For the past two years, since the death of his mother, Alonzo Williams has been one of D.C.’s homeless. On this chilly Thursday afternoon in February, Williams sits quietly in a refuge for men in his predicament—the chapel of Central Union Mission at 14th and R Streets NW—to escape the swirling snow outside.
Williams often comes to this nondenominational Christian rescue mission to shower, shave, get clean clothes, and eat hot meals. Today, he and about 30 other homeless men lounge in cafeteria-style wooden chairs, watching silently as the television blares accident reports and storm updates. In the warm and quiet of this chapel, that world seems distant.
A few blocks away, at 810 5th St. NW, sits Gospel Rescue Ministries, another refuge for D.C.’s homeless. Central Union and Gospel Rescue are remarkably similar in both size and the services they offer. Central Union has existed for 116 years; Gospel Rescue, for 94 years. Both missions shelter approximately 100 homeless men each night and serve hundreds of free meals each day. Both also offer yearlong spiritual-transformation programs, life-improvement courses, and computer training. Both are Christian nondenominational institutions, with roomy chapels just inside their front doors.
The two missions differ, however, in one particular way. Gospel Rescue welcomes federal financial assistance for its social-service programs, including its educational efforts and computer and job-training programs. Central Union, meanwhile, eschews government funding entirely, preferring to avoid regulations that segregate religious activities from federally funded programs. It’s a difference that has become increasingly relevant in the debate over President George W. Bush’s push to expand and strengthen the role of government in assisting faith-based charities, and it helps explain the increasing backlash against the Bush initiative among some religious conservatives who believe government entanglements will interfere with their work.
For Central Union and Gospel Rescue, the decision to either reject or embrace federal help has a direct impact on assistance to Washington’s homeless. Central Union’s decision to forgo federal funding means it can compel homeless men, like Williams, who find shelter within its walls to attend chapel services and Bible studies in exchange for a roof over their heads.
Gospel Rescue, on the other hand, can’t require such religious participation for many of its programs. Faith is a slightly more muted presence at Gospel Rescue, though the lines between its secular and religious functions still aren’t hard and fast. The religious programs offered by Gospel Rescue remain separated from its state-funded programs by a hallway with Formica flooring and cinder-block walls, but those walls are adorned with framed Bible quotations.
At its core, the Bush administration’s original faith-based initiative sought to both expand tax incentives for individual donations to charities and create a mechanism within the White House—the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, headed by former University of Pennsylvania Professor John DiIulio Jr.—to coordinate with federal agencies. The goal of such coordination was to expand the eligibility of religious groups to obtain funding through hundreds of existing government programs addressing social and community ills.
Ed Orzechowski, president of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington, argues that “the debate has been miscast a little bit. I don’t think you’ll see much increase in the amount of government funding….The debate will crystallize into where the line is drawn between delivering service and delivering service and worship together.”
The debate has already forced a rethinking of the initiative at its source: The White House announced this week that it would postpone its planned expansion of federal funding for faith-based charities.
Yet the problem is not exactly a new one. John Jackson, executive director of Gospel Rescue, has been wrestling with it since his mission began to draw federal and city dollars to fund its work.
Jackson says that he doesn’t want his mission “to be an arm of the federal government.” He isn’t afraid to take federal money, however, because Gospel Rescue offers secular programs that fit within federal regulations. He does admit that faith factors, at least a little, in nearly all his programs. “It’s not like you build a wall,” he observes. “The spiritual is bound to have an effect on every aspect of life.”
Gospel Rescue’s religious mission is as clear as the statement written in 6-foot-tall red letters above its door: “Good News: Jesus Christ Died for Our Sins…He Died and Rose Again.”
On a weekday afternoon, the mission is quiet; the homeless men who will sleep here tonight are still on the street. The cooks clean the kitchen downstairs as a prelude to preparing and serving the 250 meals Gospel Rescue offers each day. Outside the mission’s chapel, a hallway leads past the main desk to the wing of the building that houses the mission’s social services—the school, computer room, and a counseling center for drug addicts.
