The boys and girls stretch out, trying to get comfortable on the hardwood floor between the hoops in D.A. Hulcy Middle School's gym. Some two dozen of them have been called here to hear the good words and advice of a group of church ministers who have adopted the school as their own.
"You've got to watch out for sex," one of five young ministers leading the half-hour meeting warns them. "That means you ain't going to be having it."
Two boys, the only white students in the group, lean sullenly against the wall. One girl spends much of the 30 minutes examining her polished nails. Another leaves the room twice, her swishing ponytail distracting others as she exits. The gym teacher circles, prodding kids who have shifted to lying flat on the floor. They're teens and preteens, a tough audience by any measure, but the clergyman presses on.
"God gave you a gift," he tells the children. "Everyone has a talent." What, he asks, are their career aspirations? The few who speak up first say they'll choose the military. The minister, who had told them he was a military officer for 15 years, asks them what they expect to do there.
"I want to be a general," calls out one.
"That's a high goal, but you can reach that," he answers.
"I want to kill Russians," another boy chimes in.
"To kill Russians," echoes the minister, looking momentarily aghast, "is that what you said? OK, let's pray for you right now."
God? Prayer? During the middle of the day at a public school? If anyone's political or religious sensibilities are offended, no one speaks up. Surely, the line between church and state seems a bit thin here, but who's watching the line? Instead, a few students chuckle. The minister continues quickly. "You are somebody," he tells the children. "God never makes junk. You need to start acting like a somebody."
Led by LaFayette Holland, an assistant pastor from the evangelical Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church, the five clergymen at Hulcy are among more than a dozen who spend much of their time as mentors and male role models for troubled students in 25 Dallas public schools. They are part of a broad program of social services that the church, led by conservative minister Tony Evans, has undertaken in southern Dallas.
The call for prayer and talk of God in a public school, however, represent just the blending of God and government that some fear (and others hope) will become more common now that President George W. Bush has signed executive orders establishing a federal agency to encourage and provide funding for similar faith-based community programs. Bush, who has consulted with Evans and quoted him frequently on the campaign trail, also has laid plans to remove bureaucratic barriers that might hinder faith-based community organizations that receive government money. Intentionally or not, the president has thrown down a gauntlet for those who vigilantly guard the constitutional wall between church and state. Programs such as the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship's mentoring at Dallas schools could get caught in the middle.
"If this is what the president is holding out as an example, then we have a problem," says Marc Stern, a lawyer for the American Jewish Congress, after being told of the scene at Hulcy. "It illustrates that the president doesn't understand the First Amendment. We have a constitutional counterrevolution in the White House."
If that's true, the White House can start the revolution without Dallas school administrators, who are considering how to keep the mentors in schools without raising any thorny constitutional issues. At least they are now, after a Dallas Observer reporter described to them the assembly she attended last month.
In an interview two weeks after the Oak Cliff mentors spoke at his school, Hulcy Principal Waylon Wallace said the minister's comments were "not appropriate." District guidelines explicitly forbid prayer in school. "That guy has to know how to act," Wallace says. "Any time we get additional assistance for helping kids to learn what they need to know, we're happy. But that's as long as no one comes in trying to foster their own religion. It's very important that we accept help, but we're not going to have things that go against school rules."
But Hollis Brashear, a Dallas Independent School District trustee and an elder at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, doesn't see a problem with what happened at Hulcy. "They didn't stop the class and have prayer," Brashear says. "When you discuss values, you've got to go back to some religious beliefs. This is not a new thing. In the African-American community, there is a difference in how the church relates to the schools. [The church] was the only institution we've had since slavery. We would not want this program to stop working because of the national emphasis."
For the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship outreach programs, the varied reactions at the school district foreshadow the blessing and the curse of the president's drive for faith-based social programs. Support from the White House could bring government grants that would allow the program to expand. Yet closer ties with the government also could force church leaders to choose between a larger outreach program and one in which God is a star player.
"We are going to have to wait and see," says Brashear, who doesn't know if Evans would accept any federal funding the Bush administration might offer and the strings that come with it. (Evans declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Still, other Christian leaders worry about the diluting side effects of federal assistance. "I have a concern that government funding is going to neuter the passion," says Phil Strickland, the director of Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. Strickland believes that churches will, in order get the government money, strip the outreach programs of their religious significance.
