Faith Accompli

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Rev. Cheryl Anthony says she saw a vision from God in her dreams. One night three years ago, Anthony, a Baptist minister, awoke and scribbled down her divine thoughts on a piece of yellow legal paper. Over several more restless nights, the pastor returned to that piece of paper as it evolved into a visionary plan. The Holistic Approach to Wellness described how to transform the lives of the nation’s poorest people with the power of faith.

“When I got this piece on the Holistic approach, it was God-inspired and spirit-led. I woke up in the middle of the night for a couple of months looking at it,” says Anthony, speaking as if she were describing an everyday event. “That’s how God gives you stuff.”

Like Joseph in the Bible, who was inspired by prophetic visions, Anthony foresaw a future when her small church, Judah International, would uplift Crown Heights with a stern but gentle helping hand. Judah would be the hub for a complete menu of social services. From job training to drug counseling to child care, Judah would offer services for the body, mind and, of course, soul.

Anthony’s grand vision, though, needed money. With her background in marketing and economic development, Anthony had the charisma and knowledge to sell her program to philanthropic foundations. But she wondered about going further and seeking out the biggest treasure chest of them all–the government.

With the passage of the 1996 welfare reform law and its “charitable choice” provision, Anthony knew churches could now get direct federal funding to help reduce welfare rolls. But she had concerns: How would the money change Judah? How would she feel enforcing policies she might disagree with? How would she feel to no longer be just the government’s ally in a war on poverty, but its foot soldier?

Laying aside her fears, Anthony started work last September in New York City’s initial experiment with church-run, state-funded social services. Judah and 18 other churches in the five boroughs accepted $1.9 million in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant money from New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) and the State University of New York. The churches, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Episcopalian and Methodist congregations, were asked to seek out welfare recipients with whom the city had lost contact. The churches were to find those who have fallen through the safety net, meet with them, and get them back into the welfare system. Under the effort, known as the Bridges Faith-Based Demonstration Project, Judah has counseled and provided referrals for more than 135 clients.

Anthony isn’t always happy about her role. She disagrees with the way the welfare system punishes the poor and believes it’s not always a Christian plan for the needy. The city’s goal “is to reduce welfare rolls. Ours is to reduce suffering, to reduce poverty and to empower people,” Anthony says. “I still answer to a higher source.” This source tells Anthony that a broader approach to helping the poor is called for, where all their needs are assessed, where their goals are discussed and focused on, and where job training is more important than having a job.

By talking publicly about the city’s program and her concerns about it, Anthony is breaking a gag order written into Judah’s contract with the city and may be threatening the group’s prospects for future funding. She is speaking because she feels an open discussion is necessary to help improve the program. Despite her concerns, Anthony still wants to be part of the city’s effort. She strongly believes it’s more beneficial for a welfare recipient to walk into a place like Judah than it is for her to go to an HRA office, where the atmosphere tends to range from impersonal to downright hostile.

But still, she wonders. Is she pioneering a vision that will be the template for President George W. Bush’s proposed expansion of charitable choice? Or is she part of an experiment doomed to prove that Jesus Christ’s love for the poor has nothing to do with government?

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People who’ve run afoul of welfare rules are not always sure what to do when they discover Judah has stepped into government’s shoes. Mary Martin, a client at Judah, was one of them.

Martin, 32, ignored the first letter Judah International sent to her apartment in the Van Dyke Houses in Brownsville. The letter asked Martin to make an appointment with the church to resolve her welfare status. “It seemed strange to me,” she says, recalling how she wondered why this church wanted to help her.

A few months before Judah contacted Martin, HRA had cut $66 out of her welfare check. In the language of the system, Martin had been sanctioned. She still received a check for her three children, who range in age from 2 to 17, but her portion of the money had been removed. Judah and the other churches are charged with helping people like Martin–welfare recipients who have chronic problems complying with HRA’s tough requirements, which include work, showing up to administrative appointments, abstinence from drugs and filing a steady stream of paperwork.

Martin said the loss didn’t hurt much; a man she lives with more than made up the difference with his income. However, she decided to respond to Judah’s second letter because she was worried about losing more money. Martin set up an appointment with Denise Grayson, Judah’s client counselor and one of the organization’s five staff members, for a Monday morning in February.

