Wielding Faith Against Poverty

FBOs are increasingly being cited as effective tools for fighting poverty. But some say its government's role

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (RNS)--In many ways, it was an unlikely setting for a call to spiritual arms. But the scene at one of the nation's elite secular institutions of policy studies was reflective of a booming interest in so-called faith-based organizations.

The recent forum at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government drew a capacity crowd that wanted to hear what churches and synagogues can do to stem poverty in the richest nation on Earth.

"There are no easy religious answers to hard political questions--let's get that straight, right off," the Rev. Jim Wallis, a self-described activist preacher, told an overflow audience of about 300 students and faculty members at the April 5 event.

But Wallis, author of a new book, "Faith Works" (Random House), noted that faith-based organizations are being talked about so much in the ivied halls of academia and in think tanks, they now have their own acronym: FBOs.

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"Some of us have been doing this work for a long time, and now it seems we've been discovered," said Wallis, an evangelical Christian who is leader of Sojourners, a Washington-based nondenominational ministry that publishes a popular bimonthly magazine with that name.

What has been discovered is a wide array of grass-roots initiatives by religious congregations and interfaith alliances. These range from helping welfare mothers find gainful employment to turning inner-city youth away from gang violence.

Beyond strictly charitable works, Wallis has been rallying an unusually broad alliance of Christian leaders under the auspices of Call to Renewal to back a public agenda to reduce poverty in prosperous America.

At a time when politicians are courting middle-class "soccer moms," he related an anecdote about pulling up to the drive-through window at Burger King recently. The clerk was taking orders while apparently helping her three children with homework.

"She is working hard, full time, and she's still poor," said Wallis, whose book chronicles what he sees as an emerging movement to connect spirituality with the search for solutions to poverty. "The role of FBOs is to put Burger King moms on the agenda."

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William Bole
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