- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001


PHILADELPHIA Inside a room at the Jesu School, about 20 neighborhood children gather each day for some supervised after-school reading instruction and a snack.
None of the youngsters who participates in the structured reading program attends classes at Jesu, a private Catholic school. Most could not afford it and attend a public school nearby.
Nonetheless, the Rev. George Bur, Jesu's president, is happy to offer his building as a safe place where some of North Philadelphia's poorest children can take part in a citywide effort to improve literacy. His school is one of the eager participants in Philadelphia's aggressive programs designed to engage faith-based institutions in helping to solve the city's social ills.
"There are no soccer moms in our neighborhood," says Father Bur of the latchkey children who attend Jesu's Youth Education for Tomorrow Center. Four days per week, they work with a teacher, reading books and using computers.
"They have no pets, they have no hobbies. They have nobody to take them to the park," he says. "They come because there are two or three people here who are interested in them."
Father Bur, a part-time algebra teacher, understands that the adult supervision and early reading skills the children are learning may be the only thing keeping them from a life on the street, where the lure of drugs and crime beckons.
The statistics for Philadelphia's inner-city youth are staggering. About 35 to 40 percent graduate from high school on time and an estimated 26,000 are truant every day. Some manage to earn General Educational Development (GED) diplomas, but a large percentage eventually end up in jail following a pattern of incarceration that in many families is becoming all too typical.
"We're saving children, but we've lost some kids," Father Bur says. "Part of this is giving them an opportunity that they don't have.
"We do it not because we want them to be Catholic," he emphasizes, "but because we are Catholic ourselves."
At the historic City Hall, not far away from the Jesu literacy center, Mayor John Street knows full well the implications of illiteracy, drug addiction, poverty and the consequences of growing up in a ragtag family with a mother or father in prison. Born in poverty himself, the mayor understands the hope the reading centers provide.
For some, the city's problems would be overwhelming, but for now, the plainspoken mayor is in "never surrender" mode, envisioning public-faith crusades at the First Union Center and neighborhood marches to get out the word that he wants to help.
"I dream about this all the time," he says in an interview.
Mr. Street started the new year with an appearance in the traditional holiday parade, but soon joined 120 local clergy to visit each of the city's prisons and jails. They were there to let inmates know that they were not forgotten and that the city and its ministers were banding together to offer hope for change.
"If we can't organize the clergy community to do this work, it will not get done," Mr. Street says.
The mayor decries criticism that faith-based programs and government funding are an inappropriate mix.
"I think one of the problems we have in our society is a lack of commitment to any sort of spiritual beliefs … but this is not an effort to make church members out of people," Mr. Street says. "People need to know we care about them."

A mayor with a plan

Convinced that faith was the key component to social improvement, the enthusiastic mayor campaigned on the idea that the city could transform itself by marshaling its faith organizations and using volunteers to work with people who had problems. He outlined a broad initiative to address prevailing urban problems and has spent the first year in office rapidly putting his plan into action.
Mr. Street's efforts landed him in the spotlight when President Bush invited the Democratic mayor to his Feb. 27 address to Congress and lauded him on national television for developing Philadelphia's faith-based initiatives.
With his gesture, Mr. Bush, who has championed similar reforms but weathered his own share of criticism over issues of separation of church and state, acknowledged that Philadelphia is fast becoming the place where faith is making a difference.
Mr. Street, who met the president during the Republican National Convention last summer, said he was surprised by the attention but pleased with the support. He boldly asserts that without the help of the faith community, there's little hope that Philadelphians can take their city back and turn it around.
His city is serving as a national model.
"We're just excited about the possibilities here," Mr. Street says. "We have to get the whole country involved."
Philadelphia's religious community incorporating many faiths has taken Mr. Street's call to heart and eagerly organized in partnership with city officials to support initiatives that continue to grow, said its former mayor, the Rev. Wilson B. Goode, who served the city from 1984 to 1992.
Mr. Goode, 62, has lived in Philadelphia since he was 15 and still attends the same neighborhood Baptist church he did as a boy. Now a minister himself and a well-known advocate for urban reform, he sees transforming the city's deteriorating neighborhoods as a personal mission for this stage of his life.
Faith-based institutions and schools "are the only two viable institutions left" for the nation's urban communities, he said, as they struggle to provide services and solutions for problems that defeat the hopes of innocent children and disenfranchise world-weary adults.
"Public agencies thus far have not been able to solve the problems," Mr. Goode says. "If the problems are going to be solved, they are going to be solved with faith-based programs working with the public and private sectors."
Mr. Street has tapped Mr. Goode to oversee the city's faith programs. Mr. Goode works in his ninth-floor office overlooking downtown for a firm called Public/Private Ventures, a nonprofit research and advocacy group for youth. His title there is senior adviser for congregational transformation.
Four main programs are under way in Philadelphia with others on the drawing board, he said. All are replicable for other large cities, which is part of the mayor's long-term goals.

