One journalism newsletter complained recently that reporters have over-quoted me during this year's debate about President Bush's faith-based initiative. I agree. Reporters shouldn't be basing their stories on what Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State says. They shouldn't be basing their stories on what I say. They should be surveying and interviewing the people fighting poverty at the front lines.
To learn what's going on in one sector of the new war on poverty, I sent three-page questionnaires last month to the directors of 270 homeless shelters run by evangelicals around the United States, and received filled-out forms, often detailed, from 96 of them. I followed that up with face-to-face interviews at the convention of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions on May 29 and May 30 in Phoenix. Here are four key findings:
** If the Bush administration were to offer grants to these faith-based shelters, three out of five of them would not apply at this time. Many of them had bad experiences with government in the past, and the administration has clearly not convinced them that the faith-based initiative will not discriminate against their faith. Many will apply only if they receive assurances that, as a Springfield, Mass., mission put it, "We can maintain 'God' first and 'Gov.' second."
-- Asked to choose between three major ways of getting federal funding to faith-based groups, 78 percent favors tax credits, 5 percent favors vouchers, and only 4 percent favors grants; 4 percent was undecided and 10 percent opposed all three mechanisms. Typical views were like this one from Pueblo, Colo.: "Any vouchers or direct government grants would NOT be acceptable to our ministry, as these would undoubtedly lead to government controls and restrictions on the Christian religious nature of our ministry." A Utica, N.Y., leader stated: "Tax credits empower the donor. ... Discretionary grants are least preferable because the government may award them arbitrarily."
** If the federal government stipulated that faith-based groups, to be eligible for governmental programs, had to segment their activities, so that some were defined as "religious" (and thereby ineligible) and others as "non-religious" (thus eligible), 81 percent would not segment their programs at this time. One Philadelphia program stressed: "Evangelical faith-based organizations cannot segment their programs into 'religious' and 'non-religious' aspects. Christ is the center of all we do." An Illinois shelter director wrote: "Can I say that only parts of my life are religious? I hope not."
** Despite their disagreement with parts of what Bush's faith-based office has proposed, most of the shelter leaders support the overall Bush goals. "Yes, level the playing field," a Phoenix leader wrote. A Reno, Nev., director wrote, "As long as no attempt to silence our gospel message is made, I will work with my president."
Beyond the statistics come the stories of barriers imposed by government. One shelter in York, Pa., set up a youth center that served only juice and cookies; officials demanded that the center kitchen upgrade to commercial equipment, at a cost of $25,000. HUD offered a Flint, Mich., shelter big bucks if it would remove from its purpose statement the phrase, "To demonstrate the love of Christ." The shelter refused. A Fresno, Calif., shelter could receive government funds for providing emergency shelter services only if it banned T-shirts with Christian themes.
Shelters from Norfolk, Va., to Stockton, Calif., could not receive USDA surplus food, a staple at many shelters, because they require chapel attendance. The surplus food program is designed to feed hungry people (and also keep up farm prices). Are those who go to a Christian shelter less hungry than those who choose the secular one down the street? But that religious redlining is why the Bush faith-based initiative is important, and why, in the words of one Massachusetts respondent, those at the front lines "need the freedom to give real help to hurting people."