The red-brick church sits on a trash-strewn corner of Rogers Avenue in Crown Heights. Judah boasts no steeple. Its roof isn’t pointed. It’s one of Brooklyn’s storefront sanctuaries–a ground-floor shop that has been converted to serve the Lord. The heavyset Martin, her hair pulled back in a knot, wore a beige button-up shirt and pants and sat side by side with Grayson at a table on metal foldout chairs as they discussed her situation. On a table behind them, Grayson had put out Folgers instant coffee and tea bags next to a hot-water container. Sometimes Judah staff bring in doughnuts from Dunkin’ Donuts for clients.

Grayson, 45, a black woman with long, wavy hair who is dressed in a dark-blue business suit, lectures Martin in the same soft tone of voice that she uses to console her. Grayson’s eyes rarely leave her client’s face. She sits close, almost touching Martin; when she speaks, she leans in as if telling a secret.

Grayson talks with Martin about the impending switch for families who’ve hit the five-year limit on federal welfare benefits to a state-sponsored program. Like everyone else, Martin will likely have to file a new application and deal with uncertainty until it is approved. The counselor’s tone is neutral, but she instills a sense of urgency about the future. Martin listens, nodding her head, appearing to absorb all the details.

The conversation isn’t like a talk between an authority figure and an underling. It’s a sympathetic dialogue. As they sit together in the small church’s sanctuary, they seem to be like two co-conspirators hatching a plot to thwart the city’s welfare rules. It has an “us-against-them” feel, and Martin seems to respond to it.

Of course, Grayson is bascially doing what the city has contracted Judah to do. But she doesn’t believe Martin’s best shot at becoming self-sufficient is within the city’s system. Grayson agrees with the city that welfare recipients need a push into the employment world, but thinks they need something else too–something like faith.

Grayson asks Martin what her dream job would be: if the obstacles thrown at her by life had been avoided, if she could rewrite the last 15 years, what would she be doing?

Martin says she wants to be a nurse. They discuss this for most of the session, looking for ways Martin can get training to become certified. They read through catalogues of vocational schools that might offer nursing classes. Right in the middle of the session, Grayson calls the school to check about start dates. She does everything she can to encourage this path for Martin, no matter what might happen as she reenters welfare’s work programs.

Anthony’s vision embraces this type of approach–that job training rather than just any job is of primary importance. The city, by contrast, tries to move people into a job as quickly as possible. If Martin gets back on HRA’s rolls and happens to land in the right job placement program, she might get classes in how to become a home health aide. But if she wants nursing training, she’s on her own.

After about 20 minutes of conversation about nursing, Grayson hands Martin a manila folder, which is given to all Judah clients. It contains health guides, information on other government programs, some affirmations, and a small pamphlet. Until five years ago, a government-funded program wouldn’t have been allowed to distribute pamphlets like this during a counseling session. The glossy color booklet shows a young girl praying with the U.S. flag behind her. On its cover, a question: “Can prayer save America?”

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If President Bush were asked that question, no doubt he would answer with a yes–that prayer and faith are the keys to saving cities from drugs, violence and loss of hope. To that end, he is pushing Congress to expand charitable choice to other federal programs as part of his so-called “faith-based initiative.” His Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and its smaller cousins in five federal departments are trying to smooth the way for government-backed religious social services.

Originally, the president proposed allowing religious groups to participate in 90 federal social-service programs. That was later scaled back to nine programs, including domestic violence, juvenile justice, housing development, transportation, and services for the elderly. Still, the proposal would allow religious organizations access to $47 billion in funding this year.

A bill inspired by the president’s proposal passed the House of Representatives in July, despite objections among many Democrats about a section allowing religious groups that receive federal dollars to be exempted from federal, state and local laws barring discrimination by employers. Democrats vow to change that when the Senate takes up the bill, which may happen as soon as this fall.

Wherever the legislation ends up, there’s no question that the origins of charitable choice are firmly rooted in the right. The idea primarily originated with Carl Esbeck, a former law professor at the University of Missouri who now serves as the Justice Department’s liaison with the White House’s faith-based office. Attorney General John Ashcroft, then a senator, championed the idea in Congress five years ago and wrote it into the welfare reform bill. The provision gained support within conservative think tanks like the Center for Public Justice and the Manhattan Institute, both of which have had former staff members join the Bush administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

After Bill Clinton signed the welfare legislation, lesser versions of charitable choice found their way into community development and drug treatment programs as well. Ashcroft routinely introduced a bill to expand the provision to all federal social service programs, but it never saw any action.