But the debate about how bold the line should be between church and state has little to do with school administrators' appreciation of the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship outreach to needy students. Given the demands on teachers and the scarcity of similar secular programs, the students might otherwise drift unassisted.
"I wish it could just stay as it is," says Georgetta Johnson, a principal for the past three years at Dallas' Roosevelt High School, where one of Evans' ministers visits each week and mentors five or six children a year.
Joseph Brew, the DISD area superintendent who oversees the middle school, says the district will do whatever is needed to make certain its policies are followed, but he has seen secular mentoring programs come and go and is not keen to lose the aid the church provides. "That is one of our strongest resources here," he says. "We actually need all the help we can get."
Since founding his church in the early '80s, Evans has seen his congregation grow to some 5,000 members. A Baltimore native, Evans attended an all-black Bible college in Atlanta and came to Dallas in the early '80s to study at Dallas Theological Seminary, becoming the first African-American to earn his doctorate from the religiously conservative school. Eddie Lane, an associate professor of pastoral ministries at the school, says that as a student Evans was more politically conservative than his fellow African-American students and teachers and intended as a young man to become "the African-American Billy Graham."
While not yet a household name, Evans has written books detailing his philosophy on "rebuilding the community from the inside out" that have been widely read among Christians. He preaches weekly on syndicated television and radio programs. Web browsers can log onto TonyEvans.org and learn about his church and its outreach programs, which are endorsed by many white conservative Baptists. ("They love Tony Evans," says Gerald Britt, the minister of the New Mount Moriah Baptist Church. "He looks like what they think we ought to look like.")
In his writings, Evans rejects the notion that government can solve all ills and urges his followers to reach out to their community. "America is in trouble. Poverty, racial conflicts, disease, drugs, abortion, and broken families are all tragic realities in every state," he writes in a sales pitch on the Internet for his book America's Only Hope. "Despite considerable efforts by governmental and social agencies, these problems continue to grow, affecting more Americans than ever before. This book is a challenge to all Christians to face the reality that the nation is dying spiritually. It is an admonition to those believers who are not applying what they believe."
Heeding his own call, Evans four years ago launched the Alternative Community Development Services Corp., a nonprofit organization that administers his church's outreach programs. According to Internal Revenue Service records, the corporation received $354,000 in contributions in 1999, mostly from church members and none from the federal government. The organization spent $154,800 on social service programs and another $64,700 on administrative costs.
Holland serves as executive director of the nonprofit corporation, whose outreach programs have grown to encompass much more than mentoring schoolchildren. Referred to collectively as Project Turnaround, the programs range from self-help classes for new home buyers to prison ministry. The front cover of an advertising pamphlet published by Project Turnaround features a photographic collage depicting clean-cut young African-American men and women on the telephone, in a meeting, reading papers, approaching downtown offices, and carrying briefcases. On the back cover, a roster of the outreach programs includes emergency housing, food assistance, and an adult literacy program.
The breadth of Evans' good works has impressed other clergy members, even those who don't necessarily subscribe to all of his teachings. "He really has tried hard to reach people," Strickland says. His former professor Lane says Evans is an excellent teacher and a gifted evangelist. "They have a very effective ministry," he says. "I don't how they do it, but they do it. They make a difference. They cut down on violence in the schools. They keep kids off the streets. Evans really has a heart to serve people."
Others are less impressed. The Rev. Britt's much smaller congregation at New Mount Moriah has sent volunteers into the public schools through the Dallas Area Interfaith, a multidenominational and more politically driven effort. Britt says that the Project Turnaround program's yearly expenditures are modest, given the size of Evans' church. (The relative scale of Evans' efforts is hard to judge, since no church is required to open its books to the public--a potential problem for Bush's federal initiative.)
Yet the money his church and nonprofit spend on social services provides Evans' community a wide range of aid. The church has adopted an apartment building full of low-income residents. Holland oversees a program that puts high school students into Justice of the Peace Thomas Jones' courtroom where, as part of an instructional session, they serve as judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense lawyer for their peers.
The church's adult education program is extensive and geared to helping the individuals get their financial footing and to assisting struggling middle-income families. If all goes as planned, this year Project Turnaround will offer a budgeting seminar in August, an entrepreneurial skills class in October, and a debt-management course in November.
One weekend late last month, nearly 3,000 people packed into Evans' sprawling red-brick church on Camp Wisdom Road for what was billed as "an investment institute." The two-day affair, overseen by Holland, allowed attendees to register for free classes on real-estate investing, tax planning, investment products, the stock market, and debt management.
