Practical Questions Greet Bush Plan to Aid Religious Groups
The Rev. Herbert B. Chambers, who has funneled government aid to the poor, said he has misgivings about President Bush's proposal.
The New York Times WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 On the other side of the Anacostia River from where the federal government reigns, in a neighborhood awash with drugs and poverty, the Rev. Herbert B. Chambers is open for business.
His office is the nave of the Young Memorial Church of Christ Holiness, his desk a plastic-sheeted folding table. From there he works his cell phone, an antipoverty broker navigating public and private social programs as skillfully as lobbyists work Congress and the bureaucracies across the river.
The Catholics donate the food he distributes. The Episcopalians opened up a job center in his 100- year-old parish house that a wealthy suburban church helped rehabilitate. Freddie Mac, the mortgage buyer, underwrites a program for violent youth. And the Department of Housing and Urban Development pays for housing for mothers with AIDS and their children.
Mr. Chambers is one of the "social services entrepreneurs" President Bush wants to attract to his program to give more federal money to religious organizations. Young Memorial is one of the few congregations there are only 10 percent nationwide that try to find jobs and housing for the poor and care for their drug problems, as well as feeding and clothing them.
But Mr. Chambers has misgivings about the president's program that have nothing to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, long taken to ensure the separation of church and state. For religious groups working on the front lines, Mr. Bush's approach raises practical questions, too.
Mr. Chambers said he was worried that strings would be attached to the money, that there would not be enough government counseling for novice churches to make sure they spend the money effectively and within federal guidelines, and that the paperwork would be unendurable.
"If Mr. Bush does his faith-based mission I will commend him but I'm not basically looking for more money," Mr. Chambers said. "I've got enough partners helping me now. When you invite Big Brother into your life you can spend your day filling out papers."
Nonetheless, Mr. Chambers was an early, if skeptical convert to asking for federal money from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which started the first federal religion-based office in 1994 under former Secretary Henry G. Cisneros.
"I've had enough experience and I've got these volunteers to make sure I spend the money correctly," he explained. "But if you make money available to some of the small churches you have to help them manage it or they're going to get into trouble. Some of these ministers have never seen $10,000 and if they don't spend it right, Big Brother will put them in jail."
Anna Forbes Towns, who as the head of HUD's first religion-based effort was the official charged with helping African-American churches win grants, says a number of difficulties face the new administration.
Several years ago, when hundreds of mostly African-American churches were burned in a rash of arson in the South, HUD invited them to seek grants to rebuild. Fewer than 50 did so, Ms. Towns said.
"Right now these churches are overwhelmed," she said."If this is to succeed we need to show churches how to connect with community leaders and the government."
In several recent studies, churches and other religion-based charities were identified as among the most effective institutions now helping the poor. At the same time, the studies suggested, these institutions were incapable of replacing the government in delivering social services...
Housing Secretary Melquiades R. Martinez promised that the president's new plan would be "much more expansive" and would "ensure that faith-based organizations have the same opportunities to serve the poor as any other organization."
But Mr. Chambers has limited patience with the government. He lets Sylvester Servance, a lawyer and church volunteer, make the dozens of phone calls required to persuade the local government to approve a $1 million grant to rehabilitate another apartment building for women who have AIDS.
"We have to write monthly reports for the government," Mr. Chambers said. "We're open to site visits and inspection of files at any moment. But the more active you are, the more these people come running to you with grant proposals."..
"You don't have to force Jesus down their throats," Mr. Chambers said. "Our character demonstrates who we are and besides, a lot of people have eaten at our table, worn our clothes, spent our money and never found Christ."
Last month 12 of his young adults did find jobs through the Samaritan center at his parish house. Some of the prostitutes and drug dealers who sought his help have since relapsed.
But he does not know if his congregation of 250 people could support another partnership program. "Mostly we provide the people in need and other organizations provide the services," he said. Rectors of parishes in upper-middle-class Northwest Washington echo some of his views.
The Rev. Jim Donald of St. Columba's Episcopal Church, who can call on a wealth of professional help from his congregation, two dozen of whom work as grant writers, said that when he was involved in an earlier rehabilitation of an old house for 14 residents his group had to file papers "as if we were building a 5,000 unit apartment complex."
"We're all doing a lot of work and we'd like more money, say that trillion and a half tax cut," he said. "But once you get into working with the government you get into a kind of bureaucratic hell."
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