President Bush's faith-based initiative emphasis has brought howls and hurrahs. Opponents fear it will mix church with state. Supporters claim faith-based programs often are more effective than secular counterparts.
The issues and questions are many. How can the federal government legally support religious organizations? Do faith-based programs really work?
The government already accommodates religion when it supports groups like the Salvation Army in social service work, so certain legal barriers are not insurmountable. But are faith-based programs effective?
Consider one example. Watergate felon Charles Colson emerged from federal prison to form Prison Fellowship, now the world's largest prison ministry. Richard Nixon's former hatchetman had done a spiritual about face.
Prison Fellowship focuses on transforming prisoners through personal faith. In his new book, Justice That Restores, Colson describes the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a prison his group has run in Texas for two and one-half years. In IFI, the state provides the facilities, correctional officers and food while Prison Fellowship runs the program.
IFI prisoners pray, study the Bible, work meaningful jobs and learn life-skills such as developing responsibility to their families, employers and communities. They discover that regardless of their crime, they can find forgiveness and inner strength through faith. As one early believer wrote, all who receive Christ's forgiveness "become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!"
One IFI inmate even declined early release to complete the program. Volunteers and churches help prisoners and their families resolve conflicts, find spiritual support groups and line up jobs.
Early results look encouraging. At the time of Colson's writing, of released inmates completing the entire eighteen-month program, only one had reoffended. Of over one hundred released inmates who had participated in at least part of the program (even if only a few weeks), only eight had been rearrested. Recent news reports contrast IFI's 3 percent recidivism rate with Texas' 40 percent.
A 1997 National Institute for Healthcare Research study compared recidivism rates for New York prisoners attending ten or more Prison Fellowship Bible study meetings with a matched control group. Control group recidivism was 41 percent; for the Bible study participants, 14 percent.
Ron Flowers spent fourteen years in prison denying his guilt for a crime in which Mrs. Washington's daughter died. During his participation in IFI, he began to pray for Mrs. Washington, who annually opposed Ron's release on parole. Shocked to learn from her pastor, an IFI volunteer, that Ron was in a Christian program, she agreed to meet him.
Mrs. Washington explained to Ron that since her daughter's death she had lost her son to drugs and AIDS and her husband to a stroke. She was all alone. Ron confessed his crime, his remorse and his desire to change. Mrs. Washington forgave him, attended his IFI graduation, embraced him and announced that he was now her "adopted" son. She used a donated gift to help Ron adjust to society. The two continued to meet, Mrs. Washington helping her daughter's killer grow in faith.
Some sympathizers of faith-based initiatives fear they may breed dependence on government funding, entanglement in government regulations or declining donor support. Faith leaders admit these are legitimate concerns, but feel the benefits are too substantial to ignore.
In light of Texas' InnerChange Freedom Initiative and Ron Flower's transformation, faith-based programs certainly deserve a close look.
Rusty Wright is an author and university lecturer who has spoken on six continents. "Real Answers™" furnished courtesy of The Amy Foundation Internet Syndicate. To contact the author or The Amy Foundation, write or E-mail to: P. O. Box 16091, Lansing, MI 48901-6091;
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