Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"Them thats got shall get

Them thats not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news"

The Bush administration's faith-based initiative is reaching only a tiny percentage of the nation's black churches, most of which have limited capacity to run social programs, hampering the initiative's promise of empowering those congregations to help the needy, according to a study to be released today.

The national survey of 750 black churches by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that fewer than 3 percent are participating in the program, which funnels at least $2 billion a year in federal social services spending to religious organizations.
"Mama may have, papa may have/But God bless the child thats got his own":

While many of the churches surveyed had an interest in assisting those in need and frequently offered small-scale programs such as food pantries or used-clothing giveaways, most had neither the money nor the expertise to do more -- or even to seek more resources.
WaPo sets it up as a "liberal v. conservative" issue, and leads with what black churches aren't doing. But that isn't really the issue:

"The thing is that the churches that are most likely to actually do social outreach or social ministry are liberal churches, they are not conservative churches," said David A. Bositis, a senior research associate at the center who conducted the study. "Those churches may have significant reservations about the program. But if the money is there, they are going to take it. They are the ones who have the capacity and the infrastructure to get grants and administer them."
Now, this happens to be right, but right for, I think, the wrong reasons.

"Liberal" churches tend to be white, upper-middle class, and well off. "Conservative" churches tend to be dominated by lower income people, and this is true even in mega-churches. It's no coincidence that the volunteer training in Houston last fall, to prepare people to help with the New Orleans residents then living in the Astrodome, was held at the biggest and most politically influential Southern Baptist church in town, or that the main organizing body arranging and placing volunteers, was supported primarily by the Southern Baptist Convention. It's not that the Southern Baptists are more concerned with social justice issues than the much smaller UCC, or than the non-denominational Lakeway Church: it's that they have the resources to do the job. Even with the huge campus Second Baptist in Houston has, the volunteers had to be trained in shifts, and the training went on across several days. Almost no other church in town, or any facility, could have handled so many people so eager to help.

Second, government money comes with strings; lots and lots of strings. Unless you have the clout of Halliburton, accounting for that money is a very serious task. Wealthier churches, which may not be large but are likely to be populated with managers comfortable with the accounting procedures that please a government agency, are more likely to take on the task of applying for and accounting for government grants than a working-class church. It isn't that the latter can't do it; only that they are logically quite less likely to. As the article says:

Most of the nation's estimated 50,000 black churches are led by pastors who work other jobs full time and have little more than administrative help in running their churches. The survey found that more than one in four black churches had annual revenue of less than $100,000 and half had revenue of less than $250,000. Only 12 percent reported taking in more than $1 million a year.

"The survey reveals for us the breadth of churches in the African American community, and it shows how churches that already have capacity have a leg up on churches that may do some good things" but are not in a position to do them on a larger scale, said Harold Dean Trulear, a professor of religion at Howard University who was an adviser on the study.
I can tell you from my own experience that a church with a budget of less than $100,000 cannot afford a full-time pastor, and those below $250,000 can only afford a pastor, and little more. And the pastors I know were all too busy with their own flock to do much more than hope the bills got paid every month. It really is a matter of "facts on the ground," not of theology, or will, or even political philosophy.

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