My Turn: People of faith do good works

Posted: Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Why the attack on government support of faith-based community initiatives in last Tuesday's paper? As I read his comments, I desired for Brian Lieb (Letter to the Editor) a better understanding and appreciation of the part that religion plays in countless benefits we enjoy today.

To be sure, religion is a mixed bag. It has been used improperly in many times and places throughout human history. But it was also Christians who built hospitals, helped the mentally ill, staffed orphanages, brought hope to prisoners, established 100 of our first 110 American universities (including Yale and Harvard), and spread literacy. It was Christians who abolished the slave trade, led civil-rights marches, and challenged totalitarianism. It was 5,000 Christians who in LeChambon, France, sheltered Jews while French collaborators elsewhere were delivering Jews to the Nazis. People of faith are today responsible for enormous efforts to relieve suffering and save lives the world over. The perception of many Americans regarding Christianity in particular is too small and highly subject to distortion.

Here are the words of our president, from his foreword to "Rallying the Armies of Compassion:"

"Over the past decade, the public and their elected representatives have come to a renewed appreciation for the variety of civic and social groups that make up civil society. Faith-based programs, volunteers, and grassroots groups are indispensable partners with nonprofit service providers and government programs to serve the poor, renew families, and rebuild neighborhoods.

"Throughout America, hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths reach out every day to the hurting among their neighbors, demonstrating care and compassion through a rich diversity of programs, small and large, caring for kids after school, providing emergency food or shelter, offering mentoring and counseling, uplifting the families of prisoners, and helping to rehabilitate ex-offenders.

"In Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and many other places, people of faith and other unsung local heroes have started innovative partnerships with the police and juvenile authorities to divert and rescue young men and women from gangs, violence, and dead-end streets. Hundreds of community development corporations, often connected with one or more houses of worship, work to stimulate economic activity, rebuild rundown housing, renew neighborhood pride, and revive municipal services. Faith-based programs attack dependency on drugs with faith and love, often helping men and women for whom conventional treatment seemed to provide little lasting help."

I was privileged to participate in Indianapolis in some community renewal projects that President Bush refers to. In 1998, while directing a religious organization benefiting central Indiana, I participated in a collaborative effort that radically converted a dangerous "drug alley" into a green space. The project involved the mayor's office, non-profit organizations (both secular and Christian), the Police Department and local churches. Members of the community who value safety and peace for their families applaud the results: Crime rates in the surrounding area dropped dramatically - robbery by 40 percent, rape by 58 percent, and homicide by 71 percent. Crime within a large nearby park has completely disappeared.

For me, one of the most satisfying elements of this experience was the example of what can happen when the various entities of government, neighborhood leadership and faith-based organizations focus together on resolving a problem. People must first rise above personal agenda and prejudice for the sake of the community. People must respect and be willing to work, at least in a limited way, with others who are genuinely concerned about the well-being of the community. People must do the hard thing - look for others who care about similar issues and find common ground, rather than the easy thing - criticize those who are making an effort that is imperfect. This is our real challenge - and the challenge that our president faces as he introduces ways that government can multiply its effectiveness (and often reduce long-term expense).

I am pleased to have a leader with the courage to do more than talk about this kind of uniquely powerful collaboration in communities across America. Gratefully, his vision to help Americans, by means of new partnerships that may result in better outcomes, has nothing in common with Mr. Lieb's comments.

Randy Beaverson lives in Auke Bay and is director of a Juneau non-profit organization.

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