Dallas, Dec. 3-(RNS) In an unprecedented effort to jump-start its faith-based initiative, the White House sent a team to the president's home state last week to brief more than 2,000 grass-roots religious activists on the millions of dollars in government grants available to America's faith-based organizations.

Keynoting the opening session of the 13th annual national conference of the Christian Community Development Association, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez encouraged attendees to apply for federal grants for their programs.

Representatives from the offices of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in HUD and the departments of Health and Human Services, Justice, Education and Labor echoed the message in panel discussions and small-group meetings with conference attendees. "Since most faith-based agencies are not set up to receive the large federal grants, we are working to reduce the size of the grants, reduce the paperwork, provide assistance and pass the word to the other government agencies at the federal, state and local levels that faith-based agencies need to be included in the `community base' of organizations considered for these grants," said Brent Orrell, the Labor Department's faith-based and community initiatives director.

Only about 15 percent of available grants are offered directly from the federal level, and 85 percent are awarded to states, which then make grants at the local level, he said. But Cheryl W. Appline, wearing two hats--as director of HUD's faith-based office and as a member of the CCDA national board--was quick to tell her small-group meetings that the White House officials weren't there to announce "`new money,' but as a goodwill effort toward eliminating the barriers and leveling the playing field for receiving existing grant money."

HHS Special Assistant Cathy Deeds reminded her audience that different grants have different criteria, but "you can't use the grants to build a church, require church attendance or proselytize."

Appline said she assured her groups, "You can compete with everyone for the funds without giving up who you are, what you do and how you do it. You don't have to change your name, or take the crosses down from your walls and the fish off your business cards."

Orrell said the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 stipulating that grantees cannot hire on the basis of religion is not retroactive, so hiring procedures before the act became effective are exempt. He said many faith-based organizations can divide their program so that divisions that come under the grant guidelines can receive funds and the divisions that do not qualify for the funds can remain separate. "Spiritual capital is economic capital--empowering because it provides more than assistance, it demands change," Orrell said. "Matching the bureaucracy of big government money to the small, uncomplicated, faith-based outreach that moves from small specific to small specific is challenging," he said. "My view is that we are in the position of following them instead of leading them; faith-based organizations have more to teach us."

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