"Instead of paying to the man, you're paying to you," accountant James Talley told some 70 people who gathered for his class on debt reduction in the choir room at the church. He wanted the group to understand that the exorbitant interest they paid for credit would forever keep them under someone else's thumb. By the frequent nervous giggles during Talley's lively and humorous presentation about danger of debt, the group seemed familiar with the territory he was covering: credit-card troubles. "Debt embarrasses us," Talley told the group. "You know you're in debt if you cannot pay bills on time. God wanted everyone to pay their bills."
To extricate themselves from their debt, they must "honor God first" by giving to the church, said Talley, who handles the accounting for Evans' nonprofit corporation. Debt, he warned them, was the hand of Satan. "When you're supposed to be listening to the sermon, you're thinking about the bills you got to pay," he told the class.
Among its members was Darrell Brown, a 27-year-old merchandise analyst for Zale Corp. With his mutual fund quarterly statement on the chair beside him, Brown flipped attentively to the pages in the booklet Talley had distributed. "There was really a lot of great information given there," Brown said. Not a member of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church yet, Brown, who lives in Garland, learned about the weekend program from the community Web site Dallasblack.com. A single man with no children and a good income, Brown says he doesn't consider himself needy, but he nonetheless found the free program helpful. Talley's references to God and tithing did not disturb him. "I believe the same thing," he said simply.
But what will happen when a program such as Evans' receives government money and doesn't preach to the choir, so to speak?
President Bush's stint as Texas governor might provide some clues. In 1999, the Bush administration approved an $8,000 grant for a job-training program in Brenham. The money helped purchase Bibles, which students were required to read. The program also encouraged participants to accept Jesus Christ as their savior to help prepare themselves for employment. State funding stopped after the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project sued, claiming that because no similar secular alternative was available in the immediate geographical area, the government was, in fact, endorsing a religion and coercing those who wanted the benefits of the jobs-training program to join.
Government endorsement of religion is forbidden under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and modern judges have developed strict guidelines on just what constitutes endorsement. In short, the courts have said government cannot have laws or policies that have the primary effect of promoting religion, support programs that are religious-based without any secular purpose, or excessively intertwine itself with a religious organization. Nor, the courts have ruled, can government appear to endorse a specific religion or coerce others into practicing a certain faith. The test of coercion is whether the government agency directs a formal religious exercise in such as to require participation by those who object.
Marvin Olasky, a 50-year-old University of Texas at Austin journalism professor and author credited with fostering Bush's attitude toward faith-based social service programs, contends the time has come to rethink the whole notion of the separation of church and state.
"If you don't have any mention of God in the school day, that is not neutrality," says Olasky, the son of Jews but himself an evangelical Christian. "A lot of people would have a naked public square. It is not the best thing for this country."
If some Muslim or Jewish child feels isolated because only Christian ministers are able to come to his or her school, that's a small price to pay for the good clergy can do, he says. "You can't turn off the irrigation for some because others don't have it."
The AJC's Stern says the idea of accepting preaching in a public school because no one else will help out is nonsense. "We don't function like that in this country," he says. "There are not some islands among our urban poor without constitutional protections."
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.
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.
"I am not familiar with any study that I would defend in a scientific community" that supports the notion that faith-based providers are somehow more effective, Cnaan acknowledges.
But he, like others attracted to the promise of what faith can do, is not ready to let go of the idea that churches can deliver better value than the government providers of social services.
"There is evidence that they are definitely less costly than government," Cnaan says. "They have their own buildings, for instance."
For some, including religious leaders, the notion that churches provide more efficient programs seems dubious. David Cole leads a congregation he calls Worship Without Walls, and he plans to launch a low-overhead fund-raising service in Thanks-Giving Square downtown. "Churches in general tend to be bureaucratic and inefficient," he says. "I don't think they should get any more."
Coincidentally, the same week Bush signed his order creating the new office, a federal appeals court ruled on a program in Beaumont public schools. Under a program called "Clergy in the Schools," school district Superintendent Carrol Thomas Jr. invited religious leaders to provide counseling to students during school hours, much like the Project Turnaround ministers do. The school district had another mentoring program, but in this effort, the superintendent only tapped ministers, the vast majority of whom were Protestant, and no lay people. The superintendent said he wanted to "provide meaningful dialogue between the clergy and students regarding civic virtues and morality." The clergy are told to refrain from discussing religion, identifying their church, wearing distinctive dress that would reveal their religious affiliation, or offering to pray with the students. If the students asked for prayer, they should direct the children to their parents or own clergy--a measure taken presumably to ensure the separation of church and state.
