Social Consciousness in the Black Church

The religion series continues with a discussion of faith and the traditions of philanthropy with Pastor John Hunter of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles and Leon Henry, head of the Catholic charitable group Our Daily Bread.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

From the sanctuary to the soup kitchen, religion and civic responsibilities have always been closely linked. Today, our series on faith and African Americans continues with a look at faith-based charity in black communities.

Pastor John Hunter is senior minister at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

From Baltimore, we've got Leon Henry. He heads the Catholic charities organization, Our Daily Bread.

And finally, Kenneth Behr is the president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability based in Winchester, Virginia. His group encourages responsible stewardship. Welcome, everyone.

Pastor JOHN HUNTER (First African Methodist Episcopal Church): Thank you. Good morning.

Mr. LEON HENRY (Head, Our Daily Bread): Glad to be here. Thank you.

Dr. KENNETH BEHR (President, Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability): (Unintelligible) fine.

CHIDEYA: So I'm going to start out with you, Pastor and with you, Leon. Pastor first, explain how you serve your community and how - what is your religious mandate to actually reach out and do a community service?

Pastor HUNTER: Absolutely. We believe that our theology is one that, not only ministers to the soul, but to the entire person. Thus, we have a housing for over 3,000 families, economic development, incubator business programs, micro loan programs, all kinds of economic development vehicles that encourage thrift, economic development entrepreneurship, employment, the whole array of needs that low income families face.

CHIDEYA: And do you go to a specific part of the scripture or to a specific theme in the bible to encourage you in this work?

Pastor HUNTER: I believe that the Black church has always engaged in self-help. It has been the institution that has liberated both mind and soul, and from reading and tutorial programs to a variety of things such as feeding and clothing in their most basic forms now to the more sophisticated economic programs that many African-American churches have across the country. It has just evolved as time has passed and as expertise has increased.

CHIDEYA: Leon, as you may or may not know, I'm from Baltimore, very familiar with Our Daily Bread. Tell us what you do and how does it relate to your religious mandate.

Mr. HENRY: Well, what we do at Our Daily Bread, we are essentially a one-stop shop for low-income communities in Baltimore city. We provide a hot, nutritious lunch every day for 500 to a thousand people. We also offer AA and NA meetings, and we have something called jobs clubs, where we're actually helping people find jobs and become job ready. We have a program for formerly homeless men designed to get them off the street into stable support of housing and back out there in the workforce. We also provide or link to an array of social services within the city. Our mandate - there's a passage in Matthew which talks about how you treat the least of these you do for me. And that's the - that's sort of the mantra that we have at Catholic charities.

CHIDEYA: Kenneth, I'm going to turn to you. Now, what legal and fiscal rules apply to church-run charities, and is there are enough oversight internally or externally

Dr. BEHR: That's a great question. The legal rules are a little bit muted because of the First Amendment, where we're great fans as I am sure most of us are of the First Amendment that allows us to have some liberties. Freedom of religion is one of them, and as a result, one of the oversights that the IRS (unintelligible) have don't actually apply to religious charities. As a result, that's one of the reasons why the ECFA was started as well as some other oversight organizations to be able to provide some type of an oversight, some type of accreditation or standards that some of the nonprofit should be able to follow so that they stay in compliance with what people would consider as standards of integrity.

CHIDEYA: Well, what about the issue of internal oversight? You have a sort of accreditation system. How did that even come about?

Dr. BEHR: Well, it was pretty interesting. It was a time nothing like today where you've got watch groups in Washington as well as the Senate House and Ways and Means Committee as well as the Senate Oversight Committee and the Finance Committee having meeting from time to time saying, what's that status of our nonprofits and our charities? And it was actually Senator Mark Hatfield that encouraged the number of evangelical leaders to get together and set up some type of self-regulation, self-policing. And it was a result of that encouragement that 150 leaders of organizations got together and created the ECFA.

CHIDEYA: Now, Pastor, I'm going to turn back to you. You're not just a church. You are a huge operation. And is it a burden on you to really deal with the fiscal issues? How do you even set yourself up so that you're able to deal with them gracefully?

Pastor HUNTER: At FAME church, First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. We have 13 corporations. We have an accounting department, a human resources department, 128 full-time employees, an accounting firm, as well as a law firm externally that help us in our operations. It is business and with it, it comes a lot of trust, a lot fiduciary responsibility for we engage in a variety of programs. The immediate needs, transportation program with the county of Los Angeles, the city of Los Angeles, a number of banks and other entities. And so - and to continue to do this as we've done it for a number of years, there must be a lot of accountability.

