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Leap of faith

How Monroe County is helping to send your money to church

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Walking into the lobby of HOPE Initiatives' Anson Street offices, there's little to identify the place as home to a religious group.

Faux-marble paneling frames a receptionist's window, and off to the side sit a few chairs for visitors. The room's walls are devoid of the symbols that often distinguish religious groups from their secular counterparts. Posted on the reverse side of one of a pair of glass doors is a single clue: A plastic placard reads "God Bless," then, just below it, "Please do not exit this door."

HOPE Initiatives is an offshoot of Bethel Christian Fellowship. The large East Avenue church rolled all of its outreach programs into a single community development corporation with separate books and a separate staff a few years ago.

The organization is one of a handful of religious non-profits that stand to benefit from the recent creation of an Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives for Monroe County by County Executive Maggie Brooks.

Even before the county created the office, HOPE Initiatives had successfully obtained federal funds from the federal government through President Bush's faith-based initiative for two of its programs: $970,000 over a three-year period to promote sexual abstinence in schools, and $480,000 (also over three years) for a program that pairs volunteer mentors/counselors with the children of prisoners in Monroe County jail.

"We have a heart for kids in this city," says Luis Perez, HOPE Initiatives' executive director (and a district pastor at Bethel). "One of the primary callings of the church is to look out for the poor and the needy and those in distress. That's our responsibility. That's our charge."

Perez echoes language purveyed by the Bush administration, saying that the changes to federal funding laws merely "level the playing field."

A program like child mentoring, for example, ought to be judged on an equal footing with its secular counterparts, he says.

"Everybody's doing that," says Perez. "We just happen to have skills, experience, people with passion for that, so why not do it? No one could say that could be inherently religious. But if we have the capacity and professionalism to do that why shouldn't we? Because we're a church?"

But more than simply seeking to join the traditional mix of social programs the federal government funds, some religious groups want to reshape the face of human services. Perez, who holds a Master's degree in social work, articulates a vision of human services --- shared by many evangelicals --- that dovetails perfectly with the Reagan-era Republican principle of small government. Namely, that social welfare is the responsibility of the church, not the government. According to this narrative, government welfare programs owe their existence to the church's past failures to live up to its mission of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and caring for the fatherless and the widow.

That's why Perez isn't worried that funneling public dollars to religious groups might weaken similar government programs.

"The government shouldn't be doing it anyway," he says.

A few minutes later Perez softens his language to reflect a more nuanced perspective: "I think there are certain roles the government plays, but the pendulum has swung such that everybody is looking for the government to do what we should be doing as believers."

That strong sense of the historic role played by the church in social services is something the Reverend Scott Tayler, co-minister of Unitarian Church of Rochester, shares with Perez. It's a history in which groups like the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities formed the backbone of the human services support network available to the poor.

Paradoxically, that's led Tayler to take the opposite position on accepting government funds for his church's outreach efforts.

"We would not do it on principle because of our concern that this approach leads to a blurring of church and state boundaries," he says. "We'd rather spend our own money on our own programs."

Which is what the Unitarian Church has done. Using money from its own budget, the church operates programs that provide food and shelter to the homeless, and also donates to other groups doing similar work.

"I totally agree with the current administration that faith-based organizations are effective," Tayler says. But that doesn't mean he thinks tax dollars should go to support such programs. Instead, Tayler says, he believes the church's stance vis-à-vis the government ought to be encouraging it to spend public money more wisely, not vying for a portion of it.

When it comes to his concern about blurring the lines between church and state, Tayler is clear in his objections. Directly or indirectly, he says, taxpayer money is subsidizing religious activity.

"There's no way to deny that in one way or another the money that goes to faith-based programs ends up supporting the evangelism part of the program," he says.

Even if the funds are kept strictly separate, Tayler argues, that still means "more money is available for evangelism."

And when extra dollars are freed up for evangelism, you've crossed into a First Amendment gray area where government is involved in promoting a specific religion, he says.

It's into this ideologically charged debate that the county's first-ever faith czar steps.

The office Mel Walczak heads is brand new --- he was appointed to the position of manager January 7 --- and tiny: "Initially, I am the office," he says.

The soft-spoken priest (no longer in active ministry) most recently worked for the county's Department of Human and Health Services. "I've had my feet in both worlds," he says.

That experience will need to serve him well, since he's stepping into largely uncharted terrain.

"To my knowledge, Monroe County is the first county in New York State to establish its own office of faith-based and community initiatives," he says.

