An unusually broad range of Christian leaders met on the eve of the Presidents' Summit on America's Future in April. During the Philadelphia meeting, they refocused their attention on coordinating the church's response to the poor and federal attempts to reform the malfunctioning welfare system.

"The Church Steps Forward: A Christian Roundtable on Poverty and Welfare Reform" was convened by the Call to Renewal, a group that aims to revitalize Christian approaches to social activism and evangelical outreach.

"This has been probably the most religiously diverse gathering of the Christian community to address the issue of poverty, certainly within this decade," said Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. About 50 mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, evangelical, and minority church leaders attended.

Although many participants applauded the group's diverse makeup, Yvonne Delk, executive director of the Community Renewal Society in Chicago, challenged participants to make more room at the table by inviting more women and minorities—along with poor people themselves. "We have to stop talking about poor people," Delk said, "and start talking with them."

The round-table participants expended little energy in decrying the new welfare reform law. Rather, they shifted the focus from welfare to poverty and set aside their familiar theological and political differences.

"When a hurricane is coming and you are passing sandbags, you don't ask if the person next to you is liberal or conservative," said Jim Wallis, head of the Call to Renewal. A confessional attitude also marked the meeting: a recognition that as long as Christians are divided over how to respond to the plight of the poor, the church is part of the problem and not the solution.

LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS: Under the new welfare law, states will have greater control over benefits, and there are new federal limits on how long people may receive benefits.

In addition, the new charitable choice provision makes it possible for churches and other faith-based organizations to bid on government contracts to provide social service without sacrificing their religious identity (CT, April 7, 1997, p. 46). The group engaged in frank discussions of charitable choice, even though some Christian leaders believe it violates the separation of church and state.

Under charitable choice, states may not discriminate against churches or religious nonprofits when contracting for the provision of social services. Opponents of charitable choice believe it will not survive a constitutional challenge and that it inappropriately provides state money to religious organizations.

Attendees also discussed the option of a voucher system. Under such a system, persons who qualify for social services would receive vouchers and could then choose a social provider, including faith-based organizations.

Some speakers stressed that pressure must be put on the federal government to take actions to ameliorate some of the harsher aspects of last year's welfare reform. Such measures would include: restoring some benefits eliminated for legal immigrants; maintaining funding for nutrition programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children; and passing the Hatch-Kennedy bill, which would provide vouchers to states to buy private health insurance to cover poor children.

BEYOND THE POLICY DEBATE: Wallis, editor of Sojourners, has been transformed from an antiwar and social-justice activist to a coalition builder who is reaching out to people as diverse as Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, and Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Without changing his commitment to social justice, Wallis is calling for a united church front to the social and spiritual issues plaguing American society, searching for broad interests where there might be common ground. He says he hopes to move beyond "the old, tired debate over welfare reform to the deeper and more biblical agenda of overcoming poverty in this nation."

Participant David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, commented at the conclusion of the round table that grassroots workers "who are assisting poor people on a day-to-day basis are dealing with the 'liberal issues' of no money [and] also dealing with the 'conservative issues' of violence and drugs and family breakdown." Beckmann believes such individuals have an important vision for holistic ministry.

Samuel B. Casey, executive director of the evangelical Christian Legal Society, said of the round table: "I think the sessions were conducted in a spirit of worship, praise, and willingness to listen to each other's point of view, although no definite commitments were sought nor received from delegates other than a willingness to meet. Without being muscled, we were able to reach consensus on a number of issues."

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