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by Morris Sullivan
art/W. Ralph Walters
Halfway through a seemingly endless, boring city commission meeting, a well-dressed, well-spoken African American woman approached the podium; she was item 7(G) on the evening's agenda.
The woman explained her reason for approaching the commission that evening: she represented a small, non-profit organization that ran after-school and summer programs for kids in disadvantaged, underserved communities. Her organization wanted to use a city-owned facility, an otherwise neglected and forgotten community center in a park at the heart of the small town's low-income, mainly black-occupied neighborhood.
She and her colleagues would hire one person to staff a program that would take elementary and middle-school aged kids in for after-school supervision, and they and other volunteers would work there also. In the process, they would provide tutoring, remediation, and healthy afterschool snacks. If the kids did well in school, they would reward them with field trips to places these underpriviledged children might otherwise never seelike Disney World, for example, or a candy shop in a nearby urban downtown.
My butt was falling asleep. I damn near jotted down "approved unanimously" on my notepad before the commission even discussed it. I mean, what kind of cold-hearted Scrooge would say "no" to that plan? I might as well go have a smoke.
But the hair on the back of my neck bristled a little when she said the name of the organization: it was a lengthy one, and included words like "God" and Ministry."
Apparently the name struck a note of discord among the commissioners, too, some of whom asked questions like, "We're not being asked to provide space for a church, are we?"
"Oh, No!" she stressed. "We're funding the program with grants from the county" and other government sources. The county wouldn't fund a church, of course, "although we all go to churchdifferent churches. We all believe in God, but we're not there to preach the Gospel." While they might talk to each other about God, she said, that was just a part of being good Christians, not a part of the afterschool program.
Some of the commissioners still seemed concerned about the potential conflict between church and state. Apparently, a few had read the Bill of Rights, which says, "The government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." To provide a space for a ministry of God, no matter how euphemistically the mission statement read, certainly seemed to violate that establishment clause.
A few years ago, this scene would probably never have unfolded, or at least would have ended sooner and very differently. I recall sitting in another meetingthis would have been around 1998where an otherwise qualified organization with a clearly secular mission statement was denied grant funding because it had indirect but distinct ties to a religious organization. In those days, enlightened municipal governments seemed wary of even ostensible links to religion.
Since the Bush administration took office, however, "faith-based initiatives" have become an increasingly important part of the American social landscape. That term infuriates me. Regardless of its nonthreatening connotations, "faith-based initiative" translates directly to one thing and one thing only: religious organization. Yet, despite the potential for conflict with the Constitution, our society relies more and more on "faith-based initiatives"churches and other religious organizationsto meet our needs.
In the last year or two, I have talked to many people who operate secular organizations that accomplish important social goals. The executive director of a family resource organization, for example, told me it had recently begun offering respite services, a chance for people who give round-the-clock care to loved ones to take a break. She gave me an example: a woman whose husband was injured and paralyzed. The woman, thanks to the respite service, could now get someone else to care for him for an hour or two while she went to the grocery store, for a jog, or just relaxed for a little while.
Another told me of providing clothing and food for homeless people. Yet another told me her community's art museum had added summer classes for children who couldn't otherwise afford art instruction, and another provided school supplies and materials for teachers and children in low-income families.
Each organization helps address important needsof the homeless and hungry, needy children, and otherwise underserved members of the society. And they are doing it with the help of, as the art museum director put it, "the faith community." In the process of getting their help, these organizations are, in effect, helping undermine the separation of church and state by commingling government grant funds with those from the church collection plate, thus potentially turning secular programs into religious ones.
Some of the city commissioners had these same thoughts, apparently. They discussed the issue for some time. I think a few were hoping that some practical reasonconflicts with other city programs, for instancemight give them a reason to turn down the proposal.
Alas, no one could recall the last time the city used the center; most commissioners hadn't even been inside it. Even the chair of the town's parks and recreation board sheepishly admitted he had never even seen the park, which is in a part of town middle-class white folks don't often visit. And no one else was offering much in the way of tutoring for these kids, who would obviously benefit greatly from it. The commission voted, and God got his wish.
I finally stepped outside for a cigarette. A citizen followed me out and bummed a light. He was incensed. "Thatıs just wrong," he thought. "What if the organization was part of the Klan, or Black Muslims?"
"Good question," I said. "I imagine that would make a difference."
"You're damn right it would," he said. "I don't think they'd have given them the time of day."
He was quiet for a moment as he sucked on his Winston. "But shit! Those kids need a place to go. Otherwise, they're going to end up hanging out on the damn streets. And then what? I know these women, and they'll help them do better in school. And maybe theyıll stay out of jail."
"True," I said. "And it doesn't look like they've got anywhere else to go."
"I guess you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't," he said.
Indeed, the "faith-based initiative" phenomenon is one of the clearest "damned if you do/damned if you don't" situations I can imagine. When one looks past the "faith-based" euphemism, one sees a centuries-old phenomenon. "Ministries," "missions," and other well-meaning religious organizations do what they do largely so they can communicate valuestheir religious valuesto the people they reach through their good works. Whatever other altruistic motives he or she might have, a missionary's main goal is to spread "the word," whether into the darkest jungles of the Amazon or the urban jungles of America.
Knowing that, I think it's patently wrong for government to fund religious organizations. On the other hand, only a heartless bastard could say, "No, you can't teach those children. No, you can't feed those hungry people. No, that woman's just going to have to stay home and take care of her paralyzed husband." Who could do that?
Not me, certainly.
Since the Bush administration took office, funding for more and more social programs has been slashed. More funding, I am sure, will be cut. We are just now beginning to feel the effect of this, as old budgets run out and new ones take their place. In Florida, for example, a lot of budgeted programs, historic preservation, arts programs, and education among them, were "un-funded" or reduced by the legislature, ostensibly in reaction to the unhealthy economy and reduced revenues. At the same time, government is encouraging the spread of religion by allowing church- and religion-related programs to apply for grant funding.
So, whether because of lower revenues driven by a faltering economy, policy changes, the cost of war, or a little of each, government is funding fewer programs and relying more on religious groups to take up the slack. Consequently, I predict, more and more of our indigent and needy will come to rely on "the faith community" for their needs.
I can't damn those commissioners for agreeing to let a religious organization use a city facility; I think they did what was best for their constituents, given the circumstances.
As Americans, we are faced with two alternatives: We can let our politicians know we don't want our tax dollars funding religions, and if we prefer they sink those bucks into America's future rather than spending them on bombs to protect Middle Eastern oilfields.
Or we can all rehearse the lyrics to "Onward Christian Soldiers," because we"ll otherwise have a lot more scenes like that commission meeting.
And that would be a damned shame.
Contributing Editor Morris Sullivan has written for IMPACT for more than five years. A freelance writer and former high school teacher living in DeLand, Florida, Sullivan is also a playwright. His most notorious work, Femmes Fatale, contained the infamous "Nude Macbeth," which has been covered by diverse news media from the BBC and NPR to Playboy, HBO's "Real Sex," and Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."
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