CHIDEYA: Now, did you have to just hit the ground running on business or was business always part of your background? Because when we think of pastors, we may think of outreach, we may think of preaching, but we don't always think of business.

Pastor HUNTER: Certainly. I first graduated from Boston University School of Law. I then went on to Princeton and got my Masters of Divinity. I got my Masters of Business of Administration from the University of Missouri at Kansas City. So you have to be…

CHIDEYA: You're a triple play.

Pastor HUNTER: Yeah, you have to be well trained to operate on this level.

CHIDEYA: Leon, why don't you tell us a little bit about how you operate and I'm sure that you have to really also be mindful of where your money comes from and where it goes.

Mr. HENRY: Absolutely. Catholic charities, of course, is a $120 million organization, but a lot of what we - in order to provide the services that we do, we rely heavily on volunteers - corporate sponsors. But a lot of parishioners, a lot of particularly African-Americans from surrounding churches who come in and donate their time and also a lot of the goods that we need to keep the operation running. It's something that we are very appreciative of and we spend a lot of time going out to the community and getting people to come in and spend their time there.

CHIDEYA: Pastor, is your church benefiting at all from the faith-based initiatives coming from the White House, and if so, in what way?

Pastor HUNTER: No, we actually are not. We like to exercise some independence. And it really starts in the offering plate. The stewardship of the members - in our case, 19,000, we understand our responsibility to reach up and reach out. And so our church beyond the walls of vision that has been the vision of our church is going on for a number of years and starts really there. It is through partnership with a variety of other entities and we're able to do what we do. But we have not been a part of that faith-based initiative movement per se under the Bush administration.

CHIDEYA: Have you chosen not to or have you not been asked to?

Pastor HUNTER: I don't think it has been a variety of things. I think one of the things that many churches understand is that we still must be that prophetic voice of independence to speak a word of justice and a word of criticism when necessary. And so one of the dangers of being too closely aligned to administration is that you cannot speak against certain things that you might otherwise want to, by virtue of endangering your funding source or even putting in jeopardy your 501(c)(3) status.

CHIDEYA: Leon, just your organization or does Catholic charities accept what's being called the faith-based financing?

Mr. HENRY: Well, I think just as the last speaker talked about, that's exactly where we are. We have a fairly robust public policy component. And that means that sometimes, we have to be critical of government. And that's much easier to do if your hands aren't tied to that sort of government funding. So we have not participated in the faith-based funding as other organizations have.

CHIDEYA: Kenneth, I'm going to turn back to you. And again, to remind everyone, you are the president of Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. This Community Service Block Grant Act of 2003 did give federal funding to job training programs sponsored by faith-based organizations. You talked about the role of the first amendment in giving a slightly different twist on non-profit activities. Now critics call this the right to discriminate provision because it allows faith-based service providers to follow their own rules compared to federal guidelines. What really is the territory here and has the controversy continued or bated?

Dr. BEHR: Well, I think the controversy continues. I mean, well, we try to monitor as many blogs as we can as well as we read the popular press. And one of the things that's interesting is when faith-based initiatives became so popular. Many people thought that was really going benefit the evangelicals. And we find that many of our evangelical ministries are a little cautious about accepting faith-based money as your other callers - or rather your speakers have mentioned, it comes with some strings attached. And that makes it - it makes the ministries a little bit less independent and more dependent on government funding.

We've also found that usually not only are the strings attached but those strings can be pulled and there has been some faith-based funding that have been asked to be returned to the federal government and that puts a burden on the ministries as well. So we've told our ministries to be a little bit cautious about accepting that type of funding.

CHIDEYA: All right. In case you are just tuning in, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We are talking about religion and outreach. How religious organizations deal with non-profit or even for-profit approaches to their communities. We were just hearing from Kenneth Behr, the president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. We also have Leon Henry who heads the Catholic charities organization Our Daily Bread in Baltimore, and Pastor John Hunter, senior minister at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

Let's turn to the idea, Pastor John, of businesses. Are all of your businesses run as non-profits or with all the work that you do in housing, are some of these for-profit corporations?

Pastor HUNTER: With the exception of one, all of our corporations are not for-profit. We have one for-profit. We are also very excited about what we've been able to do in helping businesses grow and by giving them the support, accounting, marketing skills, and all of the infrastructure that they need, already coming to us as small businesses but with the need for the expertise. So many times businesses have ideas, but they really need the help to help them blossom and grow. And that's been a blessing to the community as well.

CHIDEYA: Kenneth, are there any regulations for how religious organizations run for-profit businesses or is it just the same as any other for-profit business?

