More than one month after state and federal welfare reforms took effect, leaders of religious organizations still are wondering about how to reach out to the poor in their communities.
Pastors, priests and rabbis throughout Maryland and in Washington say they are optimistic about filling gaps left by welfare reform, but worry about adequately meeting needs if and when government aid expires.
“It’s a radical shift in the burden on churches. Our church is in the process of figuring out how to shift things in the budget to have more funds available for outreach,” said Reginald Lee, pastor of Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hillsboro.
Lynda Meade, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities, Maryland’s largest nonprofit social service provider, said religious organizations “already are overwhelmed with filling the gap, which we’ve been doing for years.
“Now the question is how much more folks are going to be able to do with more people knocking at their door,” Meade said.
Religious organizers say they will try to do more for the needy beyond the outreach programs they currently operate, such as soup kitchens, help paying utility bills and job training.
They talk about forming coalitions with other nonprofit organizations in their communities to provide more and better services, about joining with government to administer programs and about challenging members of their congregations to volunteer more time.
But they say they are afraid to see people “fall through the cracks.”
Meade agreed, saying that some people who need help don’t get it now, and that welfare reform won’t reduce their ranks.
Some Maryland legislators are optimistic that religious and other nonprofit organizations can provide services that supplant, or at least supplement, dwindling government aid. They say religious organizations are in a better position than government to help the needy.
“The church has an ear to the heartbeat of a community. The government is a couple of steps away,” said Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, whose county and Baltimore City have the highest rates of welfare recipients in the state.
“The church can assist and interpret and reach out to the community. It’s user-friendly,” she said.
Religious organizations can operate outreach programs more cheaply than the government, lawmakers said. So they included in state welfare reform legislation a provision for religious organizations to obtain state funds for innovative programs through their local social services departments and the state Department of Human Resources. DHR planned to send out requests for proposals to religious organizations this Friday, said DHR spokeswoman Elyn Jones.
“They’ll get all the money they need to leverage our dollars with their volunteer efforts to reach a better result than what our broken 61-year-old system has failed to do,” said Sen. Martin Madden, R-Howard, who, along with Del. Samuel Rosenberg, D- Baltimore, chairs the state’s joint committee on welfare reform.
Herbert Silberman, the rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Salisbury, said he thinks partnerships with government could be a good opportunity for religious organizations to do more within their communities.
“Our institutions are really stretched to the limit. With additional funds from the government, we can come up to home plate swinging two bats,” Silberman said.
But Lee, the Hillsboro pastor, said he is skeptical because such partnerships blur the separation between church and state.
“We want to stay true to our religious or Christian calling and these funds could seem like a good thing. But it could hamper the larger picture as we move forward in that area. A limited collusion between government and the church may put us into some very murky waters,” Lee said.
Lee acknowledges that welfare reform could be an opportunity for religious organizations to “really meet the missional nature of our reason for being. It’s a great opportunity for churches to be about what we are supposed to be about — making a commitment to the poor and marginalized in our community.”
But he resents government’s call for churches to “do more because [they] want to do less. “I don’t believe government should withdraw from the business of helping people. Dumping it on private agencies has proven not to work. Pastors must rally together to say we must take care of the poor. We must continue to advocate on their behalf,” Lee said. -30-