- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 30, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Mississippi agency that promotes President Bush’s faith-based initiative usually draws about 25 church groups to its sessions on tapping government funds for social service projects. This month, that number nearly doubled.

It is just one sign that, as congregations in the Gulf Coast and surrounding states begin to focus on long-term recovery from Hurricane Katrina, a closer relationship between churches and state and local governments is developing.

The trend fits neatly with Mr. Bush’s second-term goal of encouraging states and cities to get more involved with his faith-based initiative, because large sums of tax dollars go to states as block grants. The states “control where the money goes,” said Bryan Jackson of the Roundtable on Religion and Social Policy, a nonpartisan research group.

The mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., faced with aiding hundreds of evacuees, opened a local faith-based office weeks earlier than he had planned this fall.

A Houston interfaith nonprofit joined high-level city planning meetings about helping the displaced. And emergency-management officials in Memphis, Tenn., and in Tennessee’s Shelby County are drawing up plans to incorporate churches into the county’s disaster-relief operations.

Mr. Jackson said that about half the states have faith-based offices — or a faith-based liaison within a state social-service agency — to help religious service groups obtain government funding. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, was among the latest to start a state initiative, noting that the churches’ hurricane response showed that faith groups can help people in ways government can’t.

The Bush administration is using that same argument to steer federal relief dollars to religious service organizations. On Wednesday, FEMA announced a $66 million grant, funded by donations from other countries, for the United Methodist Committee on Relief and a national volunteer group that will help Katrina victims.

In Mississippi, the disaster brought together local congregations and the state-funded nonprofit that builds support for the Bush initiative. Jacqueline Johnson, director of the Mississippi Faith-Based Coalition for Community Renewal, regularly visited churches to check on their relief work and wound up in much broader conversations about the benefits of accepting government grants.

“At first, they were more or less reluctant to connect with us” because groups feared government funding would undermine their independence, Miss Johnson said.

Now, many local religious leaders are moving toward setting up separate nonprofits where they can hold any government money they receive, but keep it apart from their congregational work, she said.

In Chattanooga, Mayor Ron Littlefield opened his faith-based office early when a rescue flight chartered by former Vice President Al Gore landed there and other evacuees arrived on their own.

“It dawned on us that this was exactly what an Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnerships is all about,” said Todd Womack, the mayor’s spokesman.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide