The Power of the Spirit

By Harris, Hamil R. | The New Crisis, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Power of the Spirit

Harris, Hamil R., The New Crisis

President Bush's "faith-based" initiative has divided African American religious abd community leaders -- rallying some, riling others

President George W. Bush's "faith-based initiative" created an instant fault line in the African American community in January, dividing minister from minister, activist from activist. Depending on who you spoke to then, the proposal designed to help religious groups have easier access to government funding for community programs - was a way to help finance good works in needy areas or simply a backdoor path to buying off Black ministers and neutralizing Black political activism.

The debate has only intensified since, with the issue moving from White House photo ops to hearings on Capitol Hill, where the legislation has an uncertain future.

Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) has been charged with shepherding the legislation through Congress. On April 25, he invited about 30 church leaders, including prominent clergy, such as Bishop TD. Jakes, Bishop Paul S. Morton and Bishop Carlton Pearson, to meetings on the Hill about the issue.

A month earlier, Watts stood next to Bush as 120 African American secular leaders met in the East Room of the White House for a pep rally on the initiative and other Bush agenda items, including a budget request for a $1.4 billion increase over five years for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

"I hope by late summer or early fall we can have something done on our faithbased initiative," said Watts, who billed his April meeting as the "House-Senate Majority Faith-Based Leadership Summit."

"Faith-based and community organizations are indispensable in meeting the needs of poor Americans and distressed neighborhoods," President Bush wrote in the executive order he signed in January creating the White House Office of Faithbased and Community Initiatives.

He appointed John DiIulio, a criminologist and University of Pennsylvania professor of politics, religion and civil society, to work with five federal agencies (Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor and Education) to convert his proposal into legislation.

"Government cannot be replaced by such organizations, but it can and should welcome them as partners," the president said in issuing his order.

But Bush's plan has met with opposition both within his party and from the outside. Civil rights leaders such as Rev Jesse Jackson fear the Black church would lose its autonomy by accepting government money, and religious conservatives such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell worry that some churches would become too dependent on federal dollars.

On the Hill, key Republican senators have already put the brakes on the most controversial provision of Bush's initiative - Charitable Choice - in which federal dollars would go directly to religious-oriented social service agencies instead of a separate nonsectarian arm of the organization or church. Critics assailed that part of the plan as a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

One person squarely behind Bush's proposal is Bishop Charles E. Blake, pastor of the 19,000-member West Angeles Church of God In Christ in Los Angeles, whose work has been touted by the Bush administration as a model for faith-based support.

Bishop Blake's West Angeles Community Development Corporation (CDC) had only been open for two weeks in January 1994 when a massive earthquake hit Los Angeles, leaving 6,000 families homeless and the CDC scrambling to help provide relief.

"Families couldn't return to their homes," says Lula Ballton, the CDC's executive director. "We had to help people find Pampers, food, water; we had to help businesses maintain. Entire homes jumped off foundations."

Seven years later, the West Angeles CDC has gone from being a small emergency relief organization to providing a range of services to the South Los Angeles community, whether it is building affordable housing or developing a new shopping center. …

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