Faith-Based Organizations Reaching Troubled Kids Without Pitching the Faith

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Wayne Gordon, pastor of the Lawnside Community Church ministries in Chicago, tells a story that epitomizes how some faith-based organizations work with youth without trying to sell them on religion.

“After we built a gymnasium in the church,” Gordon recalls, “a staffer ran up to me to say that there were drug dealers in the church gym playing ball and yelling, cursing and fighting. What was I going to do about it?”

Without missing a beat, says Gordon, “I said, ‘Thank God they’ve come through the door. Now we can talk and get down to business.’ ”

That business involved not proselytizing, but helping the kids straighten out their lives in whatever way they could – even if it meant just providing a safe place to play ball.

Wrangling over the independence of church and state has involved the immortals, but the role of churches as a community-based mutual aid society that supplies jobs, mentors, food, recreation and scholarships to the children of hard-up families is rooted in two centuries of youth work.

“The first thing to be done in saving souls is saving lives,” says Mark Scott, coordinator of the Faith and Service Technical Education Network (FASTEN). Many faith-based organizations “focus on lives and don’t get into a lot of religious activity.”

If they did, they’d risk losing the youth who most need help. “These kids have experienced things more than youth ministries can imagine,” says Faith Kirkham Hawkins, director of the Youth Theological Initiative at Emory University in Atlanta. “If you tell them, ‘If you turn your life over to Christ, everything will be roses,’ they’ll know that’s bunk.”

Recognizing the power of the proper approach, the Pew Charitable Trusts created FASTEN more than a year ago to support faith-based social services in distressed urban communities. The lead agency is the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), which administers a $6.2 million grant split with its partners: Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the Hudson Institute (in Indianapolis and Washington, D.C.).

“We’ve got to get closer to where the kids live and use institutions that are trusted,” says NCPC President Jack Calhoun. Workers and cops come and go, he says, but members of the faith community tend to stick around, showing a commitment many kids haven’t seen before.

But for many faith groups, Calhoun says, “a lot of technical assistance is needed” to run youth programs.

That’s where the FASTEN project comes in. Housed in the Hudson Institute’s Washington office, FASTEN’s goals are to: provide research information for more effective practices in faith-based social service delivery; arrange special meetings of mayors, faith-based organizations (FBOs) and academics; create a website resource center; and provide a peer-to-peer network that helps FBOs advise, encourage and mentor one another.

Hawkins calls such goals “all too rare,” noting that high-risk kids represent a variety of problems that defy a “one size fits all” approach.

Harold Dean Trulear, author of a Public/Private Ventures study, “Faith-Based Institutions and High-Risk Youth,” phrases Hawkins’ concept another way: “Many times, targeting a community’s youth without specifying a strategy that addresses the identification and recruitment of high-risk youth leads to a program that works with the good kids in a bad neighborhood.”

There appears to be more money than ever for faith-based organizations to reach such youth. Since the 1996 Federal Welfare Reform Law introduced “charitable choice” provisions that made it easier for FBOs to compete for public funding of their social service programs, funding opportunities have broadened for religious organizations to work on juvenile justice, education and youth employment.

Billions of dollars in faith-based grants have flowed from the U.S departments of Labor, Justice, Education, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, with millions more from national foundations such as Pew.

That movement, of course, has fueled the debate over whether faith-based organizations are using government money to push religion on people who receive their services.

Jeff Carr, who began his church-inspired Bresee Foundation in the high-crime Central Los Angeles area more than 20 years ago, decries the “politicization” of FBO efforts.

“When myself and several others began religious-based efforts many years ago, there was no mention of the term ‘faith-based agencies’ and the hue and cry we hear today. We did our job in the community, got funding, and went about our business as people of faith,” Carr says.

“Today the Democrats and Republicans each have their own FBO agenda. I don’t like it.”

Calhoun has an all-inclusive view that leapfrogs FBO critics and cheerleaders. “I view it pragmatically,” he says. “It’s a terrific source of volunteers. …

“For me, the bottom line is if folks are focusing on the work, whether it’s returning offenders [to communities] or working with kids.”
The following are profiles of FBOs that have shown staying power in neighborhoods where kids need small miracles.

Assemblies of God

My Friend’s House

6525 S. Norwalk Blvd.
Whittier, Calif. 90606
(562) 692-0953

In the birthplace of President Richard Nixon, another ruddy-faced gentleman with a prominent proboscis has carved out an oasis in a neighborhood that has turned.

With Whitter now graced with an overwhelmingly Latino population (85 percent) and a passel of youth needs perhaps unknown in Nixon’s youth, the Rev. Jim Ortiz and his 500-member congregation have made My Friend’s House a haven for latch-key kids.

“We target the needs in our community and develop programs,” says Ortiz, 55 – and there seems to be no end to those needs.

