Beyond Soup Kitchens

The faithful were fed up.

For years, they had marched every Friday night on the streets of one of Chicago's most-violent, gang-ridden neighborhoods. But their pleas for peace were ignored. So, this summer they ratcheted up their tactics.

With choruses of "Amen!" and "In Jesus' name!" this gaggle of believers from the St. Sabina Roman Catholic church started confronting gang leaders, trundling right up to their front doors and porches. "We know who you are, and we're tired of the violence," they told the men, their girlfriends, and their neighbors. "We want it to stop."

To almost everyone's surprise, the pressure worked.

Several weeks later, in a cramped conference room in gothic St. Sabina, the gang leaders hammered out a truce with the help of the priest, a city councilman, and the local police commander. That was mid-July. The cease-fire has held: There hasn't been a

serious violent incident in the notorious 79th Street area since.

But the boldness of these marchers isn't so unusual anymore. In fact, it's symbolic of growing efforts by congregations across America to roll up their sleeves and directly confront the troubles in their communities - from crime to joblessness,

even taking over the landscaping of local parks.

Caring for the needy has long been a part the of church mission. But many inner-city churches are taking their community influence to a new level. They are mounting a social and political activism not seen in decades.

Partly they are spurred to action by a great need: Welfare reform signals government's further retreat from the country's most-bereft neighborhoods. But there's also a shifting understanding of faith driving the change. More and more, pastors are emphasizing to their congregations that "faith without works is dead."

"We're in the midst of a historic moment of change in how our nation cares for its least-advantaged citizens," says Brent Coffin, head of the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard University's Divinity School, in Cambridge, Mass. "Governments are not good at creating a fabric of care in communities," he says. "And that's where churches come in."

At Chicago's St. Sabina, the Rev. Michael Pfleger - or "Father Mike" as he's known on the streets - says the change is coming at the urging of church members.

"People are seeing all the craziness" - drugs, violence, poverty - "and they're looking to the church and asking, 'How do I deal with this?' Churches are being forced to give direction," he says.

For his church, it means a whole host of new activities. At the employment center that opened last month, a staff of four helps residents find jobs. The free service isn't overtly religious, but God is never too far removed from the work. "You'd be surprised how many people come in the door who know God," says executive director Jayne Jackson. "It just escaped them that He should be consulted about their career."

The church also campaigned against "The Jerry Springer Show," whose violent antics struck church members as exploitative. As a result, Mr. Springer's show was dropped by Chicago's NBC affiliate in April. The local Fox channel quickly picked it up, but agreed to edit out the most distasteful scenes.

St. Sabina is also part of a local crusade to close down scores of liquor stores through citizen-ballot initiatives, which residents will vote on next month. Church members say the stores attract crime and thus keep other crucial businesses out.

The social activism of St. Sabina and other churches has its roots in the 1980s. Reagan-era budget cuts meant a smaller government presence in the inner city. Then, welfare reform in 1996 allowed states to begin cutting off benefits, leaving churches and other private agencies to fill a growing void.

Now a prevailing notion is that churches and nonprofit organizations are the only ones capable of addressing tough social problems. "Today the thought isn't so much that we need to shrink government," says Harvard's Dr. Coffin, "it's that churches and others can do a better job."

Indeed, many residents are now looking to churches because they are the institutions with the most credibility in tough neighborhoods.

"When people look around, there's a lot of disillusionment with government and other sectors," says Terry Burke, minister at the Unitarian-Universalist church in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. "Of all the sources of authority out there, the Bible looks pretty good."

But he also warns that crusading activism can make worshipers forget to nurture their own spiritual growth. "To be concerned about these issues for the long haul," he says, "you've just got to have the spiritual vision to sustain yourself. Otherwise you'll get burned out."

Indeed, there is great concern among church leaders that their congregations will be expected to do the lion's share of social-service work in America.

By some estimates, churches spend a total of $12 billion a year on services for the needy - a lot of money but a paltry sum compared with government expenditures on social services.

Not counted in that number, however, are churches' large reserves of volunteers - and their mission-inspired passion.

Now they're adding a new creativity to their efforts - and are pushing the bounds of traditional church activities. (See story, below.)

In Chicago, one church is entering the world of business. Next month, at the site of an old liquor store on the city's South Side, Salem Baptist Church will open the largest Christian bookstore in the area, a Barnes-and-Noble-like space, complete with trendy cafe, puppet theater for kids, and walls of TVs for Christian videos.

Profits from the store will help raise money for the church's expanding neighborhood outreach.

As welfare benefits have shrunk, for instance, the number of prostitutes in the area has jumped dramatically. So, two weeks ago, several hundred of the church's women members hit the streets to talk to prostitutes - and give them each a red rose. "God loves you," the members told the streetwalkers. "You're valuable, and society needs you." That night, five women came back to the church and agreed to go to a church-funded drug-rehab program.

"When we're standing before Jesus, he's not going to care how many times we went to worship service," says the Rev. James Meeks of Salem Baptist. "He's going to want to know about our service to humanity."

As churches beef up their social-service efforts, the question of government funding looms big. If society depends on churches to help the neediest, should public funds be used? Both churches and government are wary of getting unconstitutionally entangled.

But a provision in the 1996 welfare-reform law called "charitable choice" allows churches to do their social-service work with public funds - and without having to take down any crosses or other symbols, or follow all federal fairness-in-hiring guidelines.

Charitable choice, however, doesn't necessarily supersede state or local laws.

In San Francisco, for example, the mammoth Catholic Charities - a national nonprofit arm of the Roman Catholic Church, which gets $8 million in city funds each year to operate AIDS hospices, homeless shelters, and other services - tangled with the city earlier this year over an ordinance that requires employers to give benefits to gay partners of employees.

To continue getting public funds, Catholic Charities changed its policy to a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" approach that allows employees to designate anyone living with them to get benefits. It's a compromise not all churches may be willing to make.

Indeed, many churches are turning to private foundations - instead of government - for help. And foundations are responding. Their giving to religious institutions for nonreligious social services jumped by one-third to $153 million in 1996, according to the New York-based Foundation Center.

"The discovery of religion by foundations is a new phenomenon," says Peter Frumkin, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University. "They're finding out that there's something important about programs grounded in values and character."

Foundations aren't alone in making this discovery. Congregations are seeing social action as a part of worship. Or as Boston's Mr. Burke puts it, "You don't get better at loving by yourself."

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