Tackling illiteracy

The Youth Education for Tomorrow (YET) initiative, which encompasses 21 literacy centers including the one at the Jesu School, is headed by Marciene S. Mattleman, who was tapped for the post by John DiIulio, Mr. Bush's head of faith-based initiatives. He played a key role in helping Philadelphia organize its faith programs before coming to Washington to work for the president.
Miss Mattleman, a longtime education professor at Temple University, says she is out visiting the literacy centers nearly every day and finds it gratifying to see the transformation that is taking place.
"This is an opportunity to take the best of research and experience, and I'm seeing that it works," she says. Each YET center costs about $22,000 per year to run, she said. The programs are funded privately through grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts organization.
The goal is to expand the centers to serve not only children but also young adults, putting a center within walking distance of all deficient readers who need help.
The YET programs are structured with intense oral language activities, including work on vocabulary, decoding and comprehension. Two-thirds of the centers use the 100 Book Challenge Reading Program, where students are encouraged to read through that many books as a way of practicing their new skills.
Miss Mattleman stresses that YET centers are not baby-sitting centers and are designed to provide measurable proof that children are indeed learning. All of the teachers are paid, and all are trained in the same way.
"The emphasis is on meaning and concepts," she says of the reading instruction. "This isn't school, it's after school. This is not a homework help program."
Schools have been eager to participate in the YET program, Mr. Goode says. "They said it's about time that we did this," he said. "No one ever asked them before to be a part of it. They are excited."

Spiritual counseling

Rick McKinney runs the city's Rational Emotive Spiritual Therapy program, commonly referred to as REST. In it, professionally trained members of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship work as volunteer faith counselors to men and women in the city's prisons and their children.
They also are trained to work with AIDS patients who need counseling, with elderly residents who suffer from depression or alcohol problems as well as with delinquent youth.
REST was founded upon medical and psychological research that suggests that faith interventions are successful, Mr. McKinney says, and that "medical and psychological interventions work best when the spiritual component is addressed." The philosophy behind REST is based in Scripture and works on "the belief that any learned behavior can be unlearned," he says.
Mr. McKinney, a clinical counselor who founded the REST program after 25 years of experience in counseling, says research has determined that faith interventions work extremely well with addictions, and that properly trained lay counselors can be just as effective as professionally degreed and licensed counselors.
"We don't have a psychotropic drug that will solve the problem of guilt and of low self-esteem," Mr. McKinney says. "There are masses of people who are using drugs who are self-medicating, and until their problem has been solved, then they are just going to be changing seats on the Titanic."
As the REST program gears up, the goal is to increase the pool of faith counselors and make them available across the city to those in crisis, he says.
Another REST goal is to reduce the city's high recidivism rate. Currently 7.5 out of every 10 inmates that are released in Philadelphia return to jail again.
Mr. McKinney says he hopes to open 25 satellite counseling centers all over the city and train 1,000 lay counselors over the next four years. The bottom line, he says, will be reduced prison rolls, and a reduced cost to taxpayers. Other benefits of REST, he says, include the positive effect of a changed inmate on his family and society.
"The spiritual part of us is the core of what we are," Mr. McKinney says. "That needs healing and nothing else will do. That's what the mayor is saying, that there are some issues that need the spiritual approach."