Dr. BEHR: Well, yeah, there is quite a lot of regulations. The 501(c)(3) mandate - it says pretty clear that it has to be for the public trust. It's not to be an inurement for any public or private individuals. So non-profits are not to be ran so that any individual receives some compensation from their activities other than salaries.

As a result, there has to be a lot of concern in setting up a for-profit business. Typically, what we found is that non-profit organizations that find that they can spin off a for-profit business of some kind to be able to grow that way, receive a lot more, you know, will receive funding that way through the sale of products and services. They often keep them closely aligned but not necessarily a part of the non-profit. It's not that difficult to set up a separate board of directors where you have people that have a lot of empathy between the ministry and the for-profit organization, but it keeps it an arm's length and it keeps everything legal and aboveboard.

CHIDEYA: I want to turn to you, Leon, and also, Pastor, to give us a personal sense of what this work does in the community. Leon, do you have an example of anyone who's been helped by the work that you do that really comes to mind?

Mr. HENRY: Well, there are many examples. I can think of a gentleman who came in a few months ago - literally off the street - who came in to Our Daily Bread to get a meal and happened to strike up a conversation with one of the past members there and was able to talk about his, you know, not having a stable place to live and some of the other burdens that he was dealing with at that time.

And through that conversation, we were able to connect him with our Christopher Place Employment Academy, which is a residential program for men. It's an 18-month program. And this person, who literally walked in off the street, with actually - with just the cloths on his back, is now living in our center and actually learning how to become employable down the line. He's been able to remain sober and drug-free for the - for, I think, two months now, and is really an entirely different person.

When a person is clean, when a person is focused, when a person understands that there is a future for them, their whole attitude, their whole demeanor changes. There's actually a joy to see this person, to see this young man and to know that, you know, a year from now, this is going to be someone in his own apartment with his own job who's taking care of himself. And there are dozens and dozens of stories like that that play out every day at Our Daily Bread.

CHIDEYA: Pastor.

Pastor HUNTER: From the weekly feeding to the monthly feeding to the Christmas feeding and toy giveaway, we do something now that we've done in the last three years are called the Back to School Giveaway in which we now give 1,500 children school shoes, we give computers away and various kinds of supplies.

It is so rewarding to see families blessed and touched. We had upon the celebration or commemoration of the 15th year of the Los Angeles riots, a weekend of peace and a part of that weekend was a job fair. We had over 50 employers there. The reports back from both those who attended as well as many of the employers is that a number of people got jobs, something that obviously makes all the difference in the world. So it is a joy to serve and we at First AME Church talk about being first to serve. The need is so great. It's a blessing to be able to do this.

CHIDEYA: Kenneth, maybe you can talk, just briefly, about how your organization helps churches to be better at what they do, that must be rewarding as well.

Dr. BEHR: Yeah, it really is. It's a joy, you know, the ECFA has been around for - like I said, almost 30 years now and the main purpose hasn't change, which is to help organization, because of integrity earn the public trust, you know, the vast majority of the ministries out there, the churches as well as the other non-profits, are relying on their integrity so that individuals feel free to contribute to that ministry. It's one thing to capture the vision of that ministry to be able to say we're here to help children, or we're here to feed the hungry, or we're here to clothe the naked, which are wonderful things to do, but in order to do that they typically need funding.

And in order that to continue to be confident that the donors are willing to fund them, they need to have some kind of integrity. And that's what ECFA does. ECFA comes alongside them and with our standards we accredit the ministry. Donors have been able to take a look at that feel of approval, that - for lack of a better word, the good (unintelligible) seal of approval on a ministry and say well, least I know I don't have to worry too much about the integrity of this ministry.

They might not even know what our standards are, but they know that that there some kind of a hurdle that these ministries had to jump through - some type of financial statement accountability that makes them feel comfortable. So as a result, our ministries typically grow. In fact, there was an interesting study we recently did that that we found that ECFA members are growing financially at about double the rate of other non-profits, which…

CHIDEYA: Kenneth…

Dr. BEHR: …gives you(ph) a lot of confidence.

CHIDEYA: Well, that's a perfect place to leave it, and we do have to leave it here. Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Pastor HUNTER: Thank you.

Dr. BEHR: Thank you very much.

Mr. HENRY: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Kenneth Behr is president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability in Winchester, Virginia. Leon Henry is director of the catholic charities organization Our Daily Bread, who spoke to us from member station WYPR in Baltimore; and Pastor John Hunter is senior minister of First AME Church in Los Angeles, and he is here in our NPR West studios.

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