Healers of the Breach

From the Reagan administration's curtailment of the welfare state in the 1980s to the first Clinton administration's attempt to replace welfare with guaranteed work, churches were not regarded as central players in poverty reform. With the passage of welfare reform in 1996, faith communities moved from relative obscurity on the issue to a new-found popularity.

After years of being ignored, urban churches are now being added to the invitation lists of prominent political gatherings. This is a heady moment, even for those who have made a principled commitment to practice their faith at the margins of society. Yet the flattery and excitement of recognition must be tempered by theological caution. Jesus didn't refrain from attending a dinner and associating with the financial and political elite. Yet it was in that setting that he told the vexing parable of the banquet to which God invites the poor, maimed, blind, and lame, while the prosperous are too busy to attend.

The rising visibility of urban churches among political elites results from the confluence of three quite different streams of interest. First is the neoconservative agenda of social reform. The neoconservative project combines a commitment to curtail the welfare state, for both fiscal and moral reasons, with a hope of unleashing the creative genius of local communities to solve their own problems.

It may seem strange to see neoconservatives courting urban churches, but two factors explain the attraction. Since philanthropic giving goes overwhelmingly to institutions that serve the affluent and not the poor—museums, hospitals and universities—who else will deliver the promise of civic renewal to impoverished urban neighborhoods? Add the quasi-theological belief of neoconservatives that poverty is fundamentally caused by spiritual and moral deficiencies that prevent the poor from climbing the job ladder out of poverty. Who then can more effectively solve the root causes of poverty than urban communities of faith? The urban church thus provides the deus ex machina for the neoconservative project of social reform.

Liberal reformers are divided about whether it is a good idea to invite urban churches into a closer anti-poverty alliance with the state. Classic liberals are uncomfortable with religious actors being invited to a party that receives public funding. Although it has long been acceptable for the state to fund religious organizations, these groups have had to disguise their faith commitments and function as de facto secular social service delivery vehicles. Now that religious expression by social service providers has been protected under the Charitable Choice provision of welfare reform, classic liberals fear that the Constitution's establishment clause is in danger of being violated by those who would use public policy as a means to proselytize.

Other liberals worry more about the ever-deepening "disconnectedness" of persons in a rights-based culture. The greatest danger they see is not that the powerful will impose their values upon the weak, but rather that the powerful will pursue their private interests without any sense of civic obligation to those who are disadvantaged and falling behind. These "revised liberals" have expressed interest in welcoming religion into the public search for social reform if it can renew concern for neighbors and neighborhoods.

A THIRD CURRENT UNDERLIES the new prominence of urban churches. Many faith communities have found a theological niche in contemporary society: Their mission is to provide members a spiritual oasis from the rat race of earning and spending, and from the spirit-numbing isolation of TV sitcoms and home videos. Other faith-based communities—call them the civic progressives—are refusing to settle into this niche in America's spiritual marketplace. Rather, civic progressives are inviting men and women to reconnect with their neighbors—especially those who are poor—and to reconnect with a progressive commitment to public policy.

For civic progressives these three reconnections are interdependent. The faith of Jesus Christ opens isolated folks to the God who enables and requires them to become, like the Good Samaritan, people who are capable of acting as neighbors to others. It directs prayerful attention not to an airy love for humanity or to abstract universal rights, but to concrete others who are most in need. And it enables activities, both of service and solidarity, that give rise to the reawakening of what just social policy must provide for communities to be places of neighborly love and common cause. Not surprisingly, urban churches are prime locations for civic progressives.

Nile Harper's new book, Urban Churches, Vital Signs: Beyond Charity Toward Justice, views the world of urban churches from within. The book offers "an affirmation that innovative, constructive, and faithful ministry is taking place in urban churches" by telling the stories of 28 congregations in 15 cities. Harper's stories are not intended to be case studies for practitioner education, nor do they illustrate the findings of an analytical study of faith-based urban redevelopment. Their more modest purpose is to edify the practices of urban congregations by rendering selected stories sympathetically, with the hope that these and other communities will learn from one another. But the book merits attention from a wider audience as well. By presenting a view of urban churches from within, Urban Churches, Vital Signs offers insights into features of the civic progressive agenda of faith communities.

The stories in Urban Churches illustrate the three reconnections to which religious civic progressives are committed. Of the 12 "vital signs in urban churches," Harper places the experience of abundant faith first: "The most dynamic vital sign in urban churches is the increasingly vigorous and creative worship life taking place in a growing number of city congregations."

For example, Montview Presbyterian Church, located in a racially mixed residential neighborhood in Denver, is committed to a vibrant worship life "that combines christocentric faith, excellent music, and insightful preaching in a traditional Reformed approach." Vigorous and creative celebration of faith does not mean worship packaged for high entertainment value, soaking up extravagant budgets.

The New Song Community Church in Baltimore enjoys spirited worship services in a modest, renovated residential building; significantly, it "has chosen to put its resources into nurture, service, and community redevelopment instead of constructing a larger traditional church building. Thus vibrant worship does something much more than maintain attendance and loyalty to a member-serving organization." Through worship God enables and requires the community to be engaged with neighbors beyond the congregation.

