US churches aim funds at peace, justice, civil rights

United States religious groups now are out-giving both corporations and foundations to the tune of an estimated $15 billion to $16 billion annually. The money is targeted primarily toward social change. In what is being billed as the most comprehensive survey on religious philanthropy ever done, a Council on Foundations (CF) report released Sunday says organized religion has traditionally been seen as the recipient of donations, not the giver.

A range of people-related needs are being addressed at both the national and international levels, says James Joseph, CF president. The council is a national membership organization of foundations and other grant makers.

Mr. Joseph says churches fund local soup kitchens and make films about social justice, but they also help build wells in Sudan and provide emergency food aid in Ethiopia.

Those groups engaged in advocacy lean toward the issues of peace, justice, and women's rights. But the ``overriding concern is peace,'' says this report. And there is evidence that funding patterns -- particularly among Roman Catholic, Jewish, Lutheran, and Methodist groups -- are placing emphasis on ``redeeming society.''

On the domestic level, the most frequent religious giving goes to nutrition projects, refugee aid, day care, youth recreation, and disaster relief.

Primary and high school programs are a top priority for church philanthropies abroad -- with food distribution, emergency help, adult education, and health care running close behind.

Nearly all of the 485 religious respondents to this survey support domestic programs. Over half are active internationally -- with priorities in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. The CF report shows some denominational priorities. US Roman Catholic givers, for instance, tend to support Latin America, with its high Catholic population. And Jewish groups favor the Middle East.

The populations given the most attention are children and youths under 21, the elderly, the handicapped, and women. Veterans are the lowest priority.

Some of the funding patterns fly in the face of political stereotypes. For example, both liberal and conservative Baptists now appear to be complementing their ``social justice'' money by spending for basic necessities, such as food and shelter for the poor. A similar pattern is seen among Lutherans and Methodists.

Church groups -- according to the CF survey -- are also adjusting to the times in their philanthropic patterns. Episcopalians are moving from church-related activity to a ``greater recognition of community needs.''

Jewish groups report they are responding to a dramatic increase in demands from the homeless and jobless. And US Lutherans -- preoccupied with adoption services until recently -- now (with fewer babies available for placement) are stressing youth employment, drug and alcohol abuse services, and help for Hispanics, refugees, and the hearing-impaired.

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