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Christian Community Development Association
National Conference

Remarks prepared for delivery by
Secretary Mel Martinez

Dallas, Texas
Thursday, November 29, 2001

Thank you for your very generous welcome. John, I appreciate those kind words of introduction. Under Dr. Perkins' leadership, the Christian Community Development Association has grown from 37 founding organizations to more than 500 today, reaching into 32 states. All in just eleven years!

Obviously, America's communities are hungering for the message of Christian compassion that forms the foundation - the heart - of your work

I am honored to join you here. And I am glad for the opportunity to share some thoughts on the President's plan to inspire new acts of charity by embracing the spiritual caretakers of our communities.

Before I go any further, I want to recognize Wayne Gordon for the principled leadership he has brought to the CCDA as your president. Thank you, Wayne. I also want to thank Kathy Dudley for her work as host of this conference and president of the Dallas Leadership Foundation.

Our prayers are with Dr. Bailey. He has been a strong voice in the city of Dallas, and I know how much you want him back at work.

Thank you to the Dallas Leadership Foundation Host Committee. Also, let me acknowledge the many corporate supporters who are helping to make this conference possible. President Bush has called on corporate America "to give more and to give better," and I am delighted that you are.

Finally, I commend all the members of the CCDA. As caretakers of our communities who struggle to touch the lives of society's most vulnerable, you each have a special place in my heart, and maybe you will better understand my passion for your work when I explain why.

It is a tremendous honor, and very humbling, to serve a President who has such an unwavering faith. At a time when the strength of the world is being tested, Americans have said over and over that having George W. Bush in the White House at this moment is a great comfort.

There is no doubt about the source of his inner strength. He is a spiritual man who begins each Cabinet meeting with a prayer. He is a compassionate man who grieved openly for the victims of the terrorist attacks. He is a family man who calls his wife "the calming influence" in his life, a sentiment I can appreciate, because my own wife Kitty has been an equally profound influence in mine.

I am not surprised at all that President Bush is reaching out to those with faith in abundance and embracing their work - people like the folks who run the Washington, DC soup kitchen he and I visited last week.

So Others Might Eat is actually more than a soup kitchen. They do provide 800 meals, twice each day, to the hungry. But they also give them medical care, and shelter them, counsel them, treat their addictions, and keep them clothed.

As we walked through the kitchen where volunteers were making lunch, and had the opportunity to talk with them about their work, I thought about a piece of advice St. Francis of Assisi offered: "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."

These people preach the gospel every day - with their hands and their hearts, and with very few words at all.

The same compassionate spirit that breathes life into So Others Might Eat has been echoed across the country by the faith community since the September terrorist attacks. Immediately afterwards, you were there to offer physical and spiritual nourishment to a shell-shocked nation.

Two of your members - World Vision, and Concerts of Prayer of Greater New York - helped mobilize churches to serve and support those who lost loved ones. Together, they established the "American Families Assistance Fund." Donations are helping families meet the immediate costs of funerals, counseling, and other expenses, and the fund will provide long-term support, too.

Last week, volunteers at the "Here's Life Inner City" mission prepared Thanksgiving boxes stuffed with turkey, canned vegetables, beverages, and even pumpkin pie. These 16,000 boxes went to feed the "hidden victims" of the war we now find ourselves fighting, like the men and women who lost their jobs cleaning the offices of the World Trade Center or working in its shops and restaurants.

Motivated by faith, congregations and community organizations across this country are helping strangers in remarkable ways. You have prompted an outpouring of charity like we have never seen before in America. This did not originate with the federal government: it came directly from the hearts of people like you on the grassroots level, often working through their churches and other houses of worship.

Now imagine the number of lives we could change - and the impact we could have on this generation and those to come - if we could magnify these acts of compassion a hundredfold. This is why President Bush is reaching out to America's faith-based community, with a plan built around this very dream.

The President's plan and the CCDA itself both originated from a simple idea: the belief that our best chance to ease suffering is to tackle it from within, by breaking through racial, ethnic, and economic barriers and coming together as neighbors concerned for one another and the health of our communities. The most creative solutions are found closest to home. The leaders most committed to putting those solutions to work are part of the community and understand the challenge.

Let me quote from the President, who spoke passionately on this subject in a speech at the University of Notre Dame: "Compassion often works best on a small and human scale. It is generally better when a call for help is local, not long distance."

It is not a lack of compassion that keeps communities from answering that call. Our cities are overflowing with compassion. The problem is that government is standing in the way. Washington can and must do more to promote new acts of charity in our communities, especially at a time when charity is the only thing some people have to hang onto.

On its own, a family in crisis does not stand much chance of being noticed within the gigantic Washington bureaucracy. When government is focused on only the big picture, individual lives can get overlooked. But the federal government's weakness is your strength. Instead of dealing with 281 million lives, the men and women on the local level who minister to those in need work right in our neighborhoods, on our blocks.