The opposition that blocked Ashcroft’s earlier expansion efforts is mobilizing to stop Bush’s plan now. Critics charge the provision violates the Constitution’s establishment clause, which bars government from promoting a national religion. “A bedrock principle of the [Constitution] is that taxpayer dollars should not be used to fund religious activities,” says Ayesha Kahn, a lawyer with the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Charitable choice erodes this principle.”

Kahn’s group and other opponents fear the provision would pay for sectarian programs that try to convert people when they’re at their most vulnerable. This is tantamount, they say, to government-supported religion. But is it actually happening? Amy Sherman, a researcher at the conservative Hudson Institute, investigated charitable choice for two years in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. She found that out of the roughly 3,000 welfare recipients involved in the programs, only two complained about pressure to attend church services.

At Judah, the clients aren’t objecting, either. For Mary Martin, the church’s role puzzled her, and she says she was reluctant to talk about spirituality. But in the end, she liked the experience.

After handing Martin the pamphlet with the photo of the girl praying, Grayson asks her about her “spiritual needs.” Does she pray or meditate? Martin, her head turned down looking at the table, shrugs her shoulders and says no. She used to go to a Baptist church but stopped a few years ago, she says later.

The counselor then calls on Martin to read religious affirmations aloud. “If you’re close to God in his infinite grace,” Martin reads, “you don’t have to tell it, it shows in your face.” Martin delivers the words in a monotone voice.

After the meeting, Martin says her experience with Judah might cause her to attend services at a Baptist church. Not for herself, she adds, but for her children. She says she prefers the church to city welfare offices: “You don’t have to wait in a crowd of people here.” In an HRA center, she says, “they talk to you like you’re nobody.” Grayson says this is a typical reaction: “There’s something they feel when they come through the door. They know it’s not HRA.”

Grayson says she gives the faith injection in different doses depending on the client–a decision that she appears to make on the fly. Some clients get a few questions from Grayson on their personal spiritual lives, while a few ask to pray with Grayson or seek spiritual advice from Rev. Anthony. Martin received a dose somewhere in the middle, Grayson says; Martin appeared composed and confident, so Grayson asked her to read aloud the affirmations to boost her confidence even more. According to Anthony, no one has objected to receiving aid in Judah or refused the discussion of faith.

The prospect of religious fanatics converting the vulnerable seems highly unlikely at Judah. The faith they preach has less to do with the Bible and more with believing in one’s self. The faith factor doesn’t need to be Christian, says Anthony. “It might not be God for a client. It might be Allah.” Sometimes “they just need a hug,” and Judah can do that, not HRA.

Clients like Martin “need something that’s closer to the spiritual realm that will prick their hearts,” Grayson says. “It rekindles and rejuvenates their lives.” Judah shows them ways to be positive about their lives, with the aim of sparking a fire that tells them they can beat any challenge. In short, says Grayson, it gives them hope.

If Grayson prays with a client, “It’s not a prayer about how to be a good Christian,” she says. “It’s an affirmation prayer that they can be whole and they can fix anything.” Typically, the most desperate clients, the ones who have no food, are the ones who seek prayer.

The welfare reform law explicitly allows Grayson to describe her relationship with God. But Grayson declines. She decided her faith might confuse clients. She’s Jewish–she keeps kosher, tries to keep the Sabbath on Saturdays–but believes Jesus Christ is the Messiah. “I’m like a puzzle and I don’t want to bring a puzzle to these people,” says Grayson.

Grayson’s presence on staff at the Baptist church speaks to Anthony’s determination to focus on spirituality rather than sectarianism. But under a provision in the 1996 welfare law exempting religious groups from anti-discrimination laws–the precursor to the controversial section of this year’s bill–Anthony could have chosen not to hire Grayson because she is a Jew.

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Already, liberal legal groups are responding to these kinds of thorny issues, with the goal of shaping the new charitable choice landscape. In Kentucky, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Separation of Church and State are suing the state-funded Kentucky Baptist Homes for Children because it fired a teen counselor for being a lesbian.

“Although KBHC does not formally involve charitable-choice dollars, the same legal principles will apply to the KBHC money and charitable-choice money because both are taxpayer dollars,” explains lawyer Ayesha Kahn. According to Kahn, a win could set a constitutional precedent barring government from funding organizations that engage in discrimination. (In late July, a federal judge ruled that the organization can impose a code of conduct on its staff, effectively allowing it to discriminate; the ACLU may appeal.)

