Strange bedfellows #1: John DiIulio (di-YULE-ee-oh) was the first in his family to attend college. Moreover, he was the one in a million to escape his ethnic working-class neighborhood in South Philadelphia to become a political science professor—at Princeton, of all places, an Ivy League university that exudes tradition and quiet dignity. DiIulio still talks with a regular-guy accent. He dresses like a building inspector. As a Princeton colleague told the New Yorker's James Traub in a comment that tells on both DiIulio and Princeton, "He loves playing the South Philadelphia thug made good."
Strange bedfellows #2: John DiIulio, a certified academic superstar, writes op-ed pieces for the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds posts at leading think tanks. If you take American Government 101, you stand a fair chance of using DiIulio's textbook. Lately, however, he spends considerable amounts of time hanging out with black preachers from the toughest neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Boston. In his car, he listens to tapes of his favorite 84-year-old African-American Pentecostal minister, Benjamin Smith. He has, in fact, listened to Ben Smith so much that he can do a fair imitation of his preaching riffs.
Strange bedfellows #3: Consider the Italian-American Catholic who attended parochial schools, yet rarely, after he left home, attended church. Think of a man who grew up with nuns yet never, ever talked about religion with his friends. Now imagine him convening white evangelical Christians the likes of Gary Bauer and Jim Wallis, along with Ron Sider and Ralph Reed and Charles Colson, trying to cajole them, inspire them, shame them for God's sake to band together in a religious coalition to help the inner-city poor. How can it be that a former South Philly altar boy preaches to the white evangelicals?
DiIulio has written lots of serious stuff about how to make government bureaucracies work. Here is the sort of thing he is likely to write these days (in a review of a book by Harvard's Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom that appeared in National Review):
The evidence is growing that the only people who are now doing something to make inner-city blacks part of "one nation, indivisible," are those who seek "one nation, under God, indivisible." Although I doubt that any other card-carrying social scientist would even think to fault the authors for such a sin of omission, the most important missing endnote to America in Black and White is a reference to the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
DiIulio is on a mission for America's inner cities. He believes with all his social-scientist heart that the path to effective change in the rotting urban core runs through gospel-centered churches and faith-based ministries. He is preaching this message not only to white evangelicals, but to foundations, corporations, think tanks, parole officers, mayors, and anybody else who will stand still to listen.
From Philly cheese steak to filet mignon
DiIulio's father was a deputy sheriff in Philadelphia, a position that DiIulio describes as "a low-pay job you got because you were a good precinct captain." Urban Democratic politics were in the family blood. When DiIulio was in high school, his father announced that he wanted to run for sheriff, and that he wanted his son for campaign manager. DiIulio, Sr., had no chance of getting elected, but he thought he could knock out a despised incumbent. He also thought the campaign would be good experience for a son fascinated by politics. The father-son team polled only "eight, ten thousand votes," according to DiIulio. They did, however, unseat the incumbent.
At the time, DiIulio was taking three buses each way for his daily commute from home in Southwest Philadelphia to Haverford, a prestigious Philadelphia prep school. He had attended neighborhood Catholic schools through the eighth grade, but for high school he was offered a scholarship to a wasp world previously outside his acquaintance. The school, he told the Pennsylvania Gazette, meant "total culture shock." The other boys didn't talk or dress like he did, except for the regulation school tie. His father pushed him to try it, though DiIulio says he had only the foggiest idea what he would gain from such an education. He expected to join the marines after graduation, or to get a construction job.
When he got ready to graduate, though, he found that everybody at Haverford went on to college. DiIulio decided to try that track. Still commuting from home, he went to the University of Pennsylvania, first for his bachelor's degree, then for his master's. He began to see that going to school was "a lot better than outside work."