ANOTHER VITAL SIGN elaborated by Harper matches the second reconnection of civic progressives: community-building. One of the best examples of faith-based community organizing is The Resurrection Project (TRP), sponsored by seven Catholic churches in the Pilsen district of Chicago. Facing many challenges in their neighborhood in the early 1990s, the predominantly Mexican-American immigrant parishioners had few skills and little confidence that they could or should effect change in their community. The pastor of one of the parishes, Father Charles Dahm, shared his extensive knowledge of community organizing and political science, and emphasized an incarnational theology of "human dignity, transformation, and struggle for justice" to inspire tentative parishioners.

The achievements of TRP in its few short years of existence are astounding: creation of affordable housing, a community center, a women's homeless shelter, community block groups and child care facilities, a small business development program, cultural programs, and more. Yet TRP's greatest success was not new programs, but the forging of a proud community confident of its ability to rise to new challenges.

TRP Board Member Raul Hernandez captures the new spirit best: "There are many problems in Pilsen, but we cannot run away from them. Instead of moving to a better community, we must build on what we have. We know we are responsible for each other. I want to teach my children to accept their responsibility in the community, not run from it."

Yet another vital sign articulated by Harper parallels the third civic progressive reconnection: social justice. Harper writes: "As churches become more and more involved with social justice work, they have also become more politically aware and involved." Allen A.M.E. Church in Queens, New York, powerfully represents the confluence of social justice and politics.

Rev. Floyd Flake has a keen understanding of how church and government best work together, gained from 23 years as pastor of Allen Church and 13 years as a member of Congress representing southeast Queens. "The best role for the government," Flake says, "is to be a partner in the process [in which the church] takes a blighted urban community and turns it around." Under the leadership of Flake, Allen Church has forged numerous partnerships with the city, state, and federal government to carry out its vision of social justice through a diverse assortment of church-based nonprofit organizations focused on housing and social services. Affirming a dynamic relationship between a faithful vision of social justice and politics, Flake says, "The political process is part of God's world and is an arena for ministry, if we remain faithful."

Urban Church, Vital Signs

is a rich collection of stories that profile urban communities of faith with sympathetic insight. Several critical questions remain: What is the capacity of churches in relation to the nation's need for social provision? And how are faith-based ministries to be evaluated?

To his credit, Harper sets church-based social service within the broader context of congregational life and structural injustice, and thus avoids the trap of reducing churches solely to social service providers. Yet broader analysis of the overall capacity of American churches to meet the needs of the poor is important to keep in view. Without this perspective, Harper's portrayal of the exciting work of urban churches is prone to being misused by neoconservatives as anecdotal evidence to promote government abdication of the social safety net. The best empirical studies show that churches have neither the capacity nor the infrastructure to significantly expand their services.

ACCORDING TO economist Rebecca Blank, while the total impact of faith-based social service provision is significant—she estimates $6 billion to $7 billion per year—it pales in comparison to total government expenditures on anti-poverty efforts—about $200 billion per year. In addition, the highly regarded 1998 Aspen Institute study authored by John McCarthy and Jim Castelli found that most congregations already spend about 20 percent of their income on social services—a significant portion considering their many fixed expenses such as worship, education, personnel, and facilities.

To put these figures in perspective, if churches were to assume responsibility for the social safety net, every church in the country would have to raise an additional $200,000 annually to replace government services—a figure that easily eclipses the entire budget of most churches! Furthermore, churches lack the superstructures that would enable them to be efficient and effective distributors of goods and services to the poor on a large scale. This is especially true considering that the churches with the greatest financial resources to assist the poor are located in the suburbs, isolated from the most troublesome areas of urban and rural poverty.

Missing from Harper's account of the work of urban congregations is any discussion of how church programs ought to be critically evaluated. Given the great emphasis that public and private funders currently place on outcomes, this omission is significant. That said, empirical research on churches and faith-based organizations is notoriously difficult to conduct and evaluate. To be fair, developing sympathetic and careful ways to evaluate faith-based programs is not the purpose of Harper's book. But without such tools, religious and political leaders will find it difficult to distinguish between rhetoric and effective change.

Urban Churches, Vital Signs provides important insights into the prophetic ministry of urban churches and will serve as an invaluable resource for practitioners. Neoconservatives are looking to religion to provide ideological justification and revitalization of personal responsibility, not particularly among the middle-class and elites, but certainly among the urban poor. Liberals in turn stress the enduring need for the public sector to provide opportunity for genuine participation in American democratic life. Yet disaffiliation from public institutions and common aims runs deep, and liberals are hard-pressed to know how to renew the very civic bonds upon which a vigorous public life depends.

Civic progressives affirm the value of personal responsibility and state activism. Both, however, depend upon the renewal of civic solidarity linking men and women to their neighbors across the formidable barriers of neighborhood, class, and race. Vital urban churches do precisely this. And in so doing, they have the potential of being not only critical prophets but healers of the breach.

BRENT COFFIN is executive director and SAM HERRING is research assistant at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Urban Churches, Vital Signs: Beyond Charity Toward Justice. Edited by Nile Harper. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publish Co., 1999.

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