A cornerstone of the youth work at My Friend’s House is a partnership with the University of California that stresses college preparation in an Academic Centers of Excellence (ACE) after-school program. My Friend’s House features a computer learning center, runs a child care center and a summer day camp, provides counseling and serves as an assigned task area for community service workers. Once a month it hosts a teen/parent support group night, which Ortiz describes as wildly popular. “It is not uncommon for us to have 70 kids and their parents” sharing information and advice, he says.

As for funding, Ortiz says, “We get small grants.” As an example, he says his ministry has received $38,000 from Esperanza USA, $20,000 from VISTA (whose volunteers serve as instructors in the ACE program) and $23,000 from Los Angeles County for the community service program and the summer day camp program. He says he usually has a staff of six paid youth workers, “depending on the funding.”

Some 60 to 80 kids a day participate in the day camp, about 25 in the child care program and 30 in the ACE program, now entering its second year.

Ortiz says five to eight youngsters, ranging in age from 9 to 15, are referred to his church each week for court-ordered community service.

“Many of the youngsters have been raised in a ghetto situation, so there are gang problems,” he says. “Others are from broken homes. Some have been kicked out of high school, and they drift into trouble.”

They get assigned to art or recreational activities, or to mowing lawns for elderly residents – activities that Ortiz calls character-building.

“When they mow a lawn, they’re doing something for someone else rather than doing something only for themselves,” he says. “It takes them out of that self-centered survival mode that often happens when there are no family ties.”

The ACE program, according to a University of California statement, was devised for “community-serving and faith-based organizations in low-income and educationally disadvantaged communities” in California. It provides learning and tutoring to latch-key kids, says Ortiz, with mentoring, recreation and a nutrition program thrown in.

“Bible studies are not a requirement,” says Ortiz, who last year won a Positive Image Humanitarian Award from the state’s Hispanic Outreach Taskforce. “But those who choose to do so may participate.”


Campbell Chapel Youth & Family Services
Campbell Chapel A.M.E.
Zion Church
3516 West Vermont St.
Indianapolis, IN 46222
(317) 630-9035

“Churches take in tons of money on Sunday,” muses Steven Bonds, “yet on Monday morning, the doors are locked. Why?”

Bonds, executive director of the Campbell Chapel Youth & Family Services, is an “open door” proponent, and since 1988 he has guided his agency into myriad collaborations that have helped hundreds of youth in a poor, west-side neighborhood of public housing projects.

While the area has been revitalized in recent years with new single-family and duplex homes – reminiscent, says Bonds, “of a suburban subdivision” – the youth problems of the time when the community was a congested, neglected project area still exist, as families stack up on years-long waiting lists to be assigned to new housing.

Campbell Chapel is located in a community called Haughville, where the population is 60 percent African American. The 100-member church, with seven classrooms in its basement, has an influence well beyond its size. Surrounded by high unemployment, crime, and drug and gang activities, Campbell Chapel has long provided a range of services that include after-school tutoring, GED classes, computer training, job readiness classes and job placement services for 16- to 21-year-olds.

In 1999, through a partnership with the Indianapolis Private Industry Council, the church began to provide training and employment services to poor youths through the federal Workforce Investment Act. Campbell Chapel received three-year grants from the U.S. Department of Labor ($70,000) and the Lilly Endowment ($120,000) to finance the project.

“The grants were performance-based,” says Bonds, 52. “The purse strings would be held tight until we proceeded to each level.”
Some 50 youngsters were put through the program. Bonds explains: “We would get $250 after an academic assessment, $250 when the student was tutored up two levels, $500 when he got his GED, $250 if he stayed on the job we placed him in for 30 days, and $250 if he stayed 90 days.

“We went beyond that pay guideline, though, and tracked them for six months.”

Campbell Chapel and its six-person staff also collaborate with 30 other congregations that comprise Westside Ministries Inc. In addition, it works with the Indiana Family Social Services Administration, the Urban Mission YMCA and the Marion County Juvenile Court, among others. For instance, the church uses vans provided by the Community Centers of Indianapolis to take 10- to 14-year-olds on weekend field trips, Bonds says.

High school dropouts, teenage alcohol and drug abusers and those looking for college prep courses all come through Campbell Chapel’s doors. Bonds says the church pays the $60 for GED exams in the public school system, and has an arrangement to route students to the Indiana-Purdue College Extension Campus in Indianapolis.

“There are no religious teachings, no Bibles,” says Bonds. “But occasionally, I’ll ask a youngster we’ve helped prepare for the world, ‘OK if I say a prayer for you?’ ”


Abraham House
342 Willis Ave.
Mott Haven
Bronx, NY 10454
(718) 292-9321

“Faith is a very strong motivation,” says Teresa Gomez, deputy director of the Abraham House after-school program.

With the credo that every child is an ever-attentive witness of grown-up morality, constantly looking for actions to emulate, Abraham House sets out to halt the cycle of crime in families. It operates a one-on-one tutoring program for children (ages 5 to 15) of inmates and former inmates.

“Most of the kids are Mexican, some from Puerto Rico, Peru and other Spanish-speaking countries,” says Gomez.

