Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Can't Get No Relief

Seven religious leaders, including the prominent evangelist T.D. Jakes, are leaving the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. The details are murky, but -- if you read to the closing grafs of the AP story linked above -- it looks as though the Fund is giving money out with a free hand, possibly to churches that don't even exist:

Initially, [said former UNCF president William H. Gray III], the committee assumed it would make around 500 awards, each for $35,000. But as the applications began trickling in, staff members in New Orleans realized there were far fewer applicants than they had initially assumed. That meant they could increase the award amount, and the board agreed in consultation with the co-chairs of the fund that the grant ceiling would be increased to $100,000, Gray said. They also agreed each of the churches or religious institutions receiving the charity’s money would first be inspected, he said.

Numerous disagreements ensued, but Jakes and Gray said the last straw was the fund’s decision to cut checks to 38 houses of worship, each for $35,000, without first conducting an audit to ensure the churches exist.

Imam Abdelhafiz Bensrieti, another committee member who resigned, said the Washington staff wanted the religious leaders to “rubber stamp” their decisions. “They had their agenda and that’s unacceptable,” he said.

More or less at the same time, the
Fund fired its director, Mary Ann Wyrsch. Can't imagine why.

Now, old Father Anonymous has two reactions. The first is sheer jealousy -- "damn, I woulda liked to get some of that free money." But once the old Adam in me is conquered, if only momentarily, the second reaction sets in: painful familiarity.

See, back in the 70s and 80s, there was a school of urban ministry that labored mightily to attract government money earmarked for inner-city neighborhood redevelopment. Since (in those pre-Bush days) the money couldn't go directly to a parish, churches set up non-profit shell corporations to do their social ministry. This was all quite legal, and in theory it was a pretty good way to stabilize declining neighborhoods. Sometimes, I'm sure, it did not lead to corruption.

However, Father A. experienced the after-effects of this strategy during his early South Bronx ministry, in the 1990s. Here's what he saw: churches crippled by financial dependence on a government dole; churches (and their shell organizations) cynically pursuing the newest trends in government handouts, rather than articulating a consistent vision for mission; and a Sierra-Madre level of brutal infighting between the greedy incompetents who were running both the congregations and their non-profit shells.

My guess? Jakes saw this too, in his 30 years of ministry. And so did Gray. And they warned Wyrsch about the danger, and she blew them off, because she was answering to the current Washington fashion, that overestimates the viability of using "faith-based non-profits" to replace government, and doing so with a minimum -- or less! -- of government supervision.

Jakes is no joker, and Gray is no thief; but I'll bet they were thinking of
Dylan's Watchtower when they turned to each other and said, in effect, "There must be some way out of here ... there's too much confusion, I can't get no relief."

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