Beyond soup kitchens: Churches expand social work

After the tragedy at Columbine High School this spring, the Revs. Karen Komsak Davis and Doug Hodson prayed for those far-off Colorado students as well as their own Glendora, Calif., community. But they also did something else: distribute gun locks.

"It's hard to save somebody's soul if they've got a bullet in them," says Ms. Davis, minister at Glendora's First Christian Church. "It's the same reason we feed people.... The church is involved in people's physical as well as their spiritual well-being."

For decades, churches have run soup kitchens and homeless shelters, but today they are increasingly going further afield to deal with the changing issues of America in the late 1990s. Building on a foundation of social activism established a generation ago, churches are coming together to solve community problems in what some have called a "new face of ecumenism."

The results have echoed into the highest halls of politics. Presidential front-runner George W. Bush has made such faith-based programs a crucial element of his "compassionate conservatism" - calling for billions of dollars in grants. And with the era of big budgets declared over, churches represent an ever-more important part of social engineering in the US.

Religious institutions are coming together "around issues in their community rather than around commonalities of doctrine," says Don Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture here. "[They] have been very entrepreneurial, very quick in responding to human needs."

These needs can vary widely depending upon the community, and churches' solutions have taken many different forms.

*In inner-city minority and immigrant neighborhoods, Mr. Miller says, churches often work with banks to help arrange loans and with corporations to develop mentoring programs for people trying to start their own businesses. One church in Nashville, Tenn., for instance, has teamed up with Bank of America to give local youths an opportunity to open savings accounts and work as branch managers.

*A number of churches in Pasadena, Calif., came together to draw attention to the state of a local school. Volunteers walked door to door to meet with families, raising enough interest and money to refurbish the school's main entrance, improve landscaping, and start summer programs.

*Responding to problems of deadly teen violence, Faith Connection, a multi-denominational group in California's Ventura County, sponsored a booth at the county fair at which visitors could read accounts of the young lives lost and share their own experiences. The booth, says the Rev. Larry Wayman of Faith Connection, demonstrates that "the community stands with them against those things that would destroy our neighborhoods - alcohol addiction, abuse, violence."

To offer programs like these, many churches find themselves partnering with one another or with other organizations because of limited or shrinking financial resources.

Often, these organizations are nonprofit food banks, homeless shelters, or clinics established during the 1960s and '70s by an earlier generation of church activists.

Now most have spun off from their founding congregation or congregations, and they often downplay their religious connections to improve funding opportunities.

Nevertheless, "you find that a faith tradition still informs what they do," says Scott Thumma of the Center for Social and Religious Research in Hartford, Conn. He notes that some older mainline churches may have as many as 40 such partners.

For First Christian and Mr. Hodson's United Methodist, partnering with each other to hand out gun locks was "one way for us to show we do care about people and where they're at," says First Christian's Davis. "Churches have been [criticized for] being disconnected from people's lives ... singing hymns from the 1600s."

The attention focused on faith-based programs nationwide by several prominent politicians this election cycle has helped such programs win broader recognition. While some church members question whether it's a church's job to treat society's social ills, most appreciate the plaudits.

Even so, many add that they are concerned about the effect that billions of dollars of federal funding might have. "It's possible in the long term that government money will actually reduce the commitment of church members to support these programs," says Miller.

Though churches aren't necessarily worried that government will intrude on questions of doctrine, says Mr. Wayman, they are concerned that such large amounts of money would require churches to develop complex bureaucracies of their own. "It's too much paperwork," he says.

Indeed, Lorna Touryan Miller of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., says innovation has already meant more homework - identifying resources, finding the right people, and asking the right questions. "We're smart enough to know that we're a church," she says. "We have the vision and the passion, but not necessarily the expertise."

It's just a part of change, experts say, as faith-based organizations try to remain engaged while adjusting for changes in the community. "Every generation needs to reinvent the wheel," says Wayman. "What worked earlier ... may become inappropriate.... We're taking into consideration the dynamic of life."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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