Amid border crisis, government works with faith-based groups

NASHVILLE (BP) -- The surge of unaccompanied children from Central America illegally crossing the U.S. border has prompted renewed discussion of how government and faith-based organizations can partner to meet humanitarian needs during times of crisis. Some assert that such partnerships are helpful to both faith groups and government.

The relationship between government and disaster relief teams from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) is a "perfect match," Scottie Stice, SBTC interim director of disaster relief ministry, told Baptist Press. "To work with government is not anything that is uncommon."

More than 47,000 children were apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol for crossing the border illegally between October 2013 and May 2014, with the possibility of 90,000 being apprehended by the end of the 2014 fiscal year Sept. 30, the Brookings Institute reported. In comparison, 24,481 unaccompanied children were apprehended in 2012 and 38,833 in 2013.

The massive number of children fleeing poverty and violence in Central America has prompted the federal government to call on faith-based groups to assist, including SBCT Disaster Relief; the Georgia Baptist Children's Homes and Family Ministries; BCFS, a partner organization with the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT); Texas Baptist Men, another BGCT cooperating partner.

Most SBTC DR deployments occur in response to requests from churches, Baptist associations, local governments, the state of Texas and, in the case of the immigration crisis, the federal government, Stice said.

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency contacted SBTC DR in May, Texas Southern Baptists responded by providing 434 volunteer days of labor at the Brownsville Border Patrol Station over a three-week period. Volunteers prepared 21,000 meals for more than 1,300 children while providing shower and laundry facilities as well. SBTC volunteers also distributed 181 Bibles and 1,213 Gospel tracts and presented the Gospel four times.

Stice said reports that Christian ministries have not been allowed to discuss spiritual matters with immigrant children are inaccurate.

"With the border crisis, we were actually on a federal installation," Stice said. "We weren't there to conduct Sunday School or Vacation Bible School obviously, but we interacted with the kids. We know that some of the kids were Christians because we were talking to them -- those of us who spoke Spanish. It wasn't an atmosphere where we were able to do evangelism, but we were able to interact with the kids."

Natural partnerships

Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, told BP that some faith-based organizations are natural partners with government during crises even though government funds cannot be used to fund explicitly religious services. He used the analogy of salads and brownies to explain what types of services are appropriate for religious organizations to provide in partnership with government.

"Some services you deliver are like a salad in which there are faith elements," Carlson-Thies said. "But you can sequence those out, you can put them to the side (like components of a salad) and deliver the service in a way that's perfectly fine by your own standards and fits the government's desire not to fund inherently religious activities. Job training might be a good example. Emergency feeding might be another."

Other services of faith-based organizations are like brownies, where ingredients cannot be removed without ruining the product as a whole, he said.

"If the kind of service you're delivering is like a brownie, in which the faith is integral to it, then you shouldn't get into these programs that require you to separate" faith-based and secular components, Carlson-Thies, who worked in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives under President George W. Bush, said.

Natural disasters and humanitarian crises are among the occasions when governments and religious organizations should not shy away from partnering with one another, Carlson-Thies said.

Because someone facing a crisis likely "has a trust issue, they feel grief, they feel a loss of meaning in the world," a faith-based organization that "takes those things seriously without necessarily preaching at somebody would be helpful to somebody that really is looking for spiritual guidance," Carlson-Thies said.

During the child immigration crisis, government has found substantial opportunity to partner with faith organizations. Despite reports of health risks and alleged heavy-handed security strictures at BCFS shelters, the organization has received more than $280 million in federal grants since December to care for immigrant children, TIME reported. The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement asked the Georgia Baptist Children's Homes and Family Ministries in March whether it could help care for the surge of children, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

A long history

Such partnerships are not new. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, numerous faith-based relief organizations assisted the government in caring for soldiers and rebuilding damaged communities, the father-son attorney team of Michael and Jonathan Whitehead told BP in written comments. In 1905 Congress chartered the American Red Cross to provide disaster relief in the U.S., and American citizens contributed nearly $785 million to the Red Cross during World War II.

President Clinton signed a bill in 1996 allowing states to enlist faith-based organizations to help provide basic welfare services, a program known as "charitable choice." The George W. Bush administration created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to expand opportunities for religious groups to apply for grants and provide basic services. Many of the Bush initiatives were continued under President Obama.

The Department of Health and Human Services website explains that faith-based organizations may receive federal grants as long as government money is not "used to support inherently religious activities such as religious instruction, worship, or proselytization as part of the programs or services funded with direct financial assistance from HHS."

Carlson-Thies noted that the Bush administration began an initiative allowing faith-based drug treatment programs to be funded through vouchers, a program that continued under President Obama and falls within the U.S. Supreme Court's guidelines of constitutionality.

"Faith-based providers are not guaranteed they will win a grant of public funds, but they should be guaranteed equal opportunity to compete for public funds, being neither favored nor penalized solely for their religious character," Jonathan Whitehead said.

Dangers of partnership

Michael Whitehead, who has long advised churches and charities, warned that even with government regulations to protect faith-based organizations, partnering with the state has risks.

"Dependency upon public funds can be a grave danger," Michael Whitehead said. "Perhaps there are no strings attached today, but if the government attaches unacceptable strings someday, can you afford to say no to the public funds [at that time] and remain in business? Better to say no at the outset than to grow so addicted to public funds that there will be pressure to compromise one's convictions in order to keep the cash."

One Baptist organization that appeared to feel such pressure was Sunrise Children's Services, a ministry affiliated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. Late last year the organization's president, Bill Smithwick, recommended changing Sunrise's hiring practices against employing practicing homosexuals.

At the time Smithwick told Sunrise trustees, "A church or religious organization can hire all Christians and hold them to their standards, but they cannot accept state/federal monies. Sunrise cannot meet the needs of today's abused and neglected children without public assistance."

Smithwick resigned in December 2013 amid disapproval from Kentucky Baptists of his proposed hiring policy.

Carlson-Thies said there are challenges for faith groups that partner with government even when there is no government money involved. For example, obtaining a government license to serve the public in various capacities can require groups to abide by LGBT nondiscrimination policies, he said.

It is a "challenging time for these partnerships whether they take money or not," Carlson-Thies said.

Yet Stice of the SBTC remains optimistic about responding to government requests for disaster relief.

Government "doesn't stand in our way," Stice said. "We're not working for them. We're not based out of government buildings. We do our ministry, which is only based on local Baptist churches and seeks to meet the needs of those who have been affected by a disaster."


David Roach is the chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).