Clergy hobnob in Washington on faith-based funding plan

As Congress gets ready to consider the president's controversial faith-based funding plan, several hundred clergy from across the country gathered yesterday at the US Capitol to hobnob with congressional leaders on the proposals. Helping cohost the day-long event was Bishop Harold Calvin Ray, founder of the National Center for Faith-Based Initiative, in West Palm Beach, Fla.

In January 2000, before "faithbased" became a campaign slogan and a household word, Bishop Ray founded the center to help African-American pastors work together locally and regionally "in providing social services and developing an economic engine to break the cycles of dependency." They are developing local strategic plans, he says in an interview, so "we aren't duplicating services ... when we could work together on a community solution." The center has since expanded beyond the African-American community.

Rev. Ray first suggested bringing some representatives to Washington for a heart-to-heart meeting with key congresspersons. Then the idea mushroomed into the National Faith-Based Leadership Summit. Ray sees the summit as giving "Congress a deeper understanding of the innovative things happening out there, and given the hysteria about the initiative, making sure clergy are knowledgeable and informed" about the details.

The gathering was scheduled to hear from John DiIulio Jr. and Stephen Goldsmith, administration officials heading up the initiative, and key congressional leaders - and then break into groups to share views on community models dealing with the family, schools, and community renewal, as well as the specifics of the faith-based initiative. A portion of the meeting was downlinked to 30 communities across the US.

"This summit will facilitate a national dialogue between lawmakers, the faith-based community, and the public," says Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylavania, a sponsor of the Senate bill on the tax components portion of the initiative, with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut. Reps. J.C. Watts (R) of Oklahoma and Tony Hall (D) of Ohio introduced the House bill, which also would expand direct funding for religious groups. Hearings will begin in May.

"This will be the most scrutinized and analyzed set of rules ever promulgated," Ray says. "It's a good sign that both the far right and the far left put up their arms and said, 'Whoa!' That means neither is going to get a windfall." But he insists some form of the initiative is crucial, and that it can be done without proselytizing: "We do it every day - run 300 outreaches in our community and never demand that anyone be a member of our church or profess our faith, whether to get food, medical screening, or AIDS counseling. "Persons of faith of profoundly different theological views are going to put their hands together to work to empower their communities."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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