That hallway is where the religious message proclaimed at the building’s entrance grapples with the regulations on the taxpayer money that amounts to 12 percent of the mission’s $1.2 million annual budget.
Gospel Rescue has received government funds for the past five years, since it qualified for them under an amendment to the welfare reform act of 1996, offered by then-Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who now serves as the Bush administration’s attorney general. Called the “charitable choice” provision, Ashcroft’s rider allowed faith-based charities to receive grants directly from government agencies, without funneling them first through a separate nonprofit entity.
When applying for a government grant, directors such as Jackson must write a detailed proposal that outlines how the money will be used. Typically, government agencies approve grants that fund secular services only. Jackson must file monthly, quarterly, and annual reports to document how the money was spent and whether the project goals were met.
The local and federal government monies that go to Gospel Rescue help fund a number of projects. The District government has funded Gospel Rescue’s adult-education school, which recently won national accreditation. Government funds also assist the mission’s computer lab, as well as the counseling center, started by nationally known clinician Dr. David Allen. Among the fruits of the partnership between Gospel Rescue and the government is the development of a job-training course that feeds into the World Bank, which now employs 24 of the program’s graduates, all former homeless men or drug addicts.
Gospel Rescue’s largest partnership with government concluded last year with the opening of Fulton House of Hope, a shelter for homeless women at 512 I St. NW. Gospel Rescue purchased the former crack house from its previous owner for 10 percent of its market value under an order from the U.S. Department of Justice. The mission then secured several additional grants—including one for $300,000 from the Justice Department’s Weed and Seed program—to renovate the building and open the shelter.
Jackson argues that although faith is a key component of the mission’s programs, Gospel Rescue is sensitive to the distinctions between secular and religious components of its services. “We can’t say, ‘We’ll let you come to school, but the last 10 minutes will be Bible study,’” says Jackson. “That’s when you run into trouble, when your primary goal is to get people to believe what you believe. It’s more than just spiritual.”
Jackson pauses for a second. “But [the spiritual is] a big part of it,” he adds.
To Jackson’s mind, the debate over faith-based initiatives is overblown. Gospel Rescue isn’t converting people, and the government is one source among many in a tireless fundraising effort to support the mission’s growing programs.
Even in an increasingly accepting environment for government partnership with faith-based charities, Jackson says, he is leery of applying for more government funds. He argues that it’s better to err on the side of caution in accepting such funds, because concrete distinctions between spiritual and social services are difficult to define.
About half of the 60 men who stay overnight attend the nightly chapel service. (Jackson observes that some of them may sleep through it.) The 40 men who enroll in the yearlong program, and also stay at the mission, are required to attend a certain number of events each week that include—but are not limited to—Bible studies and services.
“We happen to believe the Bible is God’s word,” Jackson says. “There’s truth there. We believe a person has spiritual needs—that’s the glue that holds it all together. But unlike some churches, we provide a wide range of social services. It’s not enough to get someone into the chapel.”
Despite the lines that it draws between the secular and spiritual, Gospel Rescue does try to get all those whom it helps into its chapel. One of the first things a visitor notices in the mission’s lobby are regulations for overnight guests (called Samaritans), which are posted next to the door. One of the rules is that “Samaritans who have extended hour privileges are required to attend chapel services on Sunday morning (9:00-10:00) or leave the building during hours of
David Treadwell, head of Central Union, begins a tour of his mission with the chapel. When he leads a reporter through flapping double doors, there are 25 men who have found shelter at the mission singing the praises of the Lord as loud as they can. It’s a compelling sight, but the sound of the singing is startling. Deep voices anchor the hymns, and rhythmic claps dart from the stucco walls like gunfire. Treadwell leans in to say something, but his voice is washed away in song and percussion. When he exits the chapel and heads up the steps, the singing follows. It hangs in the air, part of the place.
