In America's Cities, The Lord's Work: The Church and the "Civil Society Sector"

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a group of black inner-city ministers in Boston organized themselves around a plan for cutting juvenile violence, reclaiming parks and sidewalks, educating at-risk children, promoting local economic development, strengthening families, and resurrecting the civil life of their jobless drug-and-crime-infested neighborhoods. The plan, which included everything from summer recreation and literacy training programs to faith-based one-on-one drug treatment and neighborhood patrols, was not hatched by academic experts, funded by major foundations, praised by leading pundits, or guided by government agencies. Rather, it was based on what the ministers and their small but dedicated cadre of young adult volunteers had learned up close and personal after years spent living, working, and walking—every day—among the poorest of the urban poor and their children.

Good News

In fact, the effort was forged from what the clergy and church volunteers had learned from the local drug kingpins whom they were struggling to save from addiction, violence, jail, death—and damnation. Reverend Eugene F. Rivers, III, the Pentecostal minister of the Azusa Christian Community church who spearheaded the effort and whose own humble inner-city row house was twice sprayed with bullets, recalls one searing insight: "Nearing exhaustion, we asked this one major local dealer, ?Man, why did we lose you? Why are we losing other kids now?' He stares us in the eye and says, ?I'm there, you're not. When the kids go to school, I'm there, you're not. When the boy goes for a loaf of bread or wants a pair of sneakers or just somebody older to talk to or feel safe and strong around, I'm there, you're not. I'm there, you're not; I win, you lose.'"

Helped from the start by Boston's Catholic Church and several local synagogues, the black inner-city ministers' community-saving effort won wider support in 1992 after a group of gang members burst in on the funeral service of a boy killed in a drive-by shooting and stabbed another child in front of the shocked congregation. In the words of the Reverend Jeffrey Brown, a Baptist pastor who has worked closely with Rivers, "That horrible event was the proverbial wake-up call, not only to other local churches and people of the faith, but to the political and other powers that be."

Soon the local press and lots of state and local politicians began to acknowledge the ministers work. In turn, local police and probation officials who had been highly dubious of partnering with the preachers started working hand-in-hand with the clergy on a wide variety of anti-gang policing, juvenile probation monitoring, and crime prevention initiatives.

One much-publicized result: Boston has not had a gun-related youth homicide since July 1995, and everyone from the city's mayor to its in-the-trenches probation officers acknowledges that it could not and would not have happened without Rivers, Brown, and the other clergy and church volunteers. "With the churches," one veteran Boston police officer recently told a group of Philadelphia clergy, "with cooperation, we can turn our neighborhoods around. Without them, without cooperation, we can't."

Beyond Boston

Rivers and Brown, together with Reverend Kevin Cosby of Louisville, Kentucky, and Reverend Harold Dean Trulear of Philadelphia, have formed a national "leadership foundation" that seeks to bolster ongoing faith-based inner-city youth and community development activities and mobilize at least 1,000 inner-city churches around a Boston-style effort in the 40 most blighted neighborhoods of the nation s 25 largest cities, all by the year 2006. In May, the Institute for Civil Society, a new New England-based philanthropy, gave the effort a three-year $750,000 seed grant. "In Louisville," says Cosby, "we've held organizing meetings and had 2,500 people show up, ready to go." Likewise, reports Trulear, "more than a thousand churches in metropolitan New York alone are doing some type of youth and community outreach ministry, and several new and revitalized networks of churches are doing the same in metropolitan Philadelphia."

Already, Rivers and Brown have taken part in what appear to be promising initial mobilization efforts in over a half-dozen cities from Chicago to Tampa. Meanwhile, over the past year or so, their efforts have attracted favorable interest from national journalists, corporate leaders, politicians, academics, and others, including influential Boston area individuals and institutions that, as Rivers and Brown emphasize to the clergy who are beginning to organize in other cities, "didn't want to be connected with the churches, didn't ?do God,' didn't return our phone calls, and literally wouldn't give us the time of day a few years ago even though we were in their own inner-city backyards."

That's the good news. Now, however, for the bad—or, more precisely, the complicating—news, first with respect to the Boston story and next with respect to the overarching reality that not even an army of well-led, well-supported churches and faith-based programs could save the nation's most severely at-risk children, revitalize blighted neighborhoods, and resurrect the civil society of inner-city America without the active human and financial support of suburban churches, secular civil institutions, profit-making corporations, and, last but not least, government at all levels.

