more zealous in sharing their faith.

        “I wouldn't want anybody going for social services and being preached to or encouraged to convert to a faith,” he said.


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