Watchdog groups have filed other suits and promise still more if the president’s plan reaches fruition. The American Jewish Congress has filed lawsuits in Texas–where a job-training program allegedly overstepped the charitable choice rules by using government funds to buy Bibles–and California, where a state agency reportedly requested proposals for a program from religious groups only, excluding secular organizations.

New York may follow these states down the litigation highway. The city’s Legal Aid Society and private watchdog groups are monitoring the New York program, making sure it is not illegally forcing religion on clients. Churches may discuss faith, but not give sectarian prayers. Religious groups can promote Bible study, but not tell clients they have to attend.

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Besides the broad legal issues about charitable choice as a whole, Legal Aid is also questioning the ways New York implemented its program. “We’re looking at the fiscal accountability and the secrecy of its creation and implementation,” says Adriene Holder, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society. “To us, it’s all very scary.”

Legal Aid and local advocates say HRA and SUNY are running a shadowy program by not only placing gag orders on churches but also hand-picking grantees instead of holding an open competition, and rewriting performance standards to make sure the program appears successful no matter what.

The churches were picked as part of a “manipulated process,” charges Glenn Pasanen, associate director of City Project, a group that monitors city contracts. Because the local program is run through SUNY, a state organization, the city’s competitive bidding rules do not apply. SUNY says it is in charge of the program, but “HRA is essentially running it,” Pasanen asserts. (The city declined to explain its role.)

Pasanen and others also accuse the program of changing standards so that the churches appear successful. By establishing a positive track record with faith-based organizations, New York can tout itself as a leader in charitable choice, rather than a slow-starter. (Last fall, the Center for Public Justice gave the state an “F” for its failure to contract with religious groups to provide social services.)

For several months SUNY demanded that churches help a certain number of clients in specified ways to receive money, consistent with HRA’s reliance on “performance-based” contracts. For example, the initial meeting between Grayson and Martin would have earned Judah $150. They got $250 for each client who attended a job readiness workshop, $300 for getting a “cured” client back on the rolls and $200 more if that person ended up with a job.

The state abandoned performance payments when it became clear that some churches were not going to meet the requirements. Grayson says she heard the problems were with churches in Staten Island that had trouble finding enough clients. For Judah’s part, Grayson says meeting the performance goals would have been a challenge, but that the church could have done it. She was surprised by the change but says it didn’t affect her work.

Carlos Medina of SUNY’s Center for Academic and Workforce Development says that because the program was a pilot project, it was not subject to the usual performance rules the city applies to welfare programs. Originally scheduled to end in May, the program was extended through June and appears to be headed for a second round of funding. “The churches have proven that they have some very solid outreach efforts,” Medina says.

He refused to provide data about how many people the churches have helped or how successfully they’ve helped them. The numbers are not important, Medina says. “Even if you only reach a handful of people, it’s good,” he says. Medina declares the program has been a success.

Besides the constitutional case against charitable choice, there’s another that argues that poor people are not the ones that need to be shielded–churches are. This view is being voiced mostly by clergy themselves, from both the left and the right. They worry government ties will bind their first mission: to spread the gospel.

“If you accept a lot of government money to help you in social service ministries then I think inevitably you find that you become less of a spiritual community,” says Rev. Henry Brinton, a Presbyterian minister from Virginia who has spoken out against charitable choice. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Brinton says, quoting Jesus’ words from Matthew 6:21. If a church’s wealth is in government social service dollars, he says, then it may cease to be a community of faith.

Judah may be experiencing such a transformation. Every Sunday morning Anthony heads to Coney Island to preach at the United Community Baptist Church. She drives her dented red Mercedes with its personalized license plates (“1 Judah”) to Mermaid Avenue across from a public housing complex.

Several hours after arriving at the church, she is in front of the 100-plus congregation dancing and waving her arms skyward. She wipes her eyes with a white cloth as the parishioners sing along to the gospel music played by an organist, drummer and guitarist. A smile almost never leaves her face during the three-hour service.

Worshippers here cry and sweat as they praise the Lord. They fan themselves even in the cold of December, chanting “J-E-S-U-S” like a football cheer and yelling, “Hallelujah.”

