Ministries, government explore new programs
By Brian Bakst
MINNEAPOLIS -- Andrew McClure already runs a food pantry through his Erie, Colo., ministry, the Mountain Ridge Community Church.
But McClure, the senior pastor of the nondenominational Christian group, wants the church to assume a much greater community presence -- perhaps offering after-school programs or a computer center where children can learn to type and do research on the Internet.
"As a church, you're always looking to further your particular mission," McClure said.
That's why he interrupted his family vacation to join more than 1,000 others Tuesday at a daylong seminar for religious and community groups interested in securing federal money to put their ideas into action.
The White House dispatched U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Director Jim Towey to Minneapolis for the conference, one of several being held nationwide to encourage people like McClure to play a bigger role in delivering social services.
It was a centerpiece of President Bush's campaign, and after being elected his administration pressed ahead with faith-based initiatives even though Congress hasn't given him as much latitude as he sought. Instead, the president has used executive powers to give religious organizations the same chance as other groups to win federal contracts.
Supporters contend that groups with religious affiliations can be as, or more, effective than others in caring for the poor, hungry, drug-addicted and homeless. But skeptics worry government funding of overtly religious endeavors violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
The opportunities are vast, with billions of dollars of government grants up for grabs. They cover everything from programs for tutoring struggling students to mentoring children of prison inmates to caring for people with AIDS.
Paige said there is more than $1.7 billion available for private tutoring services as part of the new federal education law designed to get outside help to students in failing schools. He challenged religious and community groups to step forward.
"Now groups that have been shut out of the process can act and provide support to children who need it," Paige said.
Minnesota's list of so-called supplemental services providers will take shape over the next two months, said state Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke.
Those who attended Tuesday's conference sat through hours of how-to sessions and received binders of materials laying out the do's and don'ts.