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Archive for Thursday, June 28, 2001

Philly mayor makes faith connections

June 28, 2001

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— John Street, 57, began coming to this city as a boy to go to church on Sundays, African American churches being scarce near his family's farm. Now, as mayor, he has made Philadelphia the foremost laboratory for what President Bush calls "faith-based initiatives" involving religious organizations in the delivery of social services. "It isn't," he says matter-of-factly, "a new thing."

Neither is he. There is gray in his beard but energy in his step and the cadence of his conversation is brisk. After going to a Seventh Day Adventist college in Alabama, he came back to Temple law school, became a political activist and served 19 years on the city council before being elected the city's second African-American mayor in 1999.

The first such mayor, Wilson Goode, became a Baptist minister after leaving office in 1992. A wholesome entanglement of religious institutions and civic life is traditional in this city where the Constitution was written. The tradition is becoming deeper during Street's tenure.

Every day approximately 20,000 students 10,000 from below eighth grade are unexcused absentees from among Philadelphia's 214,000 public school students. "No matter the condition of the schools," he says, "they're better off in them than out." So the plan is for every absent student's household to receive a taped call from the mayor his voice noting the child's absence, and for volunteers from faith-based organizations to contact the family within 24 hours.

"By the end of the year," he promises, "every school" Philadelphia has 259 "will be adopted by a faith-based organization." It is, he says, better for the neighborhoods to bring faith-based organizations to the schools than to bring the children to the organizations. If militant secularists challenge that in court? "I might," he says serenely, "have to go back into the courtroom."

Last New Year's Day he took 120 clergy to the four prisons run by the city. There are approximately 7,000 prisoners, and 80 percent of them have some addiction. Street wants faith-based institutions to monitor the prisoners' children and to contact everyone released from prison.

In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson wrote of "transports of Patience." A bemused Street seems to experience something like that when mildly deflecting the sort of objections that Washington's litigious and ideologically prickly factions are raising to faith-based initiatives.

Is he worried that the message of the faith-based groups will be diluted by collaboration with government? No, and neither, he says, are the clergy: "Our message is simple: the city loves you and wants to help you."

Is he worried that litigation will arise from faith-based institutions discriminating in hiring in favor of those who share their faith? Hardly. He laughs, "I'd love to have that problem. We probably haven't done enough hiring."

He is not worried about the Constitution's mandate of a strict separation of church and state because there is no such mandate, and he is not worried about the groups (e.g., People for the American Way, etc.) who discern constitutionally forbidden "establishment" of religion in every contact between religion and government. "The worriers," he says, "do not have responsibility for doing things."

When asked if the city's problems would be largely solved if the economy boomed, he curtly replies, "It has boomed, and it hasn't solved the problems." Much urban poverty is resistant to economic growth because it is rooted not in material deficits but in intangible deficits of the habits, mores, values and dispositions necessary for thriving in an urban society. Hence, he says, the value of getting people "involved in a structured religious experience."

His voice rising, he says, "Every day children are being limited. They need music, dance, chess, all kinds of enrichment. Who's going to do it? The people arguing about constitutional niceties aren't going to roll up their sleeves and do it." Street is too busy "to worry about what some judge might say about what we can or cannot do."

About 10 years ago he approached some teen-agers playing basketball on a playground. First, he established his basketball credentials with one of them "I took him to school." Then he asked if the boys had ever had any dealings with the church down the street. The boys said sure the churchgoers parked on their court on Sunday, and complained about the boys' noise. "That," Street recalls disgustedly, "was the quality of interaction between a faith-based organization and the community."

Such organizations, he says, shouldn't be "challenged and beaten back every time they think of doing something." That is Street-smarts, Philadelphia style.




George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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