Back to Boston. For all the attention, praise, and publicity, Rivers, Brown, and the local church volunteers there are still wanting for new volunteers and still lacking in financial support. Explains Eva Thorne, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at M.I.T. who, together with other young black professionals, has worked with the Boston ministers for nearly a decade and who is preparing a church-anchored, multi-million dollar redevelopment plan for Dorchester:

"Everybody celebrates the success and says ?amen,' but most people, especially most educated people, remain deeply conflicted about working on social and economic problems with and through churches. For some, it's an underlying suspicion that churched folks are stupid, and a more generalized hostility to religion and all things religious. For others, it's more a church-state thing, which mediates their thinking even where government isn't at issue in what we're trying to do. For many, it's even deeper than that. You know, ?I'm not going out there with those drug addicts and violent kids! I'm not getting sweaty and giving up my free time. And I'm not giving money or other help to anyone who's fool enough to do it.' So there are those who are weirded out by your walk-among-the-poor religious motivation, those for whom it's too real and too strong. But, then, blocking you on the opposite side are those who think your religious motivation is, in effect, too weak or false, the ?all inner-city preachers are pimps with collars' school. It's very frustrating."

As Rivers, Brown, and their street-smart minions reflect on the "24-7-365, fall asleep in our clothes" efforts it took to get a faith-friendly handle on local youth gangs and reduce juvenile gunplay in their neighborhoods, they feel daunted by the prospect of a dramatic increase in poor, young, fatherless, jobless black males. Local researchers project that the number of black male residents of the city between the ages of 14 and 24 will grow to over 30,000 by 2005, roughly a threefold increase over the number residing there in 1995. "Many of these children," warns Rivers, "are the 4- to 14-year-olds running around at night on our streets without any adult care or guidance. We're trying to reach their mothers, reconnect them with fathers or father figures, and take them on in a holistic way. But their social force is growing at least as fast as ours, coming up as they are the first children born in the wake of the crack cocaine crisis and the welfare cutoffs."

In response, the ministers are redoubling their work on an ambitious pilot project, called "Operation 2006," that seeks to involve clergy and church volunteers in the lives of every one of the city's most severely at-risk youngsters, providing counseling and community service employment for their parents or legal guardians, and offering the children everything from after-school safe havens and decent meals to adult-supervised recreation programs and community-based juvenile probation ombudsmen. "We hope churches in Philadelphia and other cities," remarks Trulear, "will work to do the same, but our churches cannot even begin to do it alone."

No, they can't.

Faith Factors

It's true that most of the best recent empirical research suggests that inner-city churches, especially black congregations, are leveraging several times their weight in community service. For example, a 1990 study of more than 2,100 urban black congregations found that about 70 percent sponsored or participated directly in community outreach activities—staffing day-care facilities, offering substance-abuse prevention programs, administering food banks, building shelters, and more. A 1994 compendium of research on the subject referenced scores of studies showing that most urban black churches are involved in community efforts ranging from housing and health services to preschools and elementary education.

Eighty-five percent of black churches in Atlanta, according to one study, are engaged in some type of outreach program beyond religious services to their congregations. And a forthcoming, in-depth, multi-city survey commissioned by Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit interested mainly in the historic preservation of older urban churches, synagogues, and temples, will provide the most conclusive evidence yet that big-city churches anchor an incredible array of youth and community development efforts—efforts that would cost literally tens of millions to provide at public expense.

But as economists Linda Loury and Glenn Loury recently intimated in these pages, we remain a long way from a definitive body of research evidence on the actual extent and the efficacy of church-anchored and faith-based social programs.

Most of the preliminary evidence is indeed encouraging, including studies showing that churched young black urban males have brighter life prospects (lower rates of crime, drugs, and joblessness) than otherwise comparable unchurched youth; that faith-based programs in prisons have measurable rehabilitative effects; and more.

Still, the "faith factor" literature remains in its infancy, and, even with the recent surge of interest in the topic among leading social scientists and policy analysts, it will be some time before we can identify the conditions, if any, under which given types of church-centered programs work, or specify how, if at all, faith-based efforts can be taken to scale in ways that cut crime, reduce poverty, banish illiteracy, or yield other positive, predictable, and desirable social consequences.

Church Anchors

As this research goes forward and as ministers like Rivers rally support to their noble cause, it will be crucial for all concerned to understand inner-city churches as part of what Lester Salamon terms "the civil society sector."