Since most of the children attend poor, low-performing public schools and come from homes where the parents may be illiterate, a premium is placed on teaching the youngsters “essentials”: reading, writing, math and computer literacy.

Founded in 1993 by three Rikers Island prison chaplains and personnel from the state Department of Corrections, Abraham House initially opened as an adult inmate residential center to combat recidivism. Residents are required to finish their high school education, are counseled on their problems and are steered to jobs that they are expected to keep.

A family center was added for men, women and youth affected directly or indirectly by the criminal justice system. “Our neighborhood can be a very challenging place to grow up,” Gomez says. “Our kids cannot even go to the park, out of fear of shooting or drug deals.” In fact, Mott Haven was selected for the center because it’s a neighborhood where most people have been in prison or have a family member who has served time.

The after-school program was introduced in 1999, funded by the Robin Hood and Daphne foundations. According to Gomez, the cost is $3,600 per year per child (15 are now in the program). There are five paid staffers, including Gomez, who is a certified public school teacher and licensed psychologist.

“We have up to 90 kids, along with their parents and families, on the weekends when we do tutoring, have special classes on things like photography and have special presentations and talks by professionals, such as lawyers and journalists,” Gomez says.

It is the weekday program that abounds in special one-on-one touches. For example, art classes are combined with counseling. The youths and youth workers discuss the drawings, which often represent the feelings and fears of the children. Staffers recount a story of a child who recently complained that all the drawings were of “happy faces” and that “isn’t the way it is.” The discussion revealed that in his environment, where both his parents were incarcerated, happy faces were not common.

The program operates six days a week for a total of 20 hours, while a summer program runs for 35 hours a week.

“Each session starts with a meditation,” Gomez says. “We are a religious organization, but we come with a staff that is

Nondenominational Christian

Lawndale Community Church
3827 W. Ogden Ave.
Chicago, IL 60623
(773) 762-6389

“It’s become popular of late to be a faith-based organization,” says Wayne Gordon, pastor of Chicago’s Lawnside Community Church. He allows four seconds of dead air to pass before adding, “We’ve been around for 25 years.”

With that, the “coach,” as the 50-year-old Gordon likes to be called, was off and running.

He recounts that as a former football and wrestling coach who conducted a private ministry, he was approached by several high schoolers who wanted him to start a church that reflected the needs of the kids and the community.

“You’ve got to break down the barriers,” says Gordon. Back then, the barriers to church attendance included the requirement to dress up and constant requests for money. “This area on Chicago’s west side at that time was designated the 15th-poorest area in the country,” Gordon says. “So one of the first things we did at our church was throw out the dress code and have a no-offering policy.”

Now the church has a monthly hip-hop dance attended by more 1,000 youngsters. “You need to change to fit the culture,” says Gordon.

Gordon, who is white, says that, but for him, his family and a neighbor or two, the population of Lawndale would be 100 percent African American.

The church’s youth work focuses on academic preparation and recreation, featuring the UMOJA (a Swahili word for unity) After School Program for grades K-8, the Garden Summer Camp (K-8), the Gym Ministry (4-12), and the S.L.A.M. poetry program (9-12). Gordon says the after-school program “offers a computer learning center with 30 computers, a gym, space for homework assignments and, along with that, a healthy snack.”

Although the men who were originally posted at the school have moved on, others stand vigilance to this day.

He says a “college opportunity” program that prepares youngsters for higher education with scholarship information and talks by college recruiters serves 75 kids three times a week and is staffed by two coordinators.

Then there’s Lawndale’s unusual take on the area’s gang problem. “Youth gangs are no longer run by youngsters,” Gordon says. “They are run by 30- and 35-year-old men who in the early ’80s tapped gangs into the drug culture.”

To help fight the problem, Lawndale operates Hope House, an eight-month residence for men 18 and over who have recently been released from prison. Counselors point the men to jobs, job training and educational opportunities. The hope is to stop the men from infiltrating, organizing and running local youth gangs with their street and prison smarts.

Some of the ex-cons also help youth more directly.

“Two years ago, there was a shooting at a nearby grammar school that frightened the youngsters so badly they came crying to the church,” Gordon says. “The next day, we sent two men from Hope House to be posted at each corner of the school’s entrance.”

Although the men who were originally posted at the school have moved on, others stand vigilance to this day. There have been no more shootings. The men have “become friendly and protective, and the youngsters have become friendly and grateful,” Gordon says. “It has become a tradition, and the children feel safe.”

The youth can count on Gordon and his church being around for quite a while. Well before the faith-based funding push by the Bush administration, the church had landed grants from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to work on housing, economic development, community organizing and other local endeavors. Lawndale now boasts an operating budget of more than $10 million, with funds coming primarily from self-generating entrepreneurial enterprises, including a large, popular restaurant (Lou Mainati’s) that it owns and operates.

While Gordon pooh-poohs current faith-based federal grants as “mostly consulting,” he says he applies for them, but hasn’t gotten any “lately.”