In God's Name

Michigan Now Relies
On Churches to Help
People Leave Welfare

A Religious Group Is Given $100,000
So Its 'Mentors' Can Provide Guidance

Giving the Children Rosaries
by Dana Milbank

March, 1997

SPRING LAKE, Michigan -- If you really want to get people off welfare, goes the thinking here, you have to change the rules. And in Michigan, that means blurring the rigid separation between church and state.

The state has told welfare officials to start "reaching out to ... faith-based organizations for help" in guiding people off public assistance and back into the mainstream. So now, someone like Latisha King -- an unmarried mother of three, on welfare for five years -- is paired in a state-funded program with a mentor who brings her to church and Bible classes.

Ms. King isn't complaining. She chose the church, Spring Lake Presbyterian, with a congregation of 425, from among 60 churches offering to counsel welfare recipients. She credits the church and her mentor with helping her complete training to become a welder. Meanwhile, she now takes communion, attends a Christian parenting class, wears a Jesus bracelet and borrows books from the church library -- all for the first time. "I've grown quite a bit in my faith," she says.

A 'Nonjudgemental Attitude'

The real leap of faith, though, is the government's. Under the program supported by Gov. John Engler, a religious group can be paid to provide mentors to enhance welfare recipients' "self-esteem and self-sufficiency." While the state requires the mentors to have a "nonjudgmental attitude," it doesn't prohibit them from getting welfare recipients involved in religious activities.

The officials who pioneered the program, called "Project Zero," to get welfare rolls down to zero, have generally been comfortable with the approach. Gerald Miller, who was the state's welfare chief when the mentoring program was approved, says contracts with church groups are written so they don't prohibit proselytizing. If mentors want to do that, fine, as far as I'm concerned. I've always felt a little faith-based values never hurt anybody," says Mr. Miller, who now works at a Lockheed Martin Corp. division seeking state welfare contracts.

Loren Snippe, director of the welfare office in Ottawa County, which includes Spring Lake, helped lead the way in bringing in religious groups. "From my official position, the primary goal is keeping people employed; my personal belief is a spiritual component is part of that," he says. If mentoring "blossoms into them attending a church and being religious, great."

Questions at the Top

But the ties to churches have prompted some second-guessing, even in the agency that pioneered the effort. Marva Livingston Hammons, who came from New York City last month to succeed Mr. Miller as Michigan's welfare director, says "there is not to be a religious component" in the mentoring program, and anything to the contrary "needs to be dealt with."

Government has long subsidized religious groups' charitable work, but with strings attached. Generally, government agencies are prohibited from funding or getting involved in programs that promote religion or that, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, incur "excessive entanglement" between church and state.

But as the states tackle tough social problems, they are seeking more cooperation with church groups -- without always expecting that they mask their religious motives, Next month, Texas will allow a Christian ministry to run the prerelease program at one of its prisons. In Maryland, Anne Arundel County, which Includes Annapolis, is taking the public assistance it would otherwise pay to a welfare recipient and giving it to churches that agree to care for the recipient. And as part of the welfare-overhaul law enacted last year, Congress guaranteed that a church has a right to compete for state contracts to perform welfare services without compromising "definition, development, practice and expression of its religious beliefs."

A Long Track Record

Michigan has set up its mentoring programs with two contractors: the Salvation Army in Detroit, which gets $375,000 this year from the state, and Good Samaritan Ministries, an ecumenical social-services provider In Ottawa County, which gets $100,000. Sixty Ottowa churches participate -- mostly Christian Reformed or Calvinist, but also Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic and others. Mr. Snippe says he invited Good Samaritan based on its track record in working with the county's poor. There was no bidding for the contract, and no other groups were asked to provide the services.

Ottawa's welfare office has referred 71 recipients to Good Samaritan, or more than 25% of its caseload. The recipients, like others around the state, are under tough new guidelines that require them to work. They are offered mentors, but participation is voluntary. If they do want a mentor, they can request the denomination they would prefer,

Mentors get four hours of training, which ranges from the secular to the religious. They are told how to help recipients with budgeting, goal-setting and day-to-day problems. They also talk about encouraging, but not forcing, the "clients" to God. "We don't want to force people into any church attendance or to make spiritual choices against their will, but if there's an opportunity to help people come to terms with spiritual issues, we want to do that," says Bill Raymond, Good Samaritan's executive director.

Good Samaritan also has given mentors a training manual titled, "Becoming a Friend and Sharing the Good News." The manual, which is used for other programs as well, instructs parishioners in evangelism techniques. "Through contact with you, they become involved in the church," the manual says. "They come to know you and other Christians better.... They make a decision about letting Christ lead and govern their lives."

The manual advises showing people "in very real and practical ways how accepting and following Jesus can be good news in their lives.... When you identify one or more needs or themes, you can begin to respond to them by suggesting resources available through Christ's body, the church."

Drawing the Line

After questions by The Wall Street Journal about use of the manual, Good Samaritan officials said Friday they would pull it from the state-funded program. "These are questions we knew were going to come up eventually," Mr. Raymond says. "We're trying to draw the line where everybody can live with it.'

