On faith-based funding, black ministers emerging as strong supporters of Bush

Urban churches say they don't have luxury of turning away money

April 07, 2001|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - The Rev. Walter B. Johnson, pastor of the Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church, didn't vote for President Bush and rarely sings his praises, so when the administration announced its controversial faith-based initiative, Johnson had to think long and hard about whether to sign on.

Many white evangelicals - the very people Bush has been accused of trying to appease with his plan to fund religiously based social services - rejected the idea, saying it would hinder the expression of their beliefs.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson warned that churches that accept the money would be co-opted by the government.

But in the end, Johnson joined other African-American ministers here and nationwide who are emerging as the most unexpected and vocal supporters of Bush's faith-based plan. Saying no to the money, they reason, is the luxury of the well-heeled and well-connected, not urban churches trying to keep kids off the street.

"I can bury my head in the sand for four years or we can recognize an opportunity before us," said Johnson, standing in front of his Near North Side church, with the rubble that was Cabrini-Green housing project in the distance. Finding funds for programs to keep kids out of gangs and mothers off welfare "is a matter of survival," he said.

The Rev. Lewis Flowers, head of Chicago's Westside Ministers Coalition, agreed: "For those who've got millions of dollars in funding from other sources, it's OK to say, `Don't take the money.' When we're scuffling to pay phone bills, we ought to be able to accept funds to keep programs in the community."

It's a sentiment echoed nationwide.

Last month, a group of 15 African-American ministers from churches throughout the country met with the president to ask him how they could support the plan. Memphis' Bishop G. E. Patterson of the 5 million-member Church of God in Christ backs the proposal. So does leading evangelist Bishop T. D. Jakes of Dallas.

More than 90 percent of black churches provide some type of social service, from job training to domestic violence prevention, according to a study released last month by Hartford Seminary.

Lawrence Mamiya, author of "The Black Church in the African American Experience," said that given scarce resources, it is pragmatic for ministers to support the faith-based initiative regardless of their political differences with the president.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, the Boston-area minister who organized the delegation of African-American leaders, concurred: "If anti-Communist Nixon could sit down and work out a relationship with China ... we can conduct business with George Bush."

Although some observers say unanticipated criticism of the initiative has slowed its momentum, the president has said he is pleased Congress has moved forward with legislation.

Rep J. C. Watts Jr., an Oklahoma Republican, and Rep. Tony P. Hall, an Ohio Democrat, introduced a bill March 21 that, among other things, allows religiously based programs more access to government funds. On the same day, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, and Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, offered legislation supporting some aspects of the plan while falling short of funding groups that do not separate religious and social service aspects of their programs.

No one can say, even if the legislation passes, when churches will see money that would be available under Bush's plan.

Even the ministers who eagerly await those funds have reservations. Some fear that smaller black churches don't have the administrative experience to apply for and manage the funds and the paperwork; others worry that churches will become dependent on funding that might not be renewed.

Even if African-American ministers don't get any money from the government, they'll keep on doing what they're doing, Johnson said, as children from his church's mentoring program streamed past him on their way to the park.

"But it will be a blessing if there are government institutions to assist us," he said. "It can only be a plus."

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