Earlier this week The New York Times fired a shot heard 'round the 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 Christian humanitarian organization founded by Billy Graham's son Franklin Graham, of using 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-based organizations as the reason for the story, the article focuses attention on Agency for International Development (AID) funds that have been used in such programs 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 the article. "We can't really separate the two."
Chiles' statement could have been made by any number of leading relief groups including Catholic Relief Services, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, World Vision or World Relief, all of which receive some form of government funding. These groups and others are the ones working on the frontlines of disasters in places where the government has neither the means nor the will to go.
In spotlighting the work of Samaritan's Purse and questioning its motives and approach, The Times has added yet another concern to the growing list of questions faith-based agencies have about accepting government funds.
Faith-based and other relief agencies have worked comfortably together for years in disaster situations. They have set standards for their work and agreed upon ethical approaches to dealing with victims. They have formed organizations like InterAction to help educate both the public and their workers. Some have even shared government grants over the years or subcontracted work when one agency had a capability the other lacked.
Religious organizations are some of the most proficient in worldwide relief work, perhaps because the faith of the workers has kept them committed to the world's worst places and most marginalized people. But today's religious humanitarian organizations should not be confused with the missionary groups of old 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 change people," said Chiles.
The Times article takes an unfortunate and unfair approach to the work of faith-based relief organizations and creates more concern about the strings that may be attached to government funds. It fails to look at how the relationship between AID and relief groups has functioned over the years and what measures have been taken by humanitarian groups themselves to set standards and protocols.
But worse, the article simplifies the complex work being done by Samaritan's Purse and others in some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Without such groups the people of El Salvador, India and other disaster-ravaged countries would suffer even more than they already have.