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Groups see a crisis, take risk, strategize for poor

NCR Staff

The Philadelphia gathering joining Protestant evangelicals and Catholics, held on the eve of President Clinton's volunteerism summit, did not open with what evangelical Jim Wallis calls "John Carr's holy card."

Yet that card -- the U.S. bishops' simple 10-point statement of Catholic economic justice principles (NCR, Nov. 22, 1996) -- was one item on an unusual agenda at an unusual meeting: the "Christian Roundtable on Poverty and Welfare Reform." Carr is the bishops' social development secretary.

The April 26 "conversation," as many referred to it, brought together Protestants and Catholics from charitable, social service and social justice backgrounds to explore how -- as Christians and outside the usual political framework -- they might collaborate on behalf of the poor.

These Christians, many of whom a generation ago may have regarded each other with suspicion or worse, treated each other with care. "It was extremely respectful throughout," said Tom Allio, of the Cleveland diocese's Catholic Commission, "though you could see some tensions," he said, between those advocating charity and others who see "social structural change" as essential.

Richard Kauffman of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today said "we agreed among ourselves this was only a beginning. How deep the agreement," whether there is "the kind of unanimity there seemed to be," remains an open question, he said.

The three-part agenda -- each segment had three speakers -- opened with a discussion of common Christian principles that focus on the poor, moved to models of social service programs and concluded with a discussion of policies.

Some of those attending were in town for the president's volunteerism summit. Their organizations ranged from Promise Keepers and the Salvation Army to the International Society of Gospel Missions and the March for Jesus and represented "moderate conservatives to moderate progressives," said Kauffman, "without the real extremes being represented or at least vocal."

"Very little energy was wasted on decrying the Welfare Reform Act," Kauffman said, although welfare reform was in the meeting's title. "It was, 'That's a reality, so how do we respond.' "

Carr, a speaker in the first segment, surmised that some potential problems could revolve around the role of government. "Christians who share the New Testament ought to be able to agree that the poor come first even though the society at large doesn't," he said.

"The question is what do you do once you've decided the poor come first. My impression was there's a difference of approach and tactics," said Carr, "although these were not debated at any length."

One Catholic contribution, he said, is some sense of principles beyond biblical reflection -- "For us that's a given. For others it's helpful."

Carr, commenting that he had to be careful about how he expressed himself, elucidated further and provided a clue as to what has to be overcome. "There are very different ways of talking [about these issues]. Some people begin with an intensely personal relationship with Jesus. Others may have a relationship with the Lord but be part of a religious community that gives them a moral framework."

During a discussion on the role of government, said Carr, "one man said, 'That's Caesar,' and I said, 'That's not Caesar, that's us.' "

In the breakout groups, Kauffman said, there was discussion about the causes of poverty, excessive corporate profits, high CEO salaries, economic leveling and cutting military spending, but "those issues did not get picked up at the plenary sessions. Had they, I think there would have been more sparks."

What particularly interested him, Kauffman said, was how a suggestion -- from Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action -- that there ought to be some experiments with school vouchers, was transformed into a discussion of the voucher concept being applied to the "charitable choice" provision of the Welfare Reform Act.

The charitable choice provision is intended to allow government funds for social services to go directly to local churches, for example to run a local drug rehabilitation program.

Under previous rules, churches were not permitted to receive government funds at the parish level for such purposes and had to establish a separate organization, accountable to the government for the use of funds, such as Catholic Charities, a separate church entity.

The vouchers, the discussion went, would give individuals the right to accept the social services approved for them from an overtly religious organization, such as a local church or chapel store front.

Allio of the Cleveland diocese described as "powerful" descriptions of such cutting-edge models of social intervention as the Rev. Eugene Rivers' 10 Point Leadership Program, which works with gangs in Boston, and Mary Nelson's retraining programs for low-income women at Chicago's Bethel New Life.

But what struck this 20 year veteran of Catholic social justice programs most, "and how do I say this in a way that doesn't sound condescending," said Allio, "was to hear [evangelical] Ron Sider -- to hear him talking about 'consistent ethic of life.' They're capturing a lot of our language -- that's very heartening." That and the "truly Christian spirit" of the dialogue impressed him, he said.

"I'm pragmatic," said Allio. "This was a good first step. Jim Wallis took a risk in attempting to pull together these [diverse Christians] who know there is a crisis in the nation regarding the poor."

The proof of the gathering's success will be measured in the longevity of the continuing discussion and the cooperation it produces, he said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997