JACKSON, MISS. — RONDA ALDREDGE went to church to get off welfare.
The single mother of two, who has been on public assistance for four years, was ''adopted'' by the Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss. Members taught her job skills, reviewed her resume, and even helped pay a $110 job-related exam fee.
The result: She is about to start a new job - a step toward self sufficiency. ''It was like open-arms, hands-on attention,'' says Aldredge of the church's involvement.
Ms. Aldredge is part of a small but growing movement by religious organizations nationwide to help people move from welfare rolls to employment rolls.
Much of the initiative is being taken by the churches themselves, which see, in addition to a chance to foster welfare reform, a way to promote more spiritual values.
But the movement is also being encouraged by many social conservatives and other policymakers, who see faith-based organizations playing an important part in moving people toward self-sufficiency as Congress prepares to send welfare programs back to the states. Support for these kinds of grass-roots initiatives shows up in both the House and Senate welfare bills.
Yet the drive is not without its detractors - including some within the religious community. Critics argue that churches can - and should - only do so much in aiding the needy, and that there is no substitute for government involvement.
Perhaps nowhere is the idea being tested more fully than here in the middle of the Bible Belt, in Mississippi, where Gov. Kirk Fordice (R) is pushing his ''Faith and Families'' initiative. Launched in October of 1994 as one of several welfare-reform efforts, it is intended to get the state's churches and synagogues involved in changing the way public assistance has been handled for decades.
''We're trying to really utilize the assets of the faith community,'' explains Larry Temple, deputy administrator of the Mississippi Department of Human Services. ''That's who used to be the welfare system in this nation. Then we decided we'd let government do it and look where we got. We should have stayed with the churches.''
Others apparently agree, at least to a degree. Mississippi has been swamped with calls from lawmakers in 49 states and Canada about Faith and Families. ''There's almost more interest out of state than in state,'' says the Rev. James Holland, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Greenville, Miss.
But Faith and Families, by some people's measures, has been slow to catch on. So far 152 churches out of more than 5,000 statewide have signed up. And 110 families out of a welfare caseload of about 50,000 are participating. Approximately eight families have left the welfare rolls.
Critics - including many church leaders, human service advocates, and some in the black community - believe the program was orchestrated by Governor Fordice as a way to drum up publicity for his 1995 election campaign.
''It's primarily a press initiative,'' says Rims Barber, director of the Mississippi Human Services Agenda, an advocacy group in Jackson. ''It doesn't have any regulations; no one knows how it works because nothing's written down.''
But supporters don't see any nefarious motives. ''We've gone to great lengths not to politicize the program,'' Mr. Temple says. ''We support it, and we'll continue to after the election.''
Temple and others stress church response has been good and that the program simply complements other state welfare reform initiatives. ''The goal by the end of summer was to have 65 to 70 churches, and we had over 100,'' says the Rev. Ronald Moore, pastor of the Hope Missionary Baptist Church who is overseeing the program.
Mr. Moore, an African-American whose 200-member church is helping 15 welfare families, is one of the biggest champions of Faith and Families.
''Welfare recipients are given everything but the spiritual,'' Moore says. ''They've trusted in government for their salvation. Government has given so much and asked for nothing in return, and all we're asking for now is to change the lifestyle. By addressing the human and spiritual needs we can really bring about a change in their lives.''
The program is a voluntary one for both churches and families. A church that wishes to participate chooses a family based on profiles filed at a program coordinating office. The church then establishes how it will help the family.
Several churches have set up curriculums where members teach such basics as financial management, interviewing skills, child training, and good hygiene.
The churches also address moral and spiritual issues. ''We have to teach character traits and skills, things necessary to compete in the job market and within the family,'' Mr. Holland says.
Individual church members at Mr. Holland's church, located in the soil-rich but welfare-poor Mississippi Delta, also are responsible for shepherding along different families in order to provide them with encouragement, prayer, and act as their liaison when problems arise.
This one-on-one relationship is something that Evelyn Berry has appreciated most, and is what most social workers, because of their large caseloads, aren't able to give. Ms. Berry, a single mother of two, has depended on welfare off and on for nine years. She latched on to Faith and Families several months ago and was adopted by Moore's church.
The church members ''helped me to prepare myself for a job,'' Berry says. ''They gave me hope and confidence.'' Berry is waiting to hear if she landed her ''dream'' job - an administrative position with the state that would provide enough money and benefits to help get off welfare and move her family from a housing project to a more desirable neighborhood.
Program administrators emphasize that Faith and Families is geared to welfare recipients who are willing to find a job. ''We're trying to help folks who we've done just about everything we can do for them,'' Department of Human Services's Temple explains. ''The problem is getting the individual ready both educationally and mentally as far as self-esteem and confidence to pursue a job.''
But are churches equipped to take on the responsibility of reforming the welfare state? Many liberals and moderates don't think so, at least on a large scale. They argue that nonprofits are ill-equipped to take over the huge task of caring for the nation's needy.
Church or state?
There is also concern about the separation of church and state. Some civil liberty groups are threatening legal challenges if religious groups receive state aid to carry out job training or other welfare services. Nor may people of different faiths want to go to churches for help.
''This is just one more program to push churches into doing something, but I don't think the state ought to be directly involved in the recruiting of church members,'' says Mr. Barber of the Mississippi plan.
Even many religious groups themselves worry that, by putting time and money into welfare work, it will cut into other charitable activities.
''The church has been in this business for many years, and you could make a good case for the fact that the church couldn't take care of it - that's why the government got it,'' says the Rev. Thomas Tiller, executive director of the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference. ''We can't take care of all of those people.''
In Mississippi, a state which has the nation's highest rate of illegitimate births and the second highest poverty rate, supporters of Faith and Families admit getting large numbers of people off welfare is a daunting challenge.
''I have no illusions or Messianic hopes that this is the one cure-all,'' Holland says. ''I'm just praying it will be successful. Welfare reform is coming, and it's going to be drastic, and I think the churches should have something to say about it....
''The gospel is a good starting point and offers redemption and restoration to people.''