In the January/February issue of Society, Salamon challenged the conventional view of civil society as a diverse set of nonmarket, nongovernmental institutions—"savings associations, church choirs, sports clubs, charities, and philanthropic foundations"—whose unique mission is to create "networks of civic engagement that produce and enforce communal values and notions of trust so necessary for cooperation and civil life." This view, he argued, "overlooks the extent to which the ?civil society sector' relies on other sectors to survive."

Drawing an impressive array of data on the civil society sector in the United States and other democracies, Salamon puts a huge empirical question mark over the idea that as "the state expands, it therefore renders voluntary organizations functionally irrelevant, thereby contributing to the decline and undermining the spirit of community which they sustain." Instead of the "zero sum, conflictual image of the relationship between the civil society sector and the state," the data he examined painted a more complicated picture of "three more or less distinct sectors—government, business, and nonprofit—that nevertheless find ways to work together in responding to public needs." So conceived, he reasoned, "the term ?civil society' would not apply to a particular sector, but to a relationship among the sectors, one in which a high level of cooperation and mutual support prevailed."

Some conservative champions of faith-based efforts seem to suppose that it is only liberal welfare state apologists and spokespersons for big, largely government-funded religious charities who are cautioning that churches and other civil institutions cannot fill the financial and social services gaps left by government withdrawal from low-income cash and in-kind assistance for the poor. They're as wrong as they are wrong-headed.

As former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and Senator Daniel Coats (R-IN) argued publicly in 1995, "the retreat of government does not always, at least not immediately, result in the rebirth of civil society." Or, in Rivers's words, "Without public support and back-up, financial and logistical, there's no way churches or other community folk can turn the tide. But if we learn how to work together, then there's no limit to what can be accomplished before it's too late."

Spiritual Capital

Amen. It is also important to think critically about faith communities in relation to broader debates about the state of civil society and to ask how much of urban America s ostensibly dwindling stock of social capital is, as it were, "spiritual capital."

In several articles published in the mid-1990s, beginning with the much-noted "Bowling Alone," political scientist Robert Putnam highlighted evidence of "a broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter century ago." Fewer and fewer Americans, he argued, were voting, joining the PTA, going to church, or participating in other civic associations and group activities.

Putnam's thesis about the decline of social capital has been criticized on many different grounds, and the scholarly scrap over civil society is far from over. One thing, however, is indisputable. While more Americans are now bowling alone, scores of millions of Americans are still praying together and volunteering through their churches.

Outstanding survey research produced by George Gallup, Jr., plainly documents that most Americans believe in God, belong to a church or synagogue, and acknowledge that religion is very important in their lives. Moreover, more than 60 percent of all Americans, and more than 80 percent of black Americans, believe that religion can answer all or most social problems.

Churches are the country's single biggest source of volunteers, way ahead of workplaces, schools or colleges, fraternal groups, and other civil institutions. As Gallup has summarized the evidence, "Churches and other religious bodies are the major supporters of voluntary services for neighborhoods and communities. Members of a church or synagogue...tend to be much more involved in charitable activity, particularly through organized groups, than nonmembers. Almost half of the church members did unpaid volunteer work in a given year, compared to only a third of nonmembers."

Charitable Choice

Finally, it is vital to remain focused on how churched volunteers and the rest of the civil society sector respond to today's ever more highly devolved federal welfare regime.

Section 104 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (a.k.a. the welfare law) encourages states to engage faith-based organizations as providers of welfare services funded by Washington—job search programs, maternity homes for expectant unmarried minors, drug-treatment programs, and much more. Under this so-called charitable choice provision, religious providers that accept government funds have the right to maintain their religious character—displaying religious art, using religious criteria in personnel decisions, and limiting the range of government audits by placing federal funds into separate budgets.

At this point, it remains unclear how, whether, or to what extent churches will take advantage of the charitable choice provision, and, if so, with what consequences. In fact, we may never know. Even before the welfare law was enacted, scores of national and state research projects were planned to monitor the impact of welfare devolution. But almost no attention is being paid to the implementation of the charitable choice provision.

In a 1995 lecture, Nobel economist Robert W. Fogel argued that the United States is now in the midst of a "Fourth Great Awakening," a "new religious revival fueled by a revulsion with the corruptions of contemporary society," and effecting a "political realignment" evidenced by the legislative handiwork of the Republican-led 104th Congress.

A most sweeping and provocative big-think thesis, but one best pondered by preachers, politicians, pundits, public administrators, and policy analysts who first take care to see whether anyone greatly awakens to charitable choice, and, if so, how and with what results.