Faith-Based Community Development

The media have given considerable attention in recent weeks to the engagement of the religious community in partnership with government in dealing with the ongoing effects of poverty in our country. Clearly, the announcement by President George W. Bush of a new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives on Jan. 29 has generated considerable interest around “faith-based” initiatives.

Is such a phenomenon new? Why has it caused so much excitement and concern? Much of the discussion surrounding this faith-based partnership, in the form of either social service provision or community development, has been treated as a creative and radical new initiative of the current administration. In fact, however, faith-based community outreach is a well established and accepted phenomenon among government, faith-based entities of all denominations and various other community partners. Although President Bush and the new White House office have focused renewed energy on this circumstance, faith-based community development in collaboration with government has a long and rich history.


Building upon varied traditions, religious groups throughout history—often in partnership with government—have lived out religious and moral values in concrete ways that have embodied the common good. In our own country, responses include social welfare services, educational institutions, health care facilities and community organizing for structural change. These have produced housing, created jobs and, most importantly, have provided hope for millions. Indeed, recent history has shown that faith-based organizations have a strong track record in creating housing and community development:

• Habitat for Humanity International, which provides safe, affordable, decent shelter with some 100,000 homes for the poor, has worked closely and successfully with H.U.D., the Congress and local sources;

• Lutheran Services in America, which annually receives more than one third of its $7 billion budget from government funding, in 1997 served some 65,000 elderly in nursing and independent living facilities;

• During its 30-year history, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has funded more than 3,000 self-help and social change projects developed by community organizations, including thousands of units of low-income, affordable housing with the Nehemiah Homes projects in New York City and elsewhere;

• B’nai B’rith and other Jewish agencies, Catholic Charities and various Protestant groups are among the largest and most successful developers of Section 202 housing for the elderly and poor;

• A recent study by the National Congress for Community Economic Development (N.C.C.E.D.) highlighted, in a survey of some 3, 000 community development groups, that approximately 15 percent were specifically faith-based;

Against this backdrop, President Bush is proposing expanded cooperation with faith-based groups. The administration’s objectives to “enlist, enable, empower and expand the work of faith-based and other community organizations” are not new, but they are truly important.

I find hope in three particular features of the proposed Bush faith-based plan: tax breaks to assist communities; the embrace by the new administration of the Corporation for National Service, which could engage a significant force of deeply committed persons in faith-based community development efforts; and the extension of partnership with the federal government—building upon H.U.D.’s positive community and faith-based model with the Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships—to the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Justice and Labor. I also have the utmost respect for the intelligence, experience and vision of John J. DiIulio Jr., and view his choice as director of the new project as an outstanding one.

It should be noted, however, that a variety of cautions and potential pitfalls have surfaced that need further watching: the legal tradition, history and realities of the separation of church and state; the monitoring of religious proselytizing in the context of providing assistance to the needy; the mere expansion of “charitable choice,” whose success in the implementation of the 1996 welfare reform initiatives has been mixed; and the apparent feel of an effort that may deal with charity at the expense of justice, and that may, in fact, undercut ongoing faith-based partnerships by providing only more water for the soup and more cots in the church basement.

Let me briefly describe the model of government and faith-based community development partnership with which I was associated. Initiated in 1997 by Secretary Andrew Cuomo, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, H.U.D.’s Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships grew out of his experience of providing housing for the poor and homeless in New York. The mission of the center was “to focus, integrate and intensify H.U.D.’s involvement with faith- and community-based organizations in an effort to maximize the use and impact of mutual resources in building community.” To serve its mission, the center’s objectives were to listen to community and faith-based groups, educate them about H.U.D. and its resources, coordinate activities with them and build new partnerships at the national level.

A brief look at H.U.D.’s recent involvement in faith-based partnerships is informative:

• The amount of H.U.D. assistance administered by community/faith-based organizations in fiscal year 2000 was estimated at nearly $1 billion;

• H.U.D. made some 230 grants in fiscal year 1998, in the amount of some $114 million, to faith-based organizations to provide homeless services;

• Some 200 faith-based organizations today are receiving H.U.D. funding to serve persons with H.I.V.-AIDS;

• Nearly 40 percent of the Section 202 senior citizen housing program is provided by faith-based organizations;

• H.U.D.’s Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships was instrumental in working to set aside some 40 percent of new Technical Assistance grant funds for previously unfunded faith-based and nonprofit groups.

