Divine Intervention

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Gladys Oliver never expected she’d still be teaching today. After spending 22 years as a reading instructor in Ozone Park, Queens, and two more in retirement, Oliver volunteered to run the after-school program at her church, Antioch Baptist in Jamaica. “This area really needs this,” she says. “We have a lot of foster parents, low-income families and working parents.”

Oliver has her hands full. She and five other volunteers keep an eye on 14 children, oversee grace before snacktime, help with homework, and then let the kids select from a donated library of books and puzzles. But there’s a lot else she doesn’t have, including a decent computer.
Antioch also runs a summer camp, a seniors program, a youth leadership circle and two sports teams. The programs call for a volunteer staff of nearly 30 and over $20,000 a year–almost all of it drawn from contributions to the collection plate.

“I’m constantly amazed,” says Rev. Dr. Fred Lucas of homegrown programs like Antioch’s. Lucas directs the Faith Center, which helps religious groups build housing. All around him, he sees churches creating another infrastructure–one for social services. “They are operating food pantries, clothing and AIDS programs, prison ministries, drug rehab programs–it’s across the board. If we were to quantify the volunteer hours, it would be millions” of dollars, says Lucas.

Fueled by deeply committed congregations and a history of providing for their communities when no one else would, black churches have long offered vital services to their neighborhoods. Powerhouses like Bridge Street AME and Abyssinian Baptist have gone even further, to become major real estate developers.

But as government shrinks its role as a direct provider of social services, humbler neighborhood congregagations are increasingly asked to run programs their communities depend on. They’ve expanded beyond bible studies and seniors groups to provide everything from prison release counseling to food pantries to day care programs. President Bush put an official seal of approval on the phenomenon with the establishment of a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives to help religious groups get federal dollars.

Most black churches, though, are still stuck in the grassroots, with too few resources and no way to get more–a situation a new citywide initiative called the Black Church Technical Assistance Project is looking to remedy. “Historically, black churches have spearheaded the formation of health and social service programs in their communities,” says Megan McLaughlin, executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, which is overseeing the project. “The issue now is that so many of them are operating on shoestring budgets with no full-time staff and with no ability to raise the funds. They need to compete in the philanthropic world.”

The black church project aims to help mid-sized congregations like Antioch grow into professionally run institutions–with solid organizational structures, clear missions and goals and well-defined programs tailored to the needs of their communities–that can reliably get money from foundations. Without those basics, church programs are seldom able to convince foundations that money spent on their programs is money well spent.

“They’re up against organizations that are professionalized, that have a paid staff or a paid fundraiser or consultant to write a proposal, as opposed to someone the job just fell on,” says Rev. Alfonso Wyatt, who sits on the steering committee for the black church project and is vice-president of the Fund for the City of New York. The Fund distributed $400,000 in grants last year, and it has given an additional $85,000 to faith-based organizations over the past two years. Rev. Wyatt estimates that just one in 10 applications to the Fund actually receives a grant; the losers, disproportionately, come from the ranks of amateur volunteers.

Roderick Jenkins of the New York Community Trust, which is helping fund the black church initiative, agrees that churches’ appeals to foundations like his often fall far short of their targets. “Their proposals are very basic. They talk in nondescriptive ways about the project. Sometimes they don’t submit budgets. They don’t discuss objectives. They haven’t done outreach to figure out ways to better work with the community. The organizational papers aren’t in order,” Jenkins sighs as he ticks off a familiar list.


Churches are well aware they have a lot to learn. Over 300 have already expressed interest in participating–five times as many as the project will be able to handle. With a planned annual budget of $185,000, the program hopes to assist 60 churches over the next three years and link them up with one of three consulting groups: FPWA, Community Resource Exchange, and the Nonprofit Connection. Each group will work to assess the needs of churches and how they correspond to the needs of their communities, and work with churches to build programs with strong organizational structures and accountability.

The goal is to get churches to the point where they’re able to secure funding for their service programs on their own. “Churches have already been recognized as [institutions that] can provide critical services,” says Jenkins. “They have a long way to go, but in the short term they will be able to develop the program they already have a handle on and move it to the next level.”

Their hunt for dollars will get into controversial territory: The churches will be coached in how to apply for the government social service contracts that now go to religious groups, under the “charitable choice” provision of the 1996 welfare law. Last year, New York City gave $1.9 million in contracts to 17 religious groups to counsel welfare recipients whose benefits have been suspended. Such contracts legally obligate churches to follow the city’s directives, even if they don’t mesh with their own religious beliefs. For instance, counselors are expected to find evidence that clients aren’t following work rules and suspend them if necessary.

But the church groups will also learn to be selective in their efforts, deciding what kinds of projects will meet both their own needs and those of their neighborhoods. Right now, the city is glutted with some kinds of programs and starved for others. Providing emergency food, for instance, is both a pastoral calling and easy to get into; the city and state provide the goods and even market start-up kits. As welfare and food stamp enrollment have plummeted, the number of food pantries and soup kitchens has exploded: There are now more than 1,100 serving 600,000 people a year. Tewanna Sanders of the United Way estimates that 90 percent of the food programs her organization funds are run by religious groups.

But new programs are not always what’s needed. Some churches try to start them when there are already several in the neighborhood, or provide food so infrequently that they’re more inconvenient than helpful. United Way now gives food grants to small churches only if they operate the only program in their neighborhood.

And even a niche is not enough. Saint Simeon’s Episcopal Church is located in Morrisania, which has fewer child care slots per school-age child than almost any neighborhood in the city. Funders would term this an “underserved community.” Saint Simeon’s, though, operates its after-school program out of its basement, with three part-time, untrained staff. Watching 15 to 20 children and helping them with their homework is hard enough; doing the paperwork for health department registration and state snack money is a true struggle.

And without staff, applying for grants is not even a possibility. All the financial help they’ve had so far has come to them unasked, much of it through McLaughlin’s federation. “Sometimes there’s a grant, but it’s not continuous. There should be a steady flow of income. And that is where many of us fall flat on our faces and we have to start all over again,” laments pastor Maxwell Davis-Jones.


Foundations will be getting a remedial education, too, with workshops to fill them in on the scope and seriousness of the social services churches provide. But getting them to feel comfortable about supporting work that is often overtly religious will be the real challenge–one not every foundation is willing to accept.

Rev. Wyatt recalls the experience of a church volunteer who had gained renown for working with wayward children. “A funder heard about her, gave her a grant,” he says. “Then she did a site visit. They prayed before the program started and the funder freaked and said ‘You can’t do that.’ And the woman said, ‘This is what we do, and this is how we do what we do.’”

A foundation’s discomfort with supporting religious work can overshadow everything else. “Often, you get organizations dressed up, and still, foundations will not fund them,” says Rev. Lucas. He says funders report concerns that church programs will proselytize when they should be providing services, or that they themselves, as grantmakers, do not want to favor one religion over another.

For their part, many churches are not inclined to change the ways they serve God and community just to bring in worldly dollars. “The main thing you hear from church leaders,” says George Penick of the National Office on Philanthropy and the Black Church, a collaborative effort between foundations that inspired the Black Church Technical Assistance Project, “is that they don’t want foundations interfering with the mission of the church. They don’t want an organization that’s got a lot of money and probably run by white people to come in and tell them how to run their business.”

But as they adjust to stepping in where government no longer goes, churches are increasingly willing to do whatever it takes to fill the void. Gladys Oliver is just trying to get a donated computer working and coordinate arts projects with an assortment of fading markers, all while hoping that help in getting a grant will come soon. “We really need textbooks,” says Oliver, her brow furrowed. “Do you know who to talk to about that?”