July 15, 2008

Faith-Based Initiatives

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

Growing up, I remember my grandmother sitting in church.  Singing along with the chorus and affirming the pastor’s sermon with a well placed “amen”, Grandma Lena believed firmly in the church’s ability to change lives and improve circumstances.

As a student of history, I will always bare in mind the role of the church in our nation’s quest for equality and civil rights.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and religious leaders from around the world helped us see that government and faith-based movements could work hand in hand for social change.

As a young attorney and eventual elected official, I remember when my grandmother’s beliefs would come squarely up against prevailing political practices of the day. However, conflict or not, we have all come to the realization that we cannot and should not work for change alone.

Public service and faith-based initiatives originate from the same place, a point of service. Whether called to serve or elected to serve, we each have a mandate to work within the community to help those in need.  Faith-based initiatives—everything from meal programs and emergency housing, to after-school tutoring programs—helped our community transform values into action.  And as a result, we have all benefited.

Today, their initiatives continue to play an unprecedented role in addressing many of our nation’s biggest problems—from education, to crime, to the environment.  In Milwaukee, for example, the Ready4Work program, run by Word of Hope Ministries, has been invaluable in assisting formerly-incarcerated residents to get much needed job training and help finding employment.  Similarly, Teen Challenge International, a ministry of the Assemblies of God Church, has achieved unprecedented success rates in rehabilitating young people afflicted with drug and alcohol addictions.  These are programs that have taken up vital tasks that government too often ignores.  Our communities could use more of that.

The problem is that, frequently, faith-based initiatives don’t have the funding necessary to help all those in need.  Ready4Work has helped thousands of people transition into the working world, but there are tens of thousands more who can’t access the program.  Relative to the enormous scale of the problems they address, faith-based initiatives often lack the means to offer comprehensive services.

That’s where government comes in.  Like faith-based groups, government has struggled to conquer the myriad challenges facing society.  And, like many faith-based groups, it has come up short in several fields due to a lack of resources.

By pooling our resources, though, we might be able to better solve problems like unemployment or addiction.  If government contributes its financial clout and utilizes faith-based groups and their manpower as one additional tool, we might be able to develop far-reaching, long-term solutions for our communities. 

Despite the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion, there are ways to make a limited partnership between church and state work.  By ensuring that state dollars are available to any effective program—faith-based or not—that doesn’t discriminate or proselytize, we can protect our communities and remain faithful to the Bill of Rights.  We need to appreciate that it will take a collective effort to overcome the greatest of society’s challenges.  We can’t afford to exclude people from that effort just because they’re driven by faith.

Wisconsin, today, is faced with some tremendous challenges.  Our schools are coming up short; our economy isn’t evolving rapidly enough; and our ecosystems are being overrun by pollution and other aspects of development.  We are on a precipice, and how we deal with our situation will have implications for generations to come.

The challenges before us are also opportunities, though.  They’re a chance to reinvigorate our democracy; to directly involve millions of citizens in solving problems that have, for too long, fallen entirely on government.  That’s been the basis for some of the greatest moments in our state’s history.  If we can come together—church and state, believers and non-believers—it can be the foundation for a great future.