The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America

The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America

The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America

The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America


For people living in U.S. cities, social services come not only from the government but increasingly also from local religious communities. Ever since the Clinton administration's welfare reform, faith-based institutions, and especially congregations, have been allowed to bid for federal funds for their programs. In The Other Philadelphia Story, drawing on the first-ever census of congregations in any American city, Ram Cnaan and his colleagues provide an authoritative account of the functioning of congregations, their involvement in social services, and their support of other charitable organizations.

An in-depth study of 1,392 congregations in Philadelphia, the book illuminates how these groups function as community hubs where members and neighbors alike gather throughout the week. Cnaan's findings show that almost every assembly of parishioners emphasizes caring for others, even if the help is modest. Thus American congregations uphold an implicit but strong norm of social responsibility and work to improve the quality of life for members and nonmembers alike.

Many of the problems associated with urban life persist in the face of governmental inaction, and the burden of responsibility cannot be shouldered entirely by congregations. However, in a city such as Philadelphia, where half the residents are regular attenders of religious congregations, hopes for urban improvement are largely to be found in these local groups.

Special focus is given in the book to kinds of care that often go unnoticed: volunteerism, provision of refuge, and informal assistance to community members in need. All told, Cnaan asserts, congregations are an essential component of Philadelphia's civil society. Without them, the quality of life would deteriorate immeasurably.


Readers of my previous books, The Newer Deal and The Invisible Caring Hand, may be familiar with some aspects of this introduction. I came to Philadelphia in 1986 as a visiting scholar for one year. My academic interests at the time focused on how best to provide public social services to people in need. in fact, I did not even perceive nonpublic social services as worthy of academic attention. I am still interested in how societies organize themselves to help their needy members, but I am now more aware of complementary modes to the publicly run system.

I was born in Israel and trained as a social worker in the European framework that took for granted the presence of a benevolent government that assumed the responsibility for addressing social ills. It was to the government that citizens came with new social problems, and it was the government that planned and carried out the intervention. When I began working and studying in the United States, I was amazed by the limited role the government plays in civic life and the distrust most citizens felt toward their government. I noticed that in the United States, in the absence of a benevolent government welfare system, thousands of volunteers and voluntary organizations fill this gap and comprise an active civic life. I turned to the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) to find an academic center where the world of voluntarism and nonprofit organizations is best studied and explored. It was there that I was exposed to faith-based organizations as agents of welfare services. Little did I know that in this venue I would also meet my wife!

In arnova, I also met people who studied nontraditional organizations such as volunteer firefighters, alternative schools, self-help groups, and religious congregations. As time passed, I was struck by the significant role congregations play in maintaining social care networks and community life in America. Throughout the late 1990s, I found numerous newspaper articles on the role of the American religious congregations in restoring civic life in our communities, political speeches on the importance of congregations, and legislation encouraging the participation of congregations and other faith communities in the public life of our society. Yet I could not find any serious academic discussion about . . .

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