Short on Funding, Long on Vision, Black Churches Take on Education

By Jonathan Weisman — June 12, 1991 13 min read

Detroit--At the Church of the Messiah, not far from a neighborhood of burned-out and looted buildings on this city’s East Side, the Rev. Ron Spann is proclaiming the birth of a movement.

Bolstered by the $125,000 raised by his development director last year, Mr. Spann now oversees a network of summer youth programs, tutoring and mentoring efforts, a youth athletic league, and free-lunch programs designed to reclaim the children of the ghetto, as well as a flourishing housing corporation that is rehabilitating the urban squalor into which those children were born.

“There is a movement that has come of age in this country,” Mr. Spann said of the burst of social outreach and educational programs emanating from black and urban churches nationwide. “A lot of seeds sowed years ago are now coming of age.”

Across town, at the Metropolitan Church of God, the Rev. Robert O. Dulin Jr. is less sure that those seeds are bearing fruit.

The computer laboratory he established for elementary-school students is now defunct. The vacant lot purchased by the church for a future building and to serve as a buffer against encroaching drug dealers will remain vacant for the foreseeable future. There is no money for the community center he wants to build.

Hungry children knock on the church’s door every week, but Mr. Dulin admits that the once-a-week free-lunch and parenting program he envisions is still very much a dream.

“The ideas are there in the black church; the needs are there in the black community,” he said. “But the resources needed are just not there.”

A Stable Institution

In troubled urban areas like Detroit, few institutions have weathered the economic and social deterioration better than the black church.

The flight of businesses and middle-class families to the suburbs has left many inner cities with a deteriorating tax base that in turn leads to cuts in social programs.

Short of funds and staff, neighborhood schools become increasingly ineffective against intractable urban problems, often leaving the church the only viable institution left in the nation’s most blighted areas.

Perhaps nowhere are both the problems and the promise of the black church more readily on display than in Detroit, with its abundant economic and social woes and its large number of inner-city churches.

Standing alone against the deterioration around them, these black churches have mobilized to help take up the slack, and education has become one of their primary concerns.

Since the days of slavery, observers agree, black churches across the nation have been involved in both social programs and education.

While black denominations historically did not often establish their own primary schools, they were involved in teaching both enslaved and free blacks to read and write. Many of the historically black colleges and universities were founded by black churches, and most of the great black American political leaders have been churchmen.

A 1989 study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Saving Minds: Black Churches and Education,” found that 56 percent of the predominantly black churches surveyed offered at least one non-religious education program.

The three most commonly offered programs found in the survey were tutoring, preschool and day-care services, and field trips. Other programs included computer classes, college-entrance counseling, and preparation for the General Educational Development test. Many churches also offered college scholarships.

‘Saving a Generation’

Another survey, by Andrew Billingsley, chairman of the department of family studies at the University of Maryland, revealed that two-thirds of the 75,000 black churches surveyed are actively involved in community outreach programs, with preschool, day-care, and after-school programs the most frequently mentioned.

In Indianapolis, for example, a coalition of seven churches known as the Indianapolis Churches for Educational Excellence is working to improve educational opportunities in that city.

“The number of African-American children going to college significantly reduced in the 80’s,” said the Rev. Urias H. Beverly, who heads the coalition. “Many of the ones that are going are not doing very well. The cost of college is soaring, not to mention drugs, gangs, and teen pregnancy.”

“We felt very strongly that we needed to put some time and effort into reclaiming these children before a whole generation is lost,” he added.

These burgeoning efforts have prompted a steadily growing recognition by philanthropic organizations of the potential of churches to intensify their longtime involvement to new levels of effectiveness.

“If you want to really help the disadvantaged communities, one of the strongest, most viable, most trusted organizations that has been there from the beginning to the end is the church,” explained Danny Cortes, the program associate for religion at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia. “To ignore the church is to make a big, big mistake.”

But because of a lingering reluctance of funders to aid religious activities, religious leaders’ inexperience at seeking outside support, and a