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Taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for social programs because there are too many “sorry churches” that aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do, according to a city official in Jacksonville, Fla.

During a recent debate about providing $200,000 for early learning scholarships for poor students, former City Council President Daniel Davis said the city had no choice but to fund the program because “Jacksonville has a bunch of sorry churches” that aren’t fulfilling their mission.

“Because they won’t step up to the plate, we’re forced to do something, OK?” said Davis, a churchgoing Republican elected to the council in 2003. “Or you’re going to have hungry kids in the street without an education.”

Davis said his own church is active in running shelters for women, children and the homeless and organizing an after-school program, but in general churches are more interested in building magnificent buildings and supporting foreign missions than working in their own community.

“There aren’t enough churches involved,” Davis said. “We got so many needs here in Jacksonville, and until the faith community gets involved and rolls up their sleeves and gets in the trenches, we’re not going to solve our problems.”

Davis’ comments made headlines and sparked some controversy. While the City Council “was deliberating on what the budget would be we were out on the streets, responding to every murder,” said Bishop Vaughn McLaughlin, who heads a faith-based coalition appointed to reduce violent crime.

The Jacksonville Faith-Based Violence Reduction Coalition was formed in February to mobilize African-American churches that serve in neighborhoods with the city’s highest-crime rates. It’s modeled after a program credited with helping to solve Boston’s gang problem in the 1990s led by black Pentecostal minister Eugene Rivers.

“We’re moving,” said McLaughlin, founding pastor of the 4,000-member Potter’s House Christian Fellowship. “And I think we’re moving faster than some of the other energies trying to reduce crime.”

Davis told Florida Times-Union columnist Ron Littlepage that most of the response he has received is positive, and he’s glad he said what he did. With a “church on every corner,” he said, it is hard to imagine what would happen if every church got involved in its neighborhood.

“That’s the only way to turn it around,” Davis said. “Government can’t solve all of our issues.”

Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton told radio station WOKV he believes statistics back up Davis’ claim.

“In Jacksonville, the highest amount of crime is committed in those areas where we have the most amount of churches,” Peyton said. “We’ve got to stop worrying about what kind of car we’re driving, what kind of suit we’re wearing and how big our congregation is and minister to those people who we trip over every morning on our way to work.”

Davis, executive director of the Northeast Florida Builders Association, was criticized in March for pushing through an amendment exempting churches from paying a storm-water fee to clean up pollution in the St. Johns River while serving as a deacon at Trinity Baptist Church.

A Trinity Christian Academy Web page dated in 2006 listed Davis as a TCA graduate, deacon and Bible Fellowship teacher at the Jacksonville mega-church, which in 2006 was rocked by scandal after its former longtime pastor was charged with capital sex crimes and some of his alleged victims sued the church claiming there was a cover-up.

In July police arrested a homeless man accused of stalking Davis and threatening to kill him because he thought the councilman and people at Trinity Rescue Mission were trying to harm him.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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