Poor Black Folks Need God

Could the GOP be right?

"I only left prison in January and look where I am now. God meant for me tobe here. He expects results. I expect results."

Ricky, a formerly drug-addicted ex-con, was describing his participation in the Anacostia Men's Employment Network (AMEN), a Lutheran outreach for unemployed and underemployed men. He had earned an AMEN diploma, signifying his participation in a three-week course on how to "get and keep a job."

AMEN is an example of what social scientists call a faith-based organization,or FBO--a religious institution that delivers social services. Although FBOs have existed for decades, they have received much attention during the presidential campaign because of Texas Gov. George W. Bush's support of them. Although there is no comprehensive academic study quantifying the success of these programs, using preliminary evidence, observers cite their extraordinary success rates with drug addicts, prisoners, and the homeless.

But should we support them? I went looking for answers in some of this country's most desperate inner cities. And I concluded that we should--at least for now.

Standing on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Washington, D.C.'s crime-ridden Anacostia neighborhood one day a few months ago, I tried to reconcile the depressing surroundings with Ricky's cheery temperament. Although AMEN has an explicit policy of not proselytizing, this is not a standard social service agency. The optimism is so overwhelming as to be surreal. The building abounded with smiling pictures, including a black Madonna cradling a black baby Jesus. Outside, however, the familiar signs of inner-city poverty were all there--the hooded brothers on the corners, the teenage sisters pushing baby carriages, the unceasing traffic into the convenience store.


But the smooth voice of Chester Hart, an AMEN instructor, snapped me out of my focus on the depressing surroundings. "Negatives--racism, prison--are a fact of life. You know they exist and you choose to move on.... The issue is not that I went to prison, but what I did while I was in prison. I left prison with skills that I did not have when I entered. That shows initiative."

A 12-year veteran of state prison, Chester has a sharp mind and a vivid way with metaphors. He described the dizzying array of programs with which he'd been involved in prison. Not even a year after his release, he was already involved in running AMEN. Yet I still found myself wondering whether Chester's success was sustainable. If AMEN's statistics are any guide, the answer is yes. According to the program's directors, 60% of those who begin the program complete it, and 65% of the graduates find employment or pursue further training.

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Eleanor Brown
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