Yes, the federal government has a role, and a solemn responsibility to help meet the needs of poor Americans. When someone in need turns to the government, however, the response is usually faceless, even though true compassion demands that we take that person's hand and look them in the eye. So our best hope of serving those who have nowhere else to turn is for the federal government to work in partnership with our community caretakers.

In January, President Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and charged it with lifting up this nation's charitable service organizations and encouraging their good works. We need the President's approach because many faith-based and community-based organizations that seek to partner with the federal government feel excluded and discriminated against.

And they have been.

The roadblocks include outright bias, arbitrary and burdensome regulations, and general confusion over the way the federal government has addressed the separation of church and state. The bigger and better-funded organizations have had an easier time, because they have lawyers to handle the legal work and staff to manage the paperwork. But these barriers prevent HUD and other federal agencies from expanding our partnerships with America's smaller faith-based groups.

For example, there is tremendous confusion when it comes to deciding whether a group is "too religious" to qualify for federal funding. If HUD decides that a group is "too religious," that group will not receive a grant. Unfortunately, the terms that HUD uses to make that decision have never been clearly defined by any court in the land, or even by HUD itself. Some groups that deserve to be funded never get a chance to participate.

A faith-based group can improve its chances of receiving a grant if they minimize the role of faith in their work.

This is difficult to understand - the very reason so many faith-based groups are successful is the fact that they are tied to their work by their faith. Involvement with HUD, however, has forced groups to water down their message and mask their religious nature, which dilutes their effectiveness and is not constitutionally required.

There have been occasions where groups rooted in faith wanted to participate in HUD funding - until they were told they would qualify for a grant only if they revised their mission statement to edit out any references to God. Such demands are heartbreaking and unnecessary.

Instead of fearing faith, the government ought to embrace and encourage the good work of faith in our society. Local charitable programs should be judged on one central question: do they work? If they do, and if they happen to work in part because they are anchored in faith, then as the President put it, "the government ought to say 'hallelujah.'"

Another problem we found is that HUD has not applied its regulations with a single, definable standard. Too often, these inconsistencies result in the "case-by-case determination," a response that insures often unfair - and always unequal - treatment.

A decade ago, HUD enacted rules prohibiting the organizations we fund from posting religious symbols, like crosses. Those rules were on the books for less than a year before being repealed and replaced by broader language banning so-called "religious influences." Even so, the perception still exists that an organization has to remove all religious symbols from the room when performing government-funded services - even though we would all agree that the presence of a religious symbol has nothing to do with how well an organization performs any given service.

But looking to the bigger picture, that interpretation goes far beyond anything mandated by the Constitution.

Despite good intentions and decades of outreach, the fact remains that in the past, HUD discouraged the active involvement of America's community of faith in lifting up our neighbors.

This must change - and under the leadership of President Bush, it will.

The President's faith-based plan is critical, especially now that we are engaged in a war we did not seek. The nation's charities are straining to provide disaster relief at the same time they continue to serve the less fortunate. I am troubled by reports that charitable giving is on the decline. The President's plan provides a bridge by stimulating giving through tax incentives. It will help eliminate federal discrimination against organizations that provide faith-based work.

The President has called on Congress to pass a bill that he can sign into law before Christmas. This would be a wonderful holiday gift to the nation.

While the legislation is important, my staff is recommending specific steps we can take within HUD immediately to break down the barriers to faith-based groups. I know that we can streamline our regulations and allow you to retain your independence and your religious identity, while not running afoul of the Constitutional issues of separation of church and state.

The fact that I am standing here today - a refugee from Cuba, richly blessed by the goodness of strangers, who now serves in the Cabinet of an American president - is a testament to the power of faith. I have seen for myself the wonderful way in which faith motivates people to open their hearts. I want every child, every man, and every woman who reaches out a hand in search of a lifeline, to find the same love that carried me into this country as a frightened teenager.

You remember, of course, the story of Esther. She became queen of the Persian Empire while just a teenager herself. Her people were scattered, threatened with destruction. Esther was called to risk her life to save them, but she drew back, until her cousin conveyed to her this message: "Who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"

There is a lesson for us in the story of Esther, one that parallels the situation we find ourselves in today.

Our nation has been handed tremendous challenges in the wake of the terrorist attacks. But a window of opportunity has been opened to us as well. We know that these difficult events have generated a spiritual reawakening and a new commitment to prayer. We see that Americans are hungering for both spiritual nourishment and a way to reach beyond their own lives to touch the life of somebody else.

We can feed that hunger, but it will demand a new way of thinking.

This Administration is willing to change, so that you do not have to. We are committed to tearing down old walls and transforming America. We encourage you to unite with us. There may never be a moment like this again, and I ask you to consider the possibility that God has brought us to this point for this very purpose.

This is a new chapter in our history. Let us write it as partners, joined together "for such a time as this."

Thank you, and may God continue to bless you and your work.

Content Archived: March 11, 2010

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