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A Clerical, and Racial, Gap Over Federal Help

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

March 24, 2001

A Clerical, and Racial, Gap Over Federal Help


AUGUSTA, Ga. — Last month, Mayor Bob Young invited his friend Stephen Goldsmith, a senior White House official, to meet with 200 ministers and community leaders here to talk up the president's plan to steer more government money to religious and nonprofit groups doing social service work.

They met inside St. Paul's Episcopal Church on the landscaped banks of the Savannah River, and at the end Mr. Goldsmith received a standing ovation.

Many of the black ministers left and drove back across the railroad tracks, past blocks of rotting shotgun shacks, mentally calculating how many more children they could tutor and houses they could build with the government grants Mr. Goldsmith had talked about.

The white ministers, meanwhile, drove off to their churches in the blossoming precincts known as the Hill, past the golf course where the Masters tournament is played, and began phoning one another to share their alarm about the dangers that could lie ahead for churches that accept money from the government, and for a nation that puts churches on the government payroll.

As a focus group for the nation, Augusta reflects the incipient racial divide over President Bush's plan to channel more government financing to religious social services. The reactions are complex and also influenced by religious denomination and political affiliation. But it is clear that many urban black ministers confronted daily by the needs of the poor are more willing to consider government assistance.

"These children are hungry," said the Rev. Larry Fryer, who directs the New Hope Community Center in a poor neighborhood of Augusta. "Now, I'm a minister, but if I have to remove the Bible, remove the cross from the wall, remove the Ten Commandments to get that government money, I'll do it. If God is in me, that's good enough."

White suburban clergy members, meanwhile, are more concerned about freedom from government interference. "When there's work to be done, I would rather see my church come up with the money and the people to do it," said the Rev. Robert D. Fain of the Church of the Good Shepherd. "If we rely on the government, it compromises our witness."

The Bush administration has noticed the emerging gap and, in speeches and a presidential visit with black ministers this past week, begun to frame the initiative as an antipoverty issue.

Last week, legislation to put in place the first pieces of the plan was introduced in the House and Senate. But since Mr. Bush unveiled his initiative as a centerpiece of his presidency, it has unexpectedly sparked intense controversy nationwide, in particular among clergy members.

In Augusta, soon after Mr. Goldsmith left, a group of white clergy members (two Presbyterians, a Methodist, an Episcopalian, a Unitarian, a Southern Baptist and a Reform rabbi), who had never before found cause to meet, gathered at the Congregation Children of Israel to share their apprehensions. They were worried that the plan could compromise the independence of religious congregations, breach the separation of church and state, or result in coercive evangelizing of vulnerable people.

Fueling their misgivings was the experience shared by the rabbi's wife, Cynthia Parr, who had attended the meeting with Mr. Goldsmith out of curiosity after seeing an announcement in the newspaper. She noticed that the only clergy members there were Christian, so after the meeting she asked the mayor about it. He told her that he had invited everyone listed in the telephone book under "Churches." And he acknowledges that he said to her, "I suppose you are going to tell me I left out all the imams too," a reference to Muslim clergy members.

The group of white clergy members, pained by Mrs. Parr's account, grew decidedly queasy that the president's plan, when carried out in states and counties by local officials, could unintentionally pit one religion against another, unravel decades of efforts to build interfaith relationships, and ultimately exclude minority faiths.

"It's not faith-based, it's Christian- based," said the Rev. J. Richard Short, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, to fellow clergy members gathered over coffee recently at the synagogue. "I think it's a portent of things to come. Who is going to sit at the table and decide which applications get funded?"

In religious profile, Augusta resembles many Southern cities. There are enough churches to fill 10 pages in the phone book, but there is also a mosque (listed under "Churches — Muslim"), a Hindu temple, a Sikh center and three synagogues (listed as "Churches — Jewish.")

Mayor Young, a former television anchorman who was co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Georgia, said in an interview that he arranged the meeting on short notice, and did not intend to exclude anyone. He said he invited Mr. Goldsmith to Augusta because of its problems — Augusta and adjacent Richmond County, with 200,000 residents, have the lowest per capita income in Georgia, a rising unemployment rate and one in three children living in poverty.

"African-American churches are doing those things that white people aren't interested in doing," he said.

On the south side, the black ministers, unaware of the discussions by their brothers on the Hill, greeted Mr. Goldsmith's presentation as both a major new antipoverty initiative and an endorsement for the black churches that have long served as a safety net in poor communities.

"For me, it was a confirmation," said the Rev. Sam Davis, pastor of Beulah Grove Baptist Church, who runs a community center and development corporation in Augusta's battered core. "I believe that God is getting ready to redistribute the wealth to our economically hurting communities, and I am just grateful to President Bush."

The ministers shook Mr. Goldsmith's hand and pressed business cards into his palm. "My biggest concern when I left was fulfillment," Mr. Goldsmith later said in an interview. "People were saying, 'We're ready to go, and now what should I do?' And as you know, we don't actually have grant money."

Mr. Fryer wrote to President Bush inviting him to visit the New Hope Community Center and talk to the children who come after school for meals and computer games.

The difference between black and white clergy members was made clear in a 1998 survey of more than 1,200 religious congregations conducted by Mark Chaves, a sociology professor at the University of Arizona. He found that 64 percent of the predominantly black congregations were willing to apply for government funds, compared with 28 percent of predominantly white congregations.

Last week, Mr. Bush met at the White House with 15 black ministers and urged them to help promote his initiative.

"We are coming out strongly supporting Bush and the faith-based initiative," the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III of Boston, who assembled the group, said in an interview, "and we're generating a direct challenge to our flat-earth white fundamentalist brothers because, in all the racket in the last few weeks, the black churches haven't been heard from."

In Augusta last week, there were signs that the black churches are starting to be heard. The white ministers invited black ministers to join their meeting at the palatial First Baptist Church on the Hill.

"I think we need to listen to them," said the Rev. Jeffrey J. Newlin, of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church. "It's very easy for us removed from where the real social poverty problems are to issue our pronouncements."

Mr. Davis told the group he would accept government funding because Beulah Grove Baptist has fallen into financial trouble trying to support its community center and development corporation.

At Rabbi Jordan Parr's suggestion, they agreed to hold their next meeting in two weeks at Beulah Grove Baptist, across the tracks.

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