Much of what I remember from seminary classes in the late 1950s is the observations from wise professors which fell outside the boundaries of the official subject of class. Among these was an observation by New Testament professor Joseph McClain. I think the context was a response to a question concerning a well known “faith healer” who had brought his tent to Kansas City and set up his show.
Doctor Joe declared, “There are crooks, and there are religious crooks.” He went on to lament the damage that the latter do to the work of the Kingdom of God, some of which he had had to deal with in his pastoral work. In his mind these guys were very dangerous.
Unfortunately, I have had too many occasions to recall and reaffirm the truth of this observation. I will not attempt to catalog the deeds of the many “religious” crooks I have observed. Suffice it to say that every command of Jesus has been violated by persons who have pretended to be serious and pious disciples of our Lord.
One of my most recent experiences was with a minister who came to the office accompanied by a fellow minister with whom I was acquainted. He told me that he had gotten a grant of several thousand dollars from a national corporation to disseminate important healthcare information to poor, isolated folk in several rural counties and communities in West Alabama. He wanted to work through the churches to deliver this service. He had a vision of white and black churches cooperating around health concerns.
It struck me as a splendid and doable project. We prayed about it. We had a few planning meetings. He held one or two rather “lame” events in area churches. He spent the money on administration. Few, if any services, were ever delivered to my area. When I would call to ask about this, he made lots of promises, but no appearances. Latter, I was able to access his reports. They grossly exaggerated what the project had accomplished.
Perhaps this failure was due to incompetence in administration or inability to build coalitions. Certainly, the lack of accountability to a strong local board appears to have been a factor. The last I heard, this preacher was spinning out other projects and applying for more grants.
There are many good reasons for Baptists to oppose President Bush’s “Faith Based Initiatives” program. Among them are fears of controls by authorities who are not sensitive to the work of churches, loss of prophetic stance by the churches that become dependent of governmental funding, and our heritage of separation of church and state. Here is another. I envision a host of “entrepreneurs of religion” looking at the big pots of federal funds and licking their chops. Among them will be old and new religious crooks and many incompetents who will seek to muscle their way up to the federal trough.
It is inevitable that some large sums of money will get into the hands of those who will grossly mismanage it, steal it, or waste it. This, of course, will be an embarrassment to the Christian movement.
There are better ways. Locally, four good Christian women had a vision which resulted in the formation of the Pickens County Family Resource Center. It is a non-profit corporation which manages well over a million dollars annually in grants and contracts from state and federal agencies, as well as private foundations.
Among its programs are those which prepare welfare mothers to enter the work force, mentor children, work with teenagers to prevent pregnancy, operate four senior feeding centers, train and certify the underemployed for industrial jobs, and provide an outreach and education program for diabetics. The Resource Center has also organized a study for community development which has created a good plan for the future.
The Baptist association provided a few hundred dollars to pay for the processing of the center’s application to be a non-profit corporation. It and some of the churches and Christian folk have contributed to the center so it would have matching funds for some of the grants it has obtained. We see this as a good investment of our limited resources.
The staff is composed of active Christian persons from several denominations. They live out their Christian commitment in the programs that they run. They have made some real differences in the lives of many persons. They see their work as a ministry. They earn the right to share their faith. A well trained and advised board monitors the work and provides good counsel.
As one who was sometimes a “foot soldier” in the War on Poverty back in the 1960s, one who saw lots of waste, I find what the center is doing here to be much better. I applaud the four good women who had the vision. What has happened here can, I believe, happen in other rural places.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.