Earlier this week The New York Times fired a shot heard 'roundthe world of faith-based organizations.
In a news item on March 5, The Times said a major U.S. relief organization has "blurred the line between church and state as its volunteers preach, pray and seek converts among people desperate for help."
The article went on to accuse Samaritan's Purse, a 30-year-old Christianhumanitarian organization founded by Billy Graham's son Franklin Graham, ofusing government funds to convert victims of the earthquakes in El Salvador.
The article quoted several unidentified sources and attributed concerns to unnamed aid officials and other relief workers. It also used the organization's own Web site as evidence, noting stories of conversion of people who have watched a movie about Jesus.
Using President Bush's plan to provide government aid to faith-basedorganizations as the reason for the story, the article focuses attention onAgency for International Development (AID) funds that have been used in suchprograms for more than a decade.
But in fact, AID officials note in the story that Samaritan's Purse has met performance goals over the years and has qualified for a number of grants.
However, with all the new attention on funding religious groups, The Times article creates discomfort among many relief and development agencies that have been working for years in some of the worst situations of the world.
"We are first a Christian organization and second an aid organization,"said Paul Chiles, the country director for Samaritan's Purse, as quoted in thearticle. "We can't really separate the two."
Chiles' statement could have been made by any number of leading reliefgroups including Catholic Relief Services, Adventist Development and ReliefAgency, World Vision or World Relief, all of which receive some form ofgovernment funding. These groups and others are the ones working on thefrontlines of disasters in places where the government has neither the meansnor the will to go.
In spotlighting the work of Samaritan's Purse and questioning its motivesand approach, The Times has added yet another concern to the growing list ofquestions faith-based agencies have about accepting government funds.
Faith-based and other relief agencies have worked comfortably together foryears in disaster situations. They have set standards for their work and agreedupon ethical approaches to dealing with victims. They have formed organizationslike InterAction to help educate both the public and their workers. Some haveeven shared government grants over the years or subcontracted work when oneagency had a capability the other lacked.
Religious organizations are some of the most proficient in worldwide reliefwork, perhaps because the faith of the workers has kept them committed to theworld's worst places and most marginalized people. But today's religioushumanitarian organizations should not be confused with the missionary groups ofold who went in to countries first to convert and then to help.
"We definitely don't ever use the gifts we bring as a means to changepeople," said Chiles.
The Times article takes an unfortunate and unfair approach to the work offaith-based relief organizations and creates more concern about the stringsthat may be attached to government funds. It fails to look at how therelationship between AID and relief groups has functioned over the years andwhat measures have been taken by humanitarian groups themselves to setstandards and protocols.
But worse, the article simplifies the complex work being done bySamaritan's Purse and others in some of the most forgotten corners of theworld. Without such groups the people of El Salvador, India and otherdisaster-ravaged countries would suffer even more than they already have.