While at Penn, DiIulio served another stint as campaign manager. This time his father got nearly 30,000 votes, from which he concluded, DiIulio says, that college had made his son three times smarter. They were allied with Philadelphia's first black mayoral candidate, Charles Bowser. "It was kind of an honest-to-goodness grassroots Rainbow Coalition," DiIulio remembers, which brought him into his first close contact with Philadelphia's African-American community.
"Pretty much what I had known about the city's African-American population was cast in terms of problems—problems of drugs, problems of crime, problems of poverty. We went to the black churches in the city, and although a lot of it was rankly political, I saw some of the most healthy, vibrant communities I'd ever seen in my life—a healthier environment than the community in which I myself lived. You could drive through central Philadelphia and see neighborhoods that looked like bombed-out Lebanon. But if you noticed the churches, and you went inside the churches, and you talked to the people, there was this whole other world."
DiIulio did nothing with this information but remember it. He went to graduate school at Harvard, studying with James Q. Wilson, a leading social scientist. DiIulio was offered a job at Princeton, and then, at the tender age of 30, tenure. He had become an academic wunderkind on the strength of his ability to assimilate vast amounts of academic data, and to write it up in a clear, persuasive style.
DiIulio made a speciality of prisons, a neglected subject that had sudden currency as crime and punishment found their way to the top of American concerns. He joined the debate by contending that locking up criminals actually reduced crime. He publicly disagreed with those who claimed that American prisons were stuffed with nonviolent offenders who would be better off in halfway houses or on parole. Most prisoners had committed a series of felonies, often violent, that led to prison, DiIulio said. Letting them out on parole was a very good recipe for more violent crime.
DiIulio's work mostly put him on the law-and-order side of the debate, lending a scholarly depth to the arguments of those who instinctively felt that America was growing soft on crime (and soft on a lot else, too). He made headlines warning that America could be inundated by a new wave of "super-predators"—young criminals who were remorseless, violent, and virtually impossible to reach. For that, he got branded a racist reactionary by some of his academic colleagues.
There is no doubt that DiIulio has drifted away from his urban Democrat roots. He writes regularly for the conservative National Review and the Weekly Standard. He coauthored Body Count with former federal drug czar William Bennett. Don't count on DiIulio as a reliable conservative, though. He has never been interested in the triumph of the Republican party, and his position on issues is hard to predict. He believes in tough sentencing, for example, but he doesn't believe in capital punishment. He hates and fears what welfare reform is doing to poor children and opines that African Americans often believe the system is stacked against them because, in fact, it is frequently stacked against them.
Furthermore, DiIulio has moved on from debates about prisons and parole. His single-minded concern today is in helping faith-based ministries to thrive in the inner cities of America. He'll stick to anybody, Republican or Democrat, who shares that passion.
God is in the details
The way DiIulio likes to tell the story, he got to faith-based ministry strictly by following the data. He was genuinely troubled by urban crime and knew prisons and police could only limit the damage, not eliminate it. Was there a way to influence young men before they got in trouble—to dry up crime at its sources?
DiIulio began to study neighborhoods. He noticed a strong correlation between the number of liquor stores in a neighborhood and its crime rate. He began wondering whether there were positive influences as well—churches, for instance. Looking through the vast literature of inner-city sociology, he found that not much had been done on churches. What data did exist, however, drove DiIulio toward the conclusion that faith-based ministries make a powerful difference.
He cites, for example, a 1985 study by Harvard economist Richard Freeman that found that young black males from poor inner-city neighborhoods were more likely to escape poverty and less likely to be involved in crime if they went to church regularly. (A follow-up study by David Larson of the National Institute for Healthcare Research found that churchgoing cut crime and other life risks by 50 percent.)
He cites another Larson study showing that if a felon had attended Prison Fellowship Bible studies, his chances of being arrested again within a year of his release dropped sharply—by two-thirds! A Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America study found that youngsters matched with mentors are 46 percent less likely to use drugs, 27 percent less likely to begin drinking, one-third less likely to commit assault, and half as likely to skip school.
A study of inner-city congregations in six metropolitan areas found that 91 percent were actively involved in programs serving the larger community.
That is how DiIulio likes to tell it, pure dispassionate social science. He admits, though, that he cannot separate his interest in the data from his interest in God. For reasons unclear to himself, DiIulio had begun going to church more regularly. After his third child was born, he attended Sunday mass frequently. For the first time in his life he began to listen to what was said.
Then, when he began poking around inner-city Philadelphia churches, he met 80-year-old Benjamin Smith, Pentecostal pastor of Deliverance Evangelistic Church. "Do you believe in love at first sight?" DiIulio remembers. "This is a man of God. If he ain't it, it don't exist."
Smith had built a thriving church in a gritty urban neighborhood where old Connie Mack Stadium had stood. When other churches were moving out of the city, Smith had moved further in. DiIulio met younger black men who revered Smith, inner-city pastors like Eugene Rivers of Boston who said they owed everything to Smith's ministry on the streets.
It came to a head on Palm Sunday, 1996. DiIulio was sitting in church with his family when he suddenly realized that the inner city was his life's calling. He had been exploring it somewhat nervously, he says, unsure where he was heading. From that Palm Sunday on he knew that he was in it for good.
This despite his experience that, as he wrote in a review of William F. Buckley's Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, "Nothing raises secular elite hackles, suspicions, and whispers quite like a well-educated, well-positioned person expressing deep religious faith without temporizing or apologizing for it."
DiIulio calls himself a "born-again Catholic." Last year at Princeton he taught a seminar in urban at-risk youth; he had his guest speakers open each class in prayer. He was raised to believe that males don't talk about their faith, but he has gotten over that, somewhat aggressively.
He quit his job directing the Brookings Center for Public Management. He wanted to quit Princeton, but got talked out of it. Don't be too hasty, his academic colleagues said. His new-found ministry colleagues, too, urged him not to throw away such an influential position. Instead, DiIulio took a leave from Princeton, with minimal teaching duties. He has only recently returned to regular teaching and seems edgy about being back. He speaks of it as an experiment in whether he can serve two masters.
Through his connection with the foundation known as Public/Private Ventures, DiIulio launched a new organization called Partnership for Research on Religion and At-Risk Youth, or PRRAY. It is devoted to helping inner-city ministries, through research, fundraising, and technical assistance. DiIulio has also teamed up with the Manhattan Institute think tank to start something called the Jeremiah Project, with somewhat similar intentions. DiIulio is a natural in the world of think tanks, foundations, and policy institutes—alien territory for most people involved in inner-city ministry. The ignorance works both ways, of course: not many urban policy analysts seem to have been to a shouting, black Pentecostal service lately.
Though he vigorously opposed the 1996 welfare reform bill, fearing for the lives of children whose benefits would be cut off, he was a strong advocate of "charitable choice," the provision allowing government agencies to work with religious institutions providing services like drug rehabilitation or after-school tutoring. He wants to break down the bias against government's funding of church programs. He favors vouchers for Christian schools. In many blighted neighborhoods, he says, churches are the only positive institutions left.
Government sponsorship isn't the half of it. He wants corporations and foundations to start putting money into programs run by inner-city churches. And he wants Christians who dwell in suburban America to become partners with inner-city ministries. Nobody and nothing else, he believes—no welfare reform, no drug policy, no free-enterprise zones or school reforms, no Marshall Plan for the ghetto—can do what faith-based ministries are already doing and can do with more resources.
Wanted: Caring, Christian adults
Bear in mind that DiIulio is a skilled program analyst who reads statistical regressions like most people read the comics. He knows he will have to use statistics if he wants governments and foundations and corporations to do their part in helping inner-city children. A lot more research needs to be done to show the effectiveness of faith-based ministries.
In the meantime, though, DiIulio isn't holding back. He has seen something he's sure of. It's basically simple. It involves putting caring and committed adults close to the lives of at-risk youth. These people must have the religious faith to motivate them to care—it's not just a job, it's a mission—and they must have the religious faith to believe that the young person can really change.
