Federation discusses federal faith-based initiatives
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Federation discusses federal faith-based initiatives

The director of the Department of Labor’s Center for Faith–Based and community Initiatives, Jedd Medefind, spoke with UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey Federation officials and community leaders last Friday to give an overview on the president’s faith-based initiatives program and to tout his office’s new programs.

When President Bush opened up federal funding to faith-based organizations shortly after he took office in ‘001, the move was met with an uproar from those concerned that that the separation between church and state remain in tact. But Medefind, who according to the Roundtable on Religions and Social Welfare Policy has written two books about faith, community, and Jesus said that the president simply wanted to make sure that the faith-based organizations already effectively providing social services on the ground could get money to do so more effectively. And over the past five years, he said, the government has been able to bring hundreds of organizations into the fold through faith-based initiatives offices in several branches of the government.

But he spoke spoke specifically of the newest batch of grants by his group, $4 million worth, to 55 grass-roots organizations across the country that work as "One-Stop Career Centers."

The key to these grants was making them accessible not only to the huge non-sectarian service organizations that have the resources to apply for difficult-to-get-grants, but to cut down the bureaucracy in the application process so that organizations with budgets under $1 million a year could have access to federal money.

To do so, he said, the government cut down the application from a typical 30 pages to a more manageable five pages.

Though still a controversial topic for those who support strong separation between church and state, including many Jewish groups, the federation system and the Jewish Community Relations Council seem to have embraced the new available pool of money.

The local federation has in the past gone after federal faith-based money, said Alan Sweifach, the UJA-NNJ’s director of strategic planning and allocations. The federation has applied three times for a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families’ Capital Compassion Fund, but each time the federation has lost out to other organizations.

But, Sweifach said, Medefind’s department deals with other types of grants.

"He was talking about soup kitchens and services for released ex-convicts or substance abusers. And there are faith-based organizations that have been helping out those people for a while," he said. "The intent of this legislation was to open it up so that they could apply for federal funding to provide services they have always been providing. The concern is how well these programs are monitored and that they adhere to the same monitoring and fiscal restraint that others have been adhering to."

But, said Sweifach, if there is money available that can help the federation, then the federation should go after it.

Joy Kurland, the head of the UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council said that her organization generally stands behind the federal government’s funding of faith-based social service organizations.

"We didn’t take a position [when the president first proposed funding faith-based organizations in ‘001] but we were clearly concerned," she said. "We basically knew about [the potential for organizations who proselytize to get money] and were certainly with other Jewish organizations concerned that there shouldn’t be any proselytizing and no conflict with church and state, but there were assurances."

At the federation building last Friday, Medefind said that several organizations have had to be warned not to use their federal money to sponsor religious activity, but that none that he knew of have had to give back grant money because of violations.

But maintaining a difference between purveying social services and acting as a church can be difficult, Hope Heldreth, the director of operations for the Bethel Development Corporation, told The Jewish Standard. The Bethel Development Corporation, the social service arm of the Bethel Community Church, an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Millville, was the only New Jersey faith-based group to receive one of Medefind’s grass-roots grants.

Bethel serves between 3,000 and 5,000 people a year in the urban areas within rural southwestern New Jersey, about an hour away from both Philadelphia and Atlantic City, through its soup kitchen, as well as programs to help those recently released from jail, HIV/AIDS patients, substance abusers, or other difficult-to-employ people find jobs.

The $68,696 that her organization received will help provide intensive case management to the chronically unemployed, will help those clients resolve housing issues, and will help Bethel provide bus passes so that its clients can get to work.

Most of Bethel Development Corporation’s $175,000 budget comes from either federal or state grants and the rest is collected from private donors.

Though the development corporation was formed in ‘001, Heldreth calls the timing coincidental, and not just a move to get federal faith-based money. But to get funding, she has to make sure that the line between the church and her organization is clearly drawn, even though the Rev. Charles Wilkins, the church’s pastor, is the corporation’s executive director.

This means that church volunteers no longer run the programs; professionals do. When Heldreth does use volunteers, they have to be trained carefully not to use their volunteerism as a forum for religious outreach. And Wilkins often meets with clients at an office not on the church’s grounds.

"There is a very fine line," she said.

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