For God and Country

For a South Oak Cliff church considered a model for mixing faith and government, the line between church and state is thin indeeda

For Stern, the call for prayer at a public school such as Hulcy is tantamount to coercion. In guidelines the AJC published along with the Christian Legal Society and the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Stern laid out explicit guidelines for mentoring programs. He wants other community organizations to be given an equal opportunity to participate. He wants referrals made regardless of a child's religious beliefs. And he doesn't want the religious organization exerting influence over the content, scheduling, or staffing of the school's activities--or vice versa.

At DISD, Evans' church is not the only organization providing mentoring programs. In the Oak Cliff area, where Evans' mentors work with students, other black churches send in volunteers. In the past three years, Texas Instruments, the city of Dallas, and the I Have a Dream Foundation of Dallas have all dispatched mentors to the schools.

With his mentoring program, Evans reaches about three dozen students each year. But his outreach programs help the schools and their administrators in other ways that if challenged in court could raise questions about an "excessively intertwined" school administration and church group, Stern says.

Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
Joanna Windham suspects that the toxic mold growing in her Turtle Creek condo is making her and her dogs, Mickey and Dallas, sick.
In his second week in office, President Bush signed orders to establish a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. John DiIulio (hands clasped) heads the agency and told reporters, "we will work with what is effective."
AP/Wide World Photo
In his second week in office, President Bush signed orders to establish a White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. John DiIulio (hands clasped) heads the agency and told reporters, "we will work with what is effective."

Annually, the pastor provides regular financial assistance and volunteers for his two dozen "adopted" elementary, middle, and high schools, all of which are located in Oak Cliff and the southern sector of Dallas. Once a month, Evans invites the school principals to a breakfast meeting at the church, where he listens to their concerns and prays for them.

"I don't mind," says Verna Mitchell, the principal at Thomas Talbert Elementary School, about the breakfast prayers. "I know I go there by my choice. It's not often that principals have a chance as a group even to relax a little. It gives the minister the opportunity to hear what we think."

Evans' program offers each school about $1,500 a year to use for whatever purposes the administrators see fit. At Carter High School, the principal buys jackets for students who earn top scores on the statewide Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests. At Talbert, they use the church money to help children buy required school uniforms.

At Christmastime, typically, the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship volunteers are ready with an extra gift for the disadvantaged children. And when popular gospel singer Kirk Franklin gives his annual concert at the Oak Cliff church, Evans distributes tickets to the schoolchildren. A big part of the allure of Evans' outreach programs is their staying power.

At Talbert, an elementary school Project Turnaround adopted two years ago, Mitchell has seen other mentor programs come and go during her 34 years in the school district.

She welcomed Dallas city workers who, like the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship mentors, came to the school once a week. But she saw the program fade away when the individual employees moved on last year to other jobs.

Before that, Mitchell worked with volunteers from the secular I Have a Dream Foundation. Executive Director Derryle Peace, who plans to send a new group of mentors out to adopt a class of kids from one housing project, doesn't believe his organization's secular efforts are on par with the church's attempts at mentors. "I think the folks who walk off the street and do it are people with very good hearts," Peace says. He contends no distinction exists between the faith-motivated volunteers and their more secular peers.

Nor does Mitchell, the elementary school principal, believe that the faith-based mentors have a monopoly on effectiveness. "If you have a good mentor, you have a good mentor," she says.

For now, however, the only mentors visiting her school come from Evans' church.


In the past few weeks, Bush seems to have backed down slightly from the provocative posturing of Olasky. He named his new federal agency the White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, so it didn't exclude the secular alternatives. "We do not impose any religion. We welcome all religions," Bush told reporters. (That's a bit different from a statement candidate Bush made to donors to Evans' outreach programs in 1999. "In solving the problems of our day, there is no substitute for Christian love, no substitute," he said then.)

Olasky notably is not the man Bush appointed to head the new office. That honor went to John DiIulio Jr., a University of Pennsylvania professor of political science who is Catholic. "John is a whole different story," says his colleague, Ram Cnaan, an associate professor of social work. "He is a religious man, but he is a social scientist first. John says, 'I believe it can work, but I don't know it can work, so I will not make claims.'"

On the campaign trail, Bush often reiterated Olasky's claims that faith-based providers are more effective deliverers of social services because they are motivated by a higher purpose than a paycheck. Even at this early stage, DiIulio seems to be taking steps to calm fears that faith-based providers will get an undue preference from this administration. "We will work with what is effective," he told reporters when his appointment was announced.

How will effectiveness be determined? Even DiIulio's colleague concedes that such evaluations have eluded researchers so far, partly because churches cannot be required to divulge financial and other records.

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