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NEWS STORY: Urban `sacred space’ vital in delivering human services

c. 1997 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ For years, tens of thousands of older, once-grand city congregations _ many now with diminished congregations, crumbling steeples and deteriorating interiors _ have been vital community centers, quietly delivering a host of social and human service programs benefitting the public. Generally, these aging churches and synagogues have been […]

c. 1997 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ For years, tens of thousands of older, once-grand city congregations _ many now with diminished congregations, crumbling steeples and deteriorating interiors _ have been vital community centers, quietly delivering a host of social and human service programs benefitting the public.

Generally, these aging churches and synagogues have been taken for granted, their programs assumed as part of the typical urban landscape.

But now, for the first time, researchers say they are able to put a price tag on the value of programs congregations provide for their communities, such as serving breakfast to hungry children before school, providing clothes to the homeless, offering recreational activities for restless youth and offering safe meeting places for recovering alcoholics. On average, each urban congregation provides more than $140,000 a year in subsidies, volunteer hours, clergy support, in-kind services, counseling, health care and meeting space.

And, according to a new study,”Sacred Places at Risk: New Evidence on How Endangered Older Churches and Synagogues Serve Communities,”that figure is more than 15 times what these meeting places and houses of worship receive in return from the users of their space. In fact, the majority of adults and children served by the programs are not even members of the congregations providing the service.

The new study was released Oct. 30 by Partners for Sacred Places, a new non-profit group concerned with the care and use of historic religious properties.”By documenting the resources and subsidies that congregations provide, we hope to increase awareness of the central role America’s older religious properties play in their communities and encourage new philanthropic and public policies to support funding that will keep them in active use and good repair,”said Diane Cohen, co-director of the Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Places.

The 50-page study looked at 113 congregations in six cities _ Chicago; Indianapolis; New York; Philadelphia; Mobile, Ala.; and the San Francisco Bay area.

Researchers discovered congregations provide, on average, four programs serving people in need while operating buildings in dire need of repair. The report said it will cost the average congregation more than $200,000 over the next several years to repair these fragile, aging sacred structures.

The report urges the creation of partnerships to help sustain faith-based social programs and the buildings that house them, but many such linkages, according to supporters of the report, are blocked because of constitutional provisions limiting government support for religious institutions.

The study’s lead researcher, Ram A. Cnaan, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work, found only five of the 113 congregations participating in the study reported receiving federal money _ mainly matching funds.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., speaking at the news conference at which the report was released, said the study shows”religious institutions are helping to save lives as well as souls, providing desperately needed services that the many levels of government do not or cannot muster.” Former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett said the report proves it’s time for the nation to focus on the benefits provided by these religious institutions rather than the issue of the separation of church and state.”Society should not be prejudiced toward what works just because it takes place in a church or temple or a religious community,”said Bennett, co-director of Empower America, a conservative political advocacy organization based in Washington.

Lieberman agreed:”This report can only add to that re-evaluation by demonstrating in no uncertain terms how the churches and synagogues in cities from Boston to Mobile truly are effective forces for the public good, and providing that the only thing we have to fear about these sacred places is their disappearance.”

MJP END HAWKINS