Helping inmates' children

A complement to REST is the Amachi program, which provides long-term mentors for children of incarcerated inmates who number near 20,000 in the Philadelphia area. The word Amachi is West African and means "who knows but what God has brought us through this child."
Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Amachi is a partnership between Public/Private Ventures, local congregations, the Big Brother Big Sister Association, the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Society and the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Amachi mentoring takes place one-on-one with children ages 6 to 18 who are deemed at high risk, said Mr. Goode. Mentors and children meet regularly and participate in an activity together. Those volunteers who prefer meeting in a more structured environment can interact with the children at local schools or churches.
"By working with prisoners' children before they get into trouble we can help point them toward a productive adult life," Mr. Goode says.
For now, the program centers on four neighborhoods: North Central, South and Southwest Philadelphia and West Kensington.
In each neighborhood, 10 congregations are charged with recruiting 10 Amachi volunteers. Designated community impact directors and mentor support coordinators oversee the mentoring programs in each neighborhood.
"The response to this has been overwhelming," Mr. Goode says. "It was not pulling teeth. It was people willing and ready to come and participate in this."
About 140 mentors from 43 congregations are now trained, with the first matches being made this month.
While the program is privately funded, Mr. Goode ultimately hopes more public money will be made available to help it expand to 100 churches with 1,000 mentors. But that will take an investment from the community one that Mr. Goode thinks is worthwhile.
"Every child that we mentor for a year will be one less child who is likely to go to jail," Mr. Goode says.

Stamping out truancy

A fourth program is just getting started and is aimed at preventing truancy. An estimated 26,000 Philadelphia children are absent without an excuse every day. Faith-based institutions about 80 percent citywide so far are partnering with schools to help.
"Every time a child is absent from school, unexcused, some volunteer from a faith-based organization will call a parent" to find out why and what they can do to help, Mr. Goode says.
The outcome of this kind of intervention is obvious, he adds.
"A lot of crime and other issues take place when children are truant," Mr. Goode says. "If we can stop it … we can also improve the educational attainment as well."
The mayor is also a big believer in the truancy plan.
He cites research that says failure to attend school is "the first sign of something wrong in the family."
If a parent of guardian gets a call from a volunteer within 24 hours of a missed class, as the truancy program calls for, there is a better likelihood that the family or a lay counselor can get to the root problem and help the child before he or she gets into trouble.
"This can happen to scale," Mr. Street says of the truancy program. "You could change everything."

Addressing the controversy

While the programs in Philadelphia are taking off, nationally the debate continues over the appropriate mix of faith and government.
A survey released Tuesday by Pew found that 70 percent of respondents favor allowing religious organizations to apply for government funding to provide social services, giving momentum to Mr. Bush's initiative as Congress gears up for hearings.
Mr. Street, who says he respects the Constitution, calls his initiatives "constructive, legal, lawful engagement."
He adds, "I don't even have the slightest concern about it."
Mr. Goode agrees and says his work is not about public money advancing religion, as critics of the Bush plan have charged.
Thirty years ago, Mr. Goode says, he worked with faith-based groups using federal money to build houses, apartments and nursing homes. "I don't see anything new about this," he says of efforts today.
"I don't have any fear at all that any faith-based institution will use funds and proselytize people to come into their congregations," he says. "These congregations truly want to help people. There's a passion there to help these children."
With strong intervention programs, he adds, "they can do wonders for transforming these communities. There's also the potential to change the whole criminal-justice system."
A spiritual man, Mr. Goode credits God for Philadelphia's successes.
"There is a revival here that is taking place that is unusual and unique," he says.
"There is a spirit here that is spreading rapidly through the congregation, and people are getting more involved in helping those who have needs. God is intervening into the lives of humankind to reveal himself in this city."

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