At DISD, the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship mentors theoretically undergo training that covers similar territory. A pamphlet that DISD administrators distribute to prospective volunteers states: "Volunteers shall not propose any religious doctrines or beliefs, so that each family's beliefs and religious habits shall be respected."
In practice, DISD area Superintendent Brew says the training takes place on such a sporadic basis that school principals are expected to pick up the slack. But the DISD principals who have the Oak Cliff mentors in their schools do not seem overly concerned about making sure such training takes place. "There is no training necessary," says Roosevelt High's Georgetta Johnson. "[The mentors] get their training from the church." She had received a copy of the district guidelines for volunteers from Brew shortly after the Observer spoke to the DISD administrator.
In Beaumont, public school students and their parents challenged the constitutionality of the program. Earlier this year, a district court ruled that the plaintiffs didn't have standing because they weren't participants in the program. The judge granted summary judgment allowing the Beaumont schools to continue the Clergy in the Schools program.
But since an appellate court weighed in, the picture hasn't been so clear.
On the first appeal, three judges from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that the program primarily advanced religion and excessively entangled government with churches. The school district appealed to the full 15-member court. By a 10-5 vote last month, the judges sent the case back to the district court to get more facts.
Closer to home in Grand Prairie, schools Superintendent David Barbosa tried to dismantle a program that had clergy coming to the high school lunchroom, but he confronted considerable resistance from his trustees. In September, Barbosa said that the youth minister would no longer be allowed on campus. "The district had been allowing the ministers to come to lunch to presumably talk with one of the students," he says. "But some would come carrying 10 boxes of pizza, and you know what happens. Everyone walks over there."
The outcry that followed his decision, however, forced Barbosa to backpedal. "There were some folks who were not happy," he says. Last month, he revised his overall visitors' policy. The ministers are allowed in, but they must follow a set of 11 guidelines, including not proselytizing or recruiting and not disseminating information to students or staff without prior approval of the superintendent.
Thomas Talbert third-grader Javarius Erving stays back with his mentor from Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship while the rest of his class files off to the music room.
"OK, how many more we got?" the tall black minister asks the skinny 9-year-old as he watches the student copy down a spelling list that includes the words feast, mammals, and swallow.
"You're on number 18," the minister notes, peering down at the page. "Great job. You did that in no time at all." On the bulletin board, the boy's 100 percent paper from the previous day indicates that Javarius had little trouble with spelling.
When all the words are copied, the boy and his mentor walk out. It is 10:30 a.m., time for the older man to leave and for the boy to get to music class. "Give me five," the mentor says, extending his palm. The boy slaps down his hand, but he doesn't alter the serious look on his face.
"The first thing I heard about it was the other day when they called to say a reporter was going to call," says Javarius' mother, Patricia Erving, about the mentoring program. She is a single parent with four children. The school told her "something about a church, but I didn't know exactly what it was," she says.
A 33-year-old Dallas native, currently receiving unemployment checks from her former job as a receptionist and clerical assistant, Erving knows that Javarius needs help in school. She doesn't worry about her son's intelligence. "He's very smart," she says. "He can take a driver's license and tell you your age."
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Since she moved him into Talbert Elementary last year, Javarius has come home numerous times with reports of discipline problems. "I think he is confused about what a kid can do," his mom says. The boy has gotten into fights with other children and yelled at adults. "I was told he won't sit down, and he has a bad mouth," his mother says. She believes that her son misbehaves more for female authority figures.
This past November, the school sent Javarius to the district's alternative school program geared for children with discipline problems. His mother was dissatisfied because she believed his day was too chaotic at the new place. "I was telling the principal, and she wouldn't listen to me, that I didn't see where it helped," Erving recalls.
In late December, the school returned Javarius to Talbert. His mother says he behaved well enough at the alternative program to get out. In January, the school administrators hooked him up with a mentor from Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship. They did so apparently without first telling his mother, who's just happy her son is getting some extra attention.
She doesn't know yet--having only learned about the program a week ago--if the mentor has made a difference. She did notice after a few days that Javarius had adopted a slightly different tack for asking for a new toy. Rather than demanding, he approached her diplomatically. "He said, 'Mom, can we have a talk?'" Nothing religious about that.