It’s not only gospel music that fills Treadwell’s mission. Central Union is suffused with the message of Christianity, and its symbols are everywhere, beginning with the giant cross on the front of the building.
Don Watson, a community-outreach associate at Central Union, states it succinctly. “Everything we do here,” says Watson, “starts and ends with Jesus Christ.”
Like Gospel Rescue, Central Union performs any number of invaluable social services in the District. It is the city’s largest distributor of free furniture, all of which is donated. It hands out free clothes and blankets as well as meals. Central Union also operates Holmes House, a facility that regularly shelters 18 homeless women and their children, and a camp in Brookeville, Md., where a rotating group of 10 to 12 men stay for three-month periods to escape city life and its temptations.
To fund its services, Central Union receives close to $4 million a year in donations, including about $2 million from corporations, churches, and individual donors. Approximately $1.5 million more comes in as gifts. Central Union doesn’t receive grants from federal or local government.
“Faith isn’t the business of the government,” says Treadwell. “Christ and disciples aren’t government words.”
Treadwell’s decision not to seek government funds allows his entire program of assistance to bear a thoroughly religious stamp, from its roots to its branches.
For instance, Central Union—like Gospel Rescue—operates a yearlong “spiritual-transformation” program. Unlike its counterpart, however, Treadwell’s program features a distinctly religious curriculum, with topics that include prayer, judgment, sin, and the Bible. When men complete Central Union’s program, they are required under its conditions to join a church of their choosing and obtain a written statement from its pastor proclaiming that the church will take responsibility for them.
And it’s not only the long-term residents of Central Union who are compelled to hear the word of the Lord as a condition of the mission’s beneficence. “We require people to go to chapel,” Treadwell says. “That’s just part of the schedule. It’s not a punishment. We look at it as an opportunity to find the real answer to your problems.”
Treadwell argues that his programs are open to anyone, no matter what faith. He relates the story of a Muslim who completed the mission’s yearlong transformation program and still retained his belief in Islam. “And that’s fine,” Treadwell says. “He got his life turned around. But he heard a lot about Jesus Christ while he was here.”
Treadwell says the amount of government money he might receive if he applied wouldn’t be worth the amount of reporting and accountability it would entail. He adds that the prospect of watering down his programs to qualify or becoming entangled in disputes about church and state is another reason to forgo help from the government.
At last, Treadwell’s tour reaches the upper floors of Central Union’s building. “The fourth and fifth floors is where the fun starts,” he says, opening the door to the fourth floor. “When they talk about a shelter, this is it.”
Treadwell enters a shallow room that extends seemingly forever in each direction. It’s resolute in its grayness. The metal bunk beds, stuffed in every corner, are gray. The floor is gray. The ceiling is gray. On a cloudy winter afternoon, windows let in a bright, but gray, light.
This room is home for 80 or so men each night. Most are men like Alonzo Williams. On this particular Thursday, Williams ambles into the shelter at around 4 p.m. with a gym bag of belongings.
Just before dinner, a volunteer arrives to lead the men in saying grace before the evening meal.
At 8 p.m., all 80 overnight residents file into the chapel for an hourlong Christian service. Williams complains that the homeless men can’t leave the chapel at any time during the service, even for the bathroom. But he returns to Central Union on most days, he says, because it is much cleaner and safer than many other shelters.
“It’s a good place to get your head straight,” concurs 23-year-old Will Mattheis, who’s been staying overnight at Central Union for five months now. But, he adds, there is a downside. “You can’t come and go as you please,” he says. “Sometimes you feel like you’re trapped.”
It’s his mission that would be trapped, argues Treadwell, if the government had a say in how it is run.
“They’d allow me to feed people,” says Treadwell, “but they wouldn’t allow me to follow it up with a mandatory chapel service. If we really believe in what we’ve been called to do, then we need our freedom. We’re not arguing with the government. But we don’t want to be entangled with them, either.” CP