Faith-based charities getting federal funds

Behind the News

Posted: Sunday, February 04, 2001

Leaders of local church charity groups are a little baffled by all the talk about federal grants to faith-based social-service organizations.

That's in part because some already are getting them.

Sure, they could use more money. What social service agency couldn't?

But they're unsure how things might be different if President Bush pushes through his plan to shift more federal social services to religious groups. They're worried a larger number of groups might have to fight over the same-size pot of money. And despite their personal faith, there's little comfort at the thought of restricting services to members of one particular church or denomination.

"When I first heard about it, I got this chilling feeling," said Joan Decker, director of the Glory Hole, a homeless shelter and kitchen run by a council of churches. "I hope it does not directly mean money going to the membership and just people who go to hear sermons at that church."

Bush's plan hasn't been fully spelled out, but is expected to be similar to one developed in Texas when Bush was governor.

Supporters there point to churches stretching government dollars with volunteers and funds raised from the community. They say church teaching strengthens social programs, something substance abuse groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous have done for years. And they say programs run by people of strong faith have less fraud and abuse.

Critics worry about the lack of oversight and point to programs that committed fraud and abuse. They say well-intentioned people often lack the skills provided by more professional organizations. And they question any program that requires a specific religious practice.

All are issues considered by those running existing faith-based charity groups in our state.

One is Southeast Alaska's largest private charitable organization, Catholic Community Service. Last year's $5.5 million budget - covering senior meals, child advocacy, parenting classes and other work in a dozen Panhandle communities - included close to $3 million in government grants. Some was direct federal money and some passed through other agencies. And the Juneau-based group's budget is a half-million dollars bigger this year, thanks in part to new federal funding, said Executive Director Rosemary Hagevig.

The organization certainly could meet the definition of what politicians call "faith-based." Its name speaks for itself and its board of directors is headed by the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Juneau. But members of other churches, as well as people with no church affiliation whatsoever, serve on its board or work on its programs.

"We are a private, nonprofit group and we serve all people," Hagevig said. "That's something that is pretty important to emphasize."

The same is the case at The Salvation Army, which provides food baskets, financial assistance, a thrift store and other services regardless of spiritual belief, said Maj. Larry Fankhauser. He said its $250,000 annual budget comes from donations and thrift store sales, not the government. But its Anchorage branch, where he used to work, tapped such grants.

It's also the case at the Glory Hole, which gets some of its volunteers and annual budget of about $150,000 from churches.

"We do not have any sermons here and proselytizing is not allowed," said Decker. "We say grace before meals and that's the extent of religious involvement."

There are social programs in Juneau that do have a strong religious component. One of the most recent is a nine-bed halfway house operated by Gastineau Human Services, a nonprofit group with no religious affiliation.

Operations Director Andy Swanston said the interdenominational program uses inmates' faith to help them overcome problems that led to crime. They're required to read scripture and attend fellowship meetings and services. They also have to avoid TV or other entertainment with violent or anti-women themes.

"It seems to be pretty effective," said Swanston. "I think we've had probably the fewest incident reports there."

The program is voluntary and volunteers play the religious roles while GHS provides the usual halfway house programs under contract with the city and state.

Swanston, who doesn't consider himself a Christian, said he's seen churches provide a variety of successful social programs while keeping religion out of the mix. But for some clients, he said, religious values mean greater success, whatever the funding source.

"There's a value in these faith-based programs that has not been fully tapped."

Ed Schoenfeld is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

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