The center’s activities and successes were grounded in a multi-faceted approach: building awareness, providing outreach and education, and publicizing successful efforts and models. By responding to requests from faith-based groups, trouble-shooting and promoting new and better partnerships, it worked to empower neighborhoods across the United States.

In reviewing some lessons learned and possible future directions for faith-based community development, I would offer the following:

• Approach faith-based community development with knowledge of and appreciation for the religious history, moral value system and historical engagement of the interfaith community;

• Be present in grass-roots communities themselves, and work with, not for, the poor;

• Build on past history of successes, failures, best practices.

There exists an effective and longstanding model in our country of engaging synagogues, mosques and churches in government funding—one that channels funding, with specific evaluative criteria and guidelines, through not-for-profit entities, with 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Providing grants directly to these institutions, as current plans propose, is untested and risky.

• Emphasize education as an important component of any such faith-based outreach;

The regional conferences, public policy forums, educational resource materials and technological outreach strategies of the department’s Center for Community and Interfaith Partnerships were an essential component of what we did and how we did it;

• Employ a justice model of social engagement, not a model rooted in charity alone. The collective justice efforts of Jewish entities such as the United Jewish Communities, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, B’nai B’rith and others are examples of a justice model that integrates education, public policy and congregational outreach into the actualization of concrete programs such as housing for the elderly;

• Implement a strategy that is comprehensive and holistic.

Many projects have successfully responded to the housing and economic development needs of communities across America. Those that have engaged the poor themselves with other partners in the implementation of an overall community program can serve as a model. New Communities in Newark, N.J., the Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem and Project Hope in Detroit, among others, are examples of such projects.

• Be realistic about goals, objectives, accomplishments;

• Put in place a program of technical assistance.

Many fledgling faith-based groups do not have the experience or know-how to successfully deal with the complexities of government funding. The McAuley Institute in Maryland and Mercy Housing in Denver, sponsored by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, are shining examples of how to provide technical assistance and training to evolving groups, especially women, for developing housing, jobs and opportunities for children.

The ultimate solution to poverty in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the border Colonias, Indian reservations and our rural and inner city areas is a combination of empowering the poor themselves, a massive influx of federal funding for housing, hunger and the like, and a collaborative partnership of the faith-based community with multiple actors. If the new White House office leads both to commitment of additional resources to fight domestic poverty and to renewed public consciousness, there will be cause for celebration.

I would emphasize that contemporary needs are so great that resources for this new initiative must not take the place of expanded financial resources to meet the nation’s serious challenges. Successful faith-based partnerships that lead to true empowerment must also include the recommitment of necessary resources by Congress. As our nation continues to meet the challenges and opportunities of the new millennium, and in this time of new political leadership, the issue of building stronger, more sustaining communities is central to our future. The role of community and faith-based organizations in this process is particularly relevant in light of the history, success and moral credibility of these groups. But adequate government funds are also essential.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Are the Dodgers now baseball’s cursed squad?
James T. KeaneOctober 23, 2018
 Capuchin Franciscan Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, gives the homily during the Good Friday service led by Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican April 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, will direct the Ignatian style retreat, the U.S.C.C.B. announced Oct. 23.
Catholic News ServiceOctober 23, 2018
A Catholic literary culture that works in continuity with its rich heritage will give us a contemporary literature that both gazes unflinchingly at the messiness of our present moment and artfully works out its characters’ salvation or damnation.
Joshua HrenOctober 23, 2018
Venezuelan migrants walk across the border from Venezuela into the Brazilian city of Pacaraima. (CNS photo/Nacho Doce)
About 5,000 people leave Venezuela every day. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, at least 1.9 million Venezuelan citizens have left the country since 2015, fleeing from the economic and political crisis that the country is experiencing under President Nicolás Maduro.
Filipe DominguesOctober 22, 2018