Stung by the winter cold and welfare cuts, millions of
Americans in need of food and shelter are turning to the final
bastion of charity: local churches. Increasingly, so is the
"I hear more and more rhetoric coming from politicians ...
saying that churches need to fill in the gap," says the Rev. Vaughn
Beckman, head of the Council of Churches in Santa Clara County,
Calif. Due to welfare reform, he says, "we are feeling quite a bit
of pressure" to supplement diminishing government services for the
So Mr. Beckman and other religious leaders were surprised
this past month when San Jose, Calif. officials ordered the city's
First Christian Church to close its homeless shelter. Under threat
of $2,500-per-day fines for zoning violations, the church continued
housing 40 homeless - mostly single mothers and their children -
until the city opened a new shelter and dropped all fines.
The pressure on congregations in San Jose and other
communities nationwide to patch the fraying US social safety net is
sharpening tensions between local officials and religious leaders
over the purpose of churches in American society today.
Where San Jose city officials saw a zoning infraction (the
church was zoned as a ministry but not as a shelter), the Rev.
Scott Wagers of the First Church's Community Homeless Alliance
Ministry saw a restrictive government definition of the church.
Says Mr. Wagers: "The fundamental question is, does a church have
the right as an extension of its ministry to take people in? ... I
would say yes."
But many religious leaders say they are getting conflicting
messages from government. "Federal and state governments are
saying, 'help us increase our service delivery capacity,' but when
we try to do this on the local level they say no," says Scott
Anderson, executive director of the California Council of Churches,
an umbrella group representing 19 denominations and 3,300
Meanwhile, the federal government is prodding a wider
social-service role for churches. The "charitable choice" provision
in the 1996 welfare-reform law, says Mr. Anderson, states that
counties must consider the religious community as an option when
contracting out social services. It also allows churches to serve
the public without requiring them to conceal their icons or tenets.
And churches today are going beyond traditional charity
functions, such as soup kitchens and food drives, to running
child-care facilities and job-training and mentoring programs. …