Faith-Based: Nonprofits want to hear details of Bush initiative.

State, groups discuss aid
FAITH-BASED: Nonprofits want to hear details of Bush initiative.
Anchorage Daily News, Feb. 21, 1003
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By Lisa Demer, Anchorage Daily News

The state on Thursday explored how church organizations and other charities can do more for people in turmoil, including those who are poor, addicted to drugs or in prison.

Less bureaucracy, so church groups and nonprofits can more easily tap government grants, could be one path. So could prayer as part of drug treatment, as long as it’s not forced. The ideas for Alaska’s version of what they call a faith-based and community initiative are big and varied.

The Bush administration has made the faith initiative a top priority. In Alaska, the Murkowski administration also is embracing this approach.

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman led the state’s first meeting Thursday. A White House aide in the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives spoke by phone. A crowd of about 100 gathered at Wilda Marston Theater to listen and talk at a session that began and ended in prayer. Pastors came. So did leaders of nonprofit organizations.

Many church groups represented were Christian but not all. A minister with the Church of Scientology, for instance, came to ask how the new effort will affect denominations that have experienced discrimination.

The intent is to define religion broadly, Leman responded. Churches, synagogues, temples are all welcome, he said.

Many groups are eager to provide more spiritual help, Leman said.

“That is what the faith community is about. There is more to human need than hunger or clothing,” he said before the meeting.

The White House has laid out guidelines for religious organizations receiving federal dollars on a Web site, www.fbci.gov. Essentially, the money can’t be used to fund worship or buy Bibles, the Koran or other religious materials. Clients cannot be forced to pray or participate in religious activities as a condition of getting help.

But if volunteers at a homeless shelter want to pray before meals, they may. Clients may join in if they want. A preacher may run a government-funded anger-management class for convicts, as long as it is separate from his pastoral duties.

It doesn’t matter whether an organization has a cross on the wall, White House aide Balan Ayyar told the crowd by speakerphone. What is important is “whether the service you are rendering is effective.”

To accommodate the number of participants, the meeting venue changed from the conference room in the governor’s office to the theater in Loussac Library. Technical problems with the sound made it hard to hear Ayyar and another speaker who participated by phone, state Health and Social Services Commissioner Joel Gilbertson. But their message got through.

The initiative is “an opportunity to greatly improve the quality and level of services,” Gilbertson said.

In Alaska’s prisons, for instance, there is a network of 1,500 ministers and lay volunteers who offer to inmates spiritual guidance and counseling for problems like substance abuse, said the Rev. Mike Ensch, a Corrections Department employee who administers the chaplain program.

But that doesn’t count toward court-ordered treatment and isn’t recognized by the parole board, he said. In Texas, when President Bush was governor, the law was changed so that clergy members could go through an alternative process to become accredited.

Shirley Rush operates an employment service for people who need help with self-esteem and other basics before going to work. Rush, who is Christian, would like to use the word of God to help them. And she has visions of doing more, such as starting a Christian halfway house for women where the religious message would be infused in the program.

“What can we do, what can’t we do?” she asked at the meeting. Afterward, she said more guidance is still needed.

Her pastor, the Rev. Ken Friendly of Lighthouse Christian Fellowship, told the crowd about two church programs, including one that aims to empower young girls through sessions on dating, abstinence and self-esteem.

But like Rush, he believes churches can go further. A gospel-based drug treatment center, for instance, could help people develop a new belief system that strengthens their sobriety.

“I praise God for a government for at least acknowledging and recognizing the effectiveness of faith-based organizations,” Friendly said.

Some churches have seen a need and filled it.

When police took 48 minutes to find Glenn Godfrey’s home in Eagle River after a shooting last summer, members of Peters Creek Christian Center turned to prayer, said Michelle Foreman. Many homes in the area lack visible street addresses.

So the church began providing residents with their house numbers on a metal post, for free. The municipality supports the project by helping the church verify addresses. But the funds were all raised privately, and the work is by church volunteers.

Still unions worry about some elements of the faith effort. If churches do more of the government’s work, will state jobs be threatened? asked Mike Robbins, a business agent with the Alaska State Employees Association. Leman said Robbins should meet with state commissioners to discuss that.

The faith effort is just beginning. The lieutenant governor’s office wants to hear from the public on what’s working, what could work better and what religious and community groups would like to do that they can’t do now.

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