But on Sundays, Judah International in Crown Heights is quiet. The church that Anthony renovated with a $20,000 loan from her grandmother may buzz with its fax machines, but it doesn’t sing. Anthony closed down the church’s Sunday services to focus on community work last October, a few months after the city money flowed in. The church’s sanctuary is divided by gray office partitions that separate the work area of Judah from the space where the congregation of about 25 used to sit. Though there’s still a small, two-foot-high platform and a simple wooden pulpit, worshipers no longer gather here. A few make the trek out to Coney Island.

Anthony says she did not shut down services because of the city’s program. “The money had nothing to with our decision,” she says. Instead, she explains, her church has evolved into “the new millennium church that provides Holistic ministry.” Anthony compares herself to the Apostle Paul, who traveled the world and established churches. Anthony goes across the country teaching religious groups how to build social-service ministries. And, of course, she works on her Holistic plan.

Anthony still has the original piece of paper on which she wrote her vision-induced plan. “It’s my baby,” says Anthony. The writing is faded, the paper wrinkled and worn at the edges, but Anthony insists the fundamental idea is still sound.

On the paper, Anthony has drawn what looks to be a diagram of a bicycle wheel. At the center, the wheel’s hub, Anthony wrote and circled “participant” with spokes shooting off to the services welfare recipients would require to become self-sufficient–“Parenting Skills,” “Health/Nutrition,” “Job Preparation,” “Personal Development.” And on one side of the wheel, a spoke reaches out to “Spiritual Awareness” with a reference to Genesis 1:27–“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Anthony developed the program by drawing on her experiences of being on welfare. When she first created it, “I did not realize I was really looking at my own life,” says Anthony, who has a broad, bright smile that she flashes often.

In 1985, Anthony went from an $80,000 career in marketing for the Los Angeles Lakers to being a New York City welfare mom. The fall came after a divorce and a decision to move back to her hometown of New York to look for a new life and a new job. When one of her two sons became ill with asthma, Anthony was forced to go on to welfare. “When I went on public assistance, I could not believe that this was my life…. I was devastated and could not understand how this had happened to me,” she says in her small office at Judah.

Anthony stayed on welfare for about two years and eventually got a job with the Brooklyn Academy of Music in p.r. and then with the New York City Housing Authority, where she first heard about charitable choice. She still carries her welfare card as a reminder of the struggle she overcame: “I carry it in my wallet next to my corporate business card, next to a copy of a picture of me with Vice-President Gore.”

Anthony received a doctorate from United Christian College and started Judah about six years ago from out of her home. Three years after that, she developed her bicycle-wheel blueprint. It is the passion for this vision that keeps her in the government program but at the same time pushes her to break free of the constraints she feels the city places on her. “I will not be reduced to an FBO,” Anthony says, referring to an increasingly common piece of HRA jargon: “faith-based organization.”

Though the city’s welfare-to-work efforts resemble her Holistic Approach to Wellness in some ways, they aren’t broad enough, she complains. Anthony says she has considered severing her link with the city. At times, the friction between answering to HRA and fulfilling God’s mission is too strong. “We’re not bounty hunters for HRA,” Judah’s Grayson says. She and Anthony don’t want to merely track people down just to get them back into welfare-to-work assignments.

Anthony plans to apply for more city money (though she admits she is nervous about how HRA and SUNY will react to her talking publicly about the program). She’s willing for now to work with the city, in the hope that someday she can go without government aid–with only her vision and God to answer to.

When she is hopeful, she compares her Holistic plan, which in her eyes is in its infancy, to the baby Moses. “When Moses was born he had a purpose and a plan but there was another system with a purpose and a plan,” Anthony says, referring to the current welfare system. “And Moses’ mother put her baby in the water so that it would live,” she says. Like Jochebed, Moses’ mom, Anthony has given away her offspring in the hope that someday it will return to her stronger than before.

“Even though there are some people who think that this project is going to develop to the point where it will be [like] the pharaoh of Egypt,” she says–alluding to the politicians who support religious-based social services, and Moses’ position of power at the side of the pharaoh–“there is still another conqueror who will come and lead people to the Promised Land.” Moses, after all, came to accept his role as a leader of a destitute people, who led them from desert blight into a blessed new world. “There will be those that die in the wilderness and there will be those who have a job and move off welfare. And then they’ll be just like me.”

Ian Wilhelm is an assistant editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy.