Obama’s going to get a lot of flack about the “faith-based initiatives” announcement he plans to make today, as part of his major speech about faith. He gets 100% support from ME, because I believe this is a fundamentally African-American perspective.
I’ll pause here to apologize. I meant to start this project talking about sexism, but then my life went a little haywire – my dad and his wife, both chronically ill, needed my attention, and then my stepmother died – and while I will soon make an Obama Project post about her, I’ve not had the heart to do it just yet. In the meantime, this issue has caught my attention, because it brings home for me how much like my Dad Sen. Obama is.
African-Americans are considered to be much more conservative than much of the democratic party, and in my own personal experience, I find this to be true. Attitudinally, I’m one of those conservative minded folk. I find it liberating to be divorced from political parties, because it forces me to truly vote my conscience, and not according to partisan agendas. At least one reason why African Americans are so conservative is because of our rootedness in our religious experience. Perhaps Obama was thinking of the African American experience when he talked about people clinging to religion – black folks do so to a large extent – and to the extent that we do, the community hangs together, and when we lose that binding tie – we fall apart. For African Americans – religion has been the portal to freedom and progress across the board. Churches acted as stations in the Underground Railroad. Biblical passages acted as beacons of hope in the stride toward freedom. Preachers railed about injustice through the generations – Martin Luther King is just the most famous – not the first or only example of this… and Malcolm X, though he was of another faith, was yet another example of the expectation of blacks that faith would be an active force in today’s world, not just in the promise of a better hereafter.
Community activism therefore, frequently began and ended at the church – and in a disgraceful crisis of black male absence from religious life, the way to attract black men to faith has been in to assure them that they were not going to be passive waiters on God’s Accomplishment, but active instruments of God’s Will. If they could pray, and then get up and sign up 50 new voters, or march on Washington, or city hall, or whatever – men could believe that there was something worthwhile in Faith. Obama came to faith in this way – a trajectory that isn’t uncommon in the black community.
My dad was also a community organizer. Raised Christian, having taken a turn with Islam, and having been for a while a Black Panther (original black panther), community activism was the hallmark of his life for most of mine. And while many would suppose that a former Black Panther would be against anything “white” – when I was old enough to observe my dad in action – one of his biggest allied organization was Catholic Charities – the Catholic church in his community ran a homeless shelter/soup kitchen/day care center/etc. My dad worked with them to find funding, ran his own community service center in which he processed clients and referred them to Catholic Charities, etc. Funding that became available through Lyndon Johnson dried up under Reagan, and took a considerable toll on his efforts as a small community organizer – and therefore on the community in which he served.
Looking at my dad’s example, I know that increased funding to charitable organizations – including religious ones, would have been a boon to the community. My dad lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, we called it ‘Do-or-Die Bed-Stuy” – which should give you a good idea of just how rough a neighborhood it is. A community full of people falling through the cracks… the homeless who aren’t homeless enough to be counted as such, the kids being left to raise themselves as their parents struggle through addiction, the abandoned buildings that serve as tax shelters to whomever owns them but refuse to actually develop them (leaving the crack addicts to make these places their homes), etc… these aren’t problems government can fix alone – these are problems that absolutely require a partnership between the local community and the government.
My dad is now disabled, and I’ve been spending the last few weeks running around trying to get him situated with social services. The bureaucracy involved is unbelievable. Many reading this post will be squeezed, as I am, between children and parents needing care. But not many will be dealing with a parent who misses qualifying for medicaid by $24.00. Not many will be struggling to figure out if HEAP and Section 8 will meet his need to survive on a budget of $769.00/month. Not many will be banging their heads against a brick wall trying to get themselves established as the designated payee by social security for a parent who has short term memory loss, mild dementia, and is surrounded (and possibly influenced) by crack-addicts who know when his social security check arrives in the mail. The bureaucracy that is absolutely necessary to ensure that our government services are being used appropriately – is in the way of the real person who needs help. Local charitable organizations, including religious ones could help immensely – because being closer to the ground they are more able to make real assessments, and not rely on guidelines set in abstract.
This perspective – one that rather disproportionately affects African Americans, is one that Obama has, first hand, as a community organizer from the South Side of Chicago. I have no doubt that he’s seen this kind of problem first hand, over and over… and I have no doubt that this is what drives his decision to continue, and even expand, the faith-based policy that Bush established, while his personal eclectic background gives me confidence that he will genuinely apply the principles – it won’t be a “Christians only” kind of thing.
As a Baha’i, commitment to service is absolutely a fundamental of the Faith. Much of the Faith’s efforts are wholly self-funded – only Baha’is are able to contribute to Baha’i funds. That said – there have been a number of initiatives Baha’is have been involved in that have extended beyond the Faith and reached out in partnership with government and/or interfaith groups. These would benefit from funding from Faith-Based initiatives – and I believe these would have truly transformative influence on the communities where they are based.