But Good Samaritan still sees the mentoring program as a way to bring religion to needy people. The goal, "bottom line, [is] a personal relationship to God with Jesus Christ," Mr. Raymond says. "As a Christian, that's my desire for society at large. I have a professional opportunity to bear that out with the cooperation of the government."

And, says Mr. Raymond, a religious component is inevitable if you ask churchgoers to help. "If clients ask questions, it's not fair to ask churches to keep their mouth shut," he says. "Part of the motivation for church-based volunteers is spiritual commitment. If you ask them not to talk about this, it undermines their reason for doing this in the first place."

The Role Model

In most the approach is low key, a mentor tries to be a role model, not a preacher. That has been true for Julie Krupp, a travel agent and a devoted Catholic who volunteered to "adopt" 33-year-old Donna Huynh and her five children, ages six to 14.

Ms. Krupp first took care of Ms. Huynh's earthly needs. She and other St. Patrick's Parish volunteers helped pay a local garage for car repairs, allowing Ms. Huynh (pronounced "win") to keep driving to her job. She is also helping the family find new housing to replace their leaky home, where all five children share one bedroom. When the Huynh children were infected with lice, St. Patrick's paid $300 for medicine.

That kind of attention has been vital for Ms. Huynh, who has been on welfare for three years. "There was no one to talk to. I'd go in the bedroom and cry," says Ms. Huynh. "Now I have Julie."

Ms. Huynh, who isn't Catholic, said she used to be "really down on churches." But now she is more interested and credits Ms. Krupp, who says, "I do hope Donna finds God, and I believe she will, in her own time."

Ms. Krupp spends a great deal of time with the Huynh children. On weekends she takes two kids at a time to spend a night and play with her own children. After a birthday party for six-year-old Korey Huynh fell through, Ms. Krupp ordered a cake and took him out for video games and go-cart rides. She also has brought the children into the church. She gave them rosaries and allowed Katie, who is nine, to hold the Eucharist plate during one service. Ms. Huynh is grateful: "The kids have got to have something in their life, and I'd rather get them into church than something else."

In Ottawa County, many welfare recipients seem eager to take as much religion as they can get, for with it, their mentors say, come the confidence, hope and discipline they need to rise from poverty. Not everyone is happy, though: Five recipients quit the program after being matched. One who is thinking of quitting says "it's getting too pushy for me -- I feel like they're running my life." She resented being confronted by a mentor who wanted to make sure she wasn't living with her boyfriend. One of her mentors, Marleen Snyder, is equally exasperated. "It's almost like working with an infant," she says of the woman, who asks not to be identified.

Bible Class and Bracelets

Ms. King, the newly enthusiastic Presbyterian, says she had always been a believer but had lacked an outlet for her faith. She had visited Spring Lake Presbyterian a few times before hearing about Project Zero, but felt an outsider. After requesting a mentor, she was assigned Nancy Prelesnik, who first brought her cleaning supplies and gifts from the church. Meanwhile, church members arranged to fix her 1987 Plymouth Reliant, which had sprung an oil leak. Satisfied, Ms. King said she would drop out of the program, figuring it had achieved its aim.

Ms. Prelesnik wouldn't hear of it. They agreed to meet weekly at church. One member of the church began arranging regular Bible study. Ms. Prelesnik gave her a schedule for a Christian radio station. She also gave Ms. King and her boys knit bracelets that say "WWJD" -- short for "What Would Jesus Do?" Ms. King, 27, doubts she would have become active in the church without Ms. Prelesnik. "I don't know any other Christians, hardly," she says.

Ms. Prelesnik, a former nurse who has a daughter Ms. King's age, sees a practical benefit to her spiritual guidance: "With a lot of these welfare recipients, what's missing is God. They don't have any grounding."

Ms. King certainly has. On Ash Wednesday, Ms. King wakes as usual at 5:30 a.m. to drop off her children at school and day care before spending the day at the factory for $7.40 an hour. She has thought often of quitting the job, which requires her to weld hundreds of nuts and washers a day -- for not much more than the $751 a month she used to get in welfare and food stamps. To get through the morning, she tunes her radio to a religious program. After work, she joins Ms. Prelesnik at church, where she sits beside her mentor for 15 minutes in silent prayer before accepting, for the first time, the ashes of Lent.

Ms. Prelesnik's pastor, the Rev. Daniel Anderson, thinks the state may indeed be funding evangelical efforts, but he says it is for a worthy cause. "There's a moral discipline that faith can instill," he says. He should know: He grew up on welfare himself and used religion to break free.

The experience has obviously changed Ms. King. A book, "Beautiful Bible Stories," sits on her kitchen table, and another book, "The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues," lies on the coffee table. When the two women sit to eat at a restaurant, it is Ms. King who demands a blessing before the meal.

One important result of all this, Ms. King says, is her ability to stay on the job-something she has never done before. She has no doubt about the source of her new strength: "I've got Jesus to lean on," she says.

When feeling pressure and frustration at work, she uses her coffee breaks to reach for the Bible she keeps in her desk. Her favorite reading is the Sixth Psalm. "Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing," it says. "Depart from me, all you workers of evil; for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping."

"It's about hard times and how you surrender to God," Ms. King says. "It perks me right up."

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