"If you say to me, 'We're going to take your kids away, and we're going to put them in these neighborhoods. You can't get them back. There's nothing you can do for them. Here are your choices: You can have a new juvenile crime bill [and] you can have a 17.2 percent increase in the Philadelphia public school budget. Or, there are going to be two adults in the neighborhood where your kids are going to live who are going to take a personal interest in seeing that they're safe, that they're fed, that they attend school, that they try to read books, and that at the end of the day, if at all possible, your kids will be able to get jobs. These two people will encourage them, if not require them, to go to church.' Which would you take? I'd take the two people. I'd take them in a heartbeat. I don't think anybody in their right mind would take anything other than that."
DiIulio says that in every inner-city community he has investigated, there are faith-based ministries operating effectively on a shoestring. They approach things differently from the way other organizations do, he says. "Every treatment modality known to psychiatry, psychology, or social work begins with deficit assessment. You come in fatherless, abused; you're illiterate; and they say, 'We're going to help you. You're going to get literacy, and you're going to get counseling, and you're going to talk to your probation officer. Meanwhile, we're not requiring anything of you. You have so many deficits, you have to make so much progress, it will be some time before we ask anything of you.'
"Put that alongside the spiritual outreach approach. It's like a martial arts approach. It takes all the negative force that you bring and flips it around. How? It says to the kid, 'It may be true that you had nobody, but let me tell you something, God loved you, even when you didn't know. When the world hated you, God loved you. And I'm going to tell you something, I love you, and I'm there for you. And I'm going to be there for you. And where am I? Right over there. Right in that basement over there. Right through that door, 24/7/365, that's where you'll find me. I'm not here just for the afternoon, 9 to 5, and when I get promoted, somebody else will come.' "
DiIulio pauses for a moment. He's a fast talker who doesn't always complete his sentences. He gets passionate describing the Christian ministers he has met. "But they're also telling the kid, you gotta start going to school. They apply tough love. That works more often than anything else I've seen.
"I know that most volunteers in this country are people of faith. Most charitable dollars are church dollars. I know all that. But that's not the biggest asset of the Christian community. The biggest asset of the Christian community is Christianity."
Where have all the evangelicals gone?
That's where white evangelicals come into the picture. There aren't many of them in the inner cities of America. Black and Hispanic churches ministering there can be almost overwhelmed. They lack money to pay staff. Their buildings are crumbling. They don't have trained administrators. And their neighborhoods are so deeply troubled by crime, drugs, illiteracy, and broken families that they can't keep up.
That's not to say, DiIulio insists, that urban problems should be overwhelming "for a country in which a majority of Americans profess Christianity, in a country that is experiencing unprecedented affluence and economic growth, in a country where the poverty problem has really shrunk over the past 40 years, including among black Americans. … This is a solvable problem. There's nothing about this that isn't solvable."
He has in mind a Christian coalition meeting three or four times a year to solidify its commitment and to coordinate practical support. It should be, he thinks, broadly based—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox; Pentecostal, mainline, and evangelical. White evangelicals, he believes, must take the lead. They have a sense of mission in America. They most closely share the spiritual heritage of those working effectively in the inner city. And they are the ones inner-city ministers feel most abandoned by.
DiIulio is cautious in talking about this, probably because he has detected how deep the wounds go. "The deepest hurt is felt by inner-city African Americans who have continued to fight the good fight against the odds and yet sense that they've been abandoned or worse by white Christians, fellow Protestants, including denominational cousins or kindred, who have ignored their plight or turned their backs." Despite the bitterness DiIulio has heard, he is sure that such leaders remain eager for reconciliation. And the key must be practical help and cooperation, not talk.
