February 2, 2001 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

Dual Mission

It was the first graduation ceremony for formerly homeless men at the Bowery Mission, and its president, Ed Morgan, felt like a rookie trapeze artist without a net. He was not new to the unabashedly Christian agency, but now he was overseeing its Transition Center, a program with a secular aim -- to get men drug-free, employed and living on their own.

Though the center was fully funded by New York City, the staffers were religious believers. No proselytizing occurred on city time, but many of the graduates had come to faith. With city officials in the audience, Mr. Morgan worried about how the matter of religious belief would be addressed. "We were wondering if we were going to be padlocked at any moment."

Then City Councilman Abe Gerges got up to speak. Mr. Gerges had led the campaign to convert a housing project on the Lower East Side into a 77-room shelter and pay the Bowery Mission to run it. As chairman of the city's Committee on Economic Development, he had visited more than 100 shelters and learned why a few worked and most didn't. "I just want you to know," Mr. Gerges said, looking his fellow city officials straight in the eye, "the only reason this place works is God."

That was in 1994. Today the city says the Bowery's program has the best record for guiding homeless addicts off government assistance. Almost 90% of the clients who complete its regimen are employed a year after graduation. In the process, the Bowery Mission has cut a path through one of the nation's most explosive church-state minefields: the public funding of religious groups helping the needy. "We wish there were more providers like them," says Martin Oesterreich, commissioner of New York City's Department of Homeless Services.

So does President George W. Bush, who earlier this week announced plans to use tax incentives and federal funds to expand the efforts of faith-based charities. Some critics see such plans as an attempt by the government to establish religion; others argue that they will secularize religious groups. A close look at the Bowery program, however, suggests that both sides have it wrong.

When Mr. Morgan was tapped to head the parent organization in 1993, it was known mostly for its storied homeless shelter, the Bowery Mission, founded in 1879. Funded solely by private contributions, the mission is robustly religious. At its building at 227 Bowery, the young man who greets you has a Bible out on his desk. The men who gather for lunch pray before eating; the on-site chapel regularly fills up for a mandatory worship service.

From there, it's a short walk to the city-funded program on Avenue D, in an area notorious for street people and drug dealers. Here you'll find no chapel or religious literature lying about, no pictures of Jesus. On one meeting-room wall hangs the 12 Steps used in Alcoholics Anonymous.

When he signed a $1.3 million contract to run the Avenue D program, Mr. Morgan set up a separate nonprofit entity with the IRS to avoid commingling his budgets. He agreed not to require participation in any religious activities at the center; and he hired a person with a master's degree in social work to oversee the counselors.

Compared with most government shelters, the Bowery's nine-month residential program is a compassionate kick in the pants. Participants are immediately expected to do chores, meet with counselors and join relapse-prevention meetings. In a few months they attend an interview-skills class and start job-hunting. Once they have a job, they must save 75% of each paycheck. Typically they save $3,000, find an apartment and move out.

What part does faith play? A quiet one. Bibles are provided, if requested, though they are bought with private money. Weekly Bible study is offered in the evening, led by a volunteer. A 12-step class might stir a spiritual discussion.

Most important, virtually all staffers -- from counselors to cafeteria workers -- are deeply religious. "The recovery from homelessness, from addiction is an affair of the heart. It's not primarily an affair of the mind," Mr. Morgan says. "The clients can sense our staff really cares, because they don't report just to me. They report to a Higher Power."

The Bowery Mission's delicate balance of the sacred and secular appears to be a model that could deflect the legal onslaughts sure to come in response to Mr. Bush's proposals. And if Mr. Morgan and his program can keep the faith, they may help spark a small reformation in care-giving more effective and humane than what government can do on its own.

Joseph Loconte is William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Originally published in the Wall Street Journal (02/02/01)