Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
At the beginning of his administration, President Bush established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The idea was as simple as it was controversial: The federal government would work with faith-based groups to tackle tough social problems.
Last June, at a conference attended by 1,500 leaders of faith-based and community groups, the president recognized the progress that has been made between the government and these groups over the past eight years; for example, partnering with organizations that help ex-prisoners make a successful transition back to society.
The idea is even spreading to the states-Alabama, where the government, for example, will coordinate, but not fund, efforts by the faith community to help ex-prisoners find employment, housing, health care, and spiritual guidance.
The Church has brought enormous resources-and most importantly, love-to the table for years in meeting social needs. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and especially recently during the horrific flooding in the Midwest, it was churches and community organizations that reached victims quickly and effectively with aid and compassion.
Indeed, in a speech last month, President Bush said that he considers faith-based groups the “foot soldiers” in the “armies of compassion.”
“Every day you mend broken hearts with love,” he said. “You mend broken lives with hope. And you mend broken communities with countless acts of extraordinary kindness.”
And then he said something I would never expect a president to say (but I am glad he did): “Bureaucracies can put money in people’s hands, but they cannot put hope in a person’s heart.”
Groups like Prison Fellowship are on the front lines bringing the hope of Jesus Christ to the hopeless and marginalized. And though we do not take any government money, I applaud President Bush for recognizing the fact that there is a place for partnerships between government and faith-based groups.
There are hopeful signs that this good work will continue.
In speaking about helping ex-prisoners reenter society, Republican presidential candidate John McCain recently said, “Beyond government, there are churches and community groups all across our country that stand ready to help . . . And these groups will have the committed support of my administration.”
And just last week, Barack Obama proposed to expand the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, providing $500 million for faith-based groups to assist the poor. One caveat-Obama’s proposal may come with a string attached: The Senator said he would ensure that faith groups accepting federal funds will not be able to restrict who they hire. If that is true, that would be a deal breaker: Religious liberty is an empty phrase if the government can dictate who faith-based groups can hire.
Compassion has been, and always should be, the role of the faith community. Let’s pray that our future president-whoever he may be-will continue to recognize and support the role faith groups play in changing lives and encourage their acts of love.