June 30, 2008

June 30, 2008 | Commentary on

Success of faith-based initiatives prove the power of the personal

How do we meet people's basic needs in America? The answer often depends on where we stand.

Those who stand in Washington, D.C., typically see problems such as poverty, homelessness and drug addiction in terms of statistics, costs and caseloads. This view nurtures the mindset that these problems can be solved only by government programs fueled by ever-increasing spending.

But if you stand on South Division Avenue in Grand Rapids, Mich., or on West Main Street in Leesburg, Fla., you perhaps see things differently.

Instead of statistics, you might know a family who can't pay its rent because of unexpected doctor bills. Instead of a case number, you might know a pregnant teenager whose dad was never around. Your close-up view of these problems helps you see what Washington bureaucrats can't: That what these people need most are family, friends and support networks that know them personally.

Therein lies the power of religious and community-based organizations, which President Bush has rightly highlighted from the earliest days of his campaign right up through today. The best expressions of this reorientation toward the local, the flexible and the personal have been through programs such as Access to Recovery. ATR is a program that allows drug addicts to use vouchers at the treatment facility of their choice, including religious providers.

Similarly, grassroots nonprofits also play a valuable role in helping the homeless.

"We cannot break dangerous patterns of behavior and cycles of poverty unless we get personally involved," says Mary Kay Baker, director of the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Grand Rapids. Her organization works with 15 local churches to provide shelter, food and other forms of material assistance to homeless families. But it offers more. "They need cheerleaders who listen to them and give them encouragement."

Mary Kay and her colleagues live this personal approach. They refer to the people they serve not as "clients" or "cases" but as "guests," according them dignity and respect. Church members volunteer to house these "guests" in their church buildings, cook and eat dinner with them and play games with their children or help them with homework.

This personal approach includes another crucial element: discipline.

With assistance comes personal responsibility. Toward that end, guests are required to seek employment during their stay or receive a seven-day notice to leave.

Guests at IHN also must turn over their government-issued debit cards to staff. Although staff members don't hold veto power over the cards, they talk with guests about their spending choices. "Many guests have never had the concept of saving explained or modeled for them," says Baker. "When we encourage them to save money, they often leave thrilled to have enough saved up for their first's month's rent."

IHN's networking approach with local churches is just one model for meeting people's needs. The First Baptist Church of Leesburg, Fla., has taken a different route by gradually building an entire ministry village on its campus. Staff and volunteers operate different ministries that serve homeless men and women, abandoned children, pregnant women, sick people without medical insurance, alcoholics and drug addicts, and many others.

What motivates FBC members? "They love Christ, and Christ loved broken people, so they are moved by their love of Christ to serve those he served," Pastor Emeritus Charles Roesel says.

This local, faith-centered approach doesn't just transform lives. It also tackles human need more efficiently than bloated government programs. For example, while FBC's community medical care center spends about $30,000 a month to provide medical care to the uninsured, it receives over $100,000 a month worth of donated pharmaceuticals and services.

Similar savings are achieved in Grand Rapids. IHN receives $12,000 annually from a government grant - less than 10 percent of its budget.

But because churches and volunteers provide housing and food to their approximately 200 guests each year, they provide services that would cost taxpayers more than $92,500 annually in government expenditures.

Such examples bear out the original idea behind the President's Faith-Based and Community Initiative. At its best, the initiative seeks to instill a personal, community-based approach to meeting human needs by reducing regulations and fostering an environment in which faith-inspired and grassroots efforts can flourish.

As government budgets spiral out of control, the need is more urgent than ever for policies that create environments in which families, local congregations and community-based organizations can thrive. Their power to meet people's needs lies in a personal approach that government simply cannot emulate.

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

About the Author

Ryan Messmore, D.Phil. Research Fellow
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune News Service