Church Purpose: Social Service or 'Saving Souls'? Welfare Cuts Trigger Tensions between California City Officials and Church Leaders

Article excerpt

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 government.

"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 poor.

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 congregations. 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. …


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