"I want to be sensitive to the fact that these communities have suffered at the hands of secular-driven efforts. One wave after another of, 'Hi, my name is Joe, I'm from the suburbs, I'm from the government, I'm from somewhere else, and I've come to help you.' It's not that we can't provide all kinds of wonderful volunteer efforts. But we first have to take stock of what those communities have, and the power they have within themselves. We don't want to repeat the HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] mistake of believing that these are communities where no one can help themselves, and no one has any capacity, and we're going to have to build it from scratch, and we're going to have to come up with all the ideas.
"I go over to the Gesu School [an inner-city Philadelphia parochial school] once a week. I teach for a couple of hours, take the kids on a spring trip, and go to the graduation. Father Burr, a Jesuit priest, and Sister Allen are both white, but that school has to have a majority of black teachers. People in the community are the preferred providers. They know. They're there. They're identified more easily. Does that mean we shouldn't have people from the suburbs come in and volunteer? Of course it doesn't; we should. Does it mean we should put a whole lot of chips on programs that are primarily led by such people? I would think not. I see the role being to come in in whatever auxiliary capacity you can serve."
DiIulio is well aware that inner-city ministries have their share of shysters. He doesn't encourage indiscriminate support. He simply says: Start to look. See whether you can find someone who's doing the kind of ministry you believe in. Check it out with people who know the neighborhood. Then support it every way you can.
Why can't we all work together?
DiIulio has been meeting with a wide spectrum of evangelical leaders, trying to push them toward a Christian coalition to help the poor. He is not the only one articulating this agenda—Jim Wallis, for one, has been wanting it to happen for a long time—but DiIulio has unusual acceptance across ideological lines.
Harold Dean Trulear, a respected African-American pastor who works with DiIulio at PRRAY, says, "John has been able to develop a level of credibility within the African-American community. … Conversations are happening that would not have happened."
Gary Bauer, who until recently headed the conservative Family Research Council and is now seeking the Republican nomination for President, says, "I have a great deal of confidence in him. … These are things that transcend politics, that go to the core of some of the issues our nation faces."
Ron Sider, head of the more progressive Evangelicals for Social Action, counts DiIulio as the most important intellectual leader in "an absolutely stunning reversal in terms of society's view of religious faith."
Sociologist Tony Campolo says, "He has earned the respect of people in the corporate community who are willing to put up big bucks. He has also earned the respect of activists."
DiIulio has such clout partly because of his credentials. It's unusual to have an academic superstar, a policy analyst, and think-tank veteran talk on the side of religion. Furthermore, DiIulio has the enthusiasm and energy of a convert. "He really gets it," Sider says. "He understands that what evangelicals call conversion is central to change." Coming from an urban Roman Catholic background, "he doesn't fit into any evangelical pigeonholes," as Charles Colson notes, which can be to his advantage in drawing people together.
DiIulio has provoked interest and appreciation among evangelicals, but so far not much initiative on a national scale. And maybe that's okay. "I'm wary of building from the top down," Trulear told me. "Institutions will take a while to move. I'm not disheartened by that." He points to significant local initiatives, in Philadelphia particularly.
DiIulio, however, is looking for more. And Bauer says that he expects breakthroughs before the year is over: "John will be at the core of those." Colson says that "the scandal of evangelicalism is that we all go off and do our own thing. We compete with each other." But, says Colson, "I think [DiIulio] is going to get somewhere. He is the one guy who might have the credibility and the clout to get us working together."
Ironically, DiIulio has received a quicker response outside the Christian community. He has caught the attention of secular media. He has been profiled twice in the New Yorker. Think tanks, corporations, foundations, and policy institutes have begun funding his initiatives.
DiIulio worries about the passage of time. "The attention is here, the media focus is here to some extent, but that's going to pass. What can't pass is our interest in and willingness to push this conversation forward, and to see that conversation results in action."
He thinks of the people who are doing ministry in the inner city—often without any allies beyond what they can scrape up in the ghetto. They are asking, DiIulio says, a poignant question: "Are we the only people in this society who care about these children? Aren't there any Christians?"
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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