Jeremy White, at the outreach arm of the White House's faith-based office, couldn't think of any other county-level offices, either in New York or elsewhere in the nation, but added that his office doesn't track such developments. (Several states have established statewide offices, but New York is not among them.)

Though in theory the county's office is supposed to be modeled after the White House version, there is at least one very important difference: Unlike the federal government, the county does not have its own so-called "compassionate care" fund to dole out --- at least, not yet. (That may change in the future, says Walczak.) Instead, the county's top faith administrator functions primarily as a liaison, connecting groups like HOPE Initiatives to federal dollars, taking the mystique out of jargony application forms, and brokering access to services like county grantwriters.

"It's that, plus a little bit more," Walczak says. "It's really trying to connect all the dots that exist already in the community so that it puts together a seamless effort to solving some of the problems."

Walczak says he accepted the new position at Brooks' urging after the two had a series of conversations about what the county could do to coordinate disparate local efforts. Like the Bush administration, they concluded that a well-placed grant to an existing religious organization was an effective tool.

"And I'm hoping through this office --- and that's certainly the hope of the county executive --- that we will be able to provide that extra little push or that extra connection that they might need to be able to do more of the good things that they're doing," Walczak says.

The trend that Perez is pushing for and Walczak embodies --- one of devolving social services responsibility from the federal level to state, local governments, or even out of government altogether --- is one that's been going on since the 1970s, says Len Erb. Erb is the director of the Center for Christian Social Ministries at Roberts Wesleyan College. The Chili college is one of only a handful of evangelical colleges nationwide to offer a Master's of Social Work. The Center for Christian Social Ministries is the program's hands-on arm.

To Erb, the trend toward allowing religious groups more access to federal money is mostly a good one; it reverses previous discrimination against such groups solely on the basis of religion, he says. But he also is attuned to the complexity of the church-and-state relationship.

"We certainly need to be concerned, but concerned on both sides of the First Amendment," he says. "That there not be a deliberate proselytizing under government funding --- I think that's clearly prohibited --- but by the same token neither should there be a discouragement of faith-based initiatives. The First Amendment has two phrases, and we have to make sure that both of those are held in balance."

Whether that balance will continue to hold up if the federal government keeps handing more responsibility over to non-governmental groups remains to be seen, says Erb.

"That trend will probably continue," he says. "Is there a point at which the federal government just completely bails out? I don't think that will happen; I think government always has a role to play. I'd like to see that role be more an oversight role to make sure equity continues for all people, so faith-based organizations, if they did more, would not be doing it in a discriminatory sense. I think that's a very important role for the government."

For now that oversight role is also largely the territory of non-profit, non-government organizations.

But among groups that typically play watchdog on church-state issues, the county's new office has generated surprisingly little response.

"We're in a wait-and-see mode," says Barbara de Leeuw, executive director of the local ACLU. Until they've done more research, she says, her group won't take a stand on the county office.

"It's not our idea to shut this thing down," says de Leeuw. "As long as people aren't proselytizing, as long there's not subtle pressure, it may be a fine thing."

The local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State wasn't even aware of the office's creation.

The only strong stand taken by a local group comes from Metro Justice, whose organizer, Jon Greenbaum, serves a biting critique. Characterizing the office as a step toward the privatization of basic services, he says "It's just part of a move toward a theocracy."

To lay such charges to rest, Walczak and those like Perez whom he'll serve will need to convince the public that the church-state wall will remain intact.

"I think that the effort from the George Bush administration still recognizes the strength of the first amendment to keep the two entities separate to a certain degree," Walczak says. "None of those dollars are to be used for any inherently religious practice. You can't take dollars that are designed to deal with social problems and use them as a vehicle for proselytizing one faith against the other or for enhancing your own religious experience, whatever that happens to be."

But it remains largely up to each group to police itself.

What if a volunteer felt God calling them to share their faith, despite the strictures that accompany federal dollars?

"I would tell you that if you're with that child through the mentoring relationship we set up, you probably don't want to do that," Perez says. "You want to be a friend, you want to be an encourager, but you don't want to impose your values on them during the time that you're working or serving under the auspices of what we're doing here."

But then he adds: "We all know how that works. Once a relationship is established and people spend more time than the hour that's allotted, it could be different. But in this case we want them just to mentor the child. So in training we talk about that."

HOPE Initiatives relies on that training to prevent volunteer counselors from overstepping boundaries, says Perez.

How much training do they receive?

"The initial training is six hours," he says, and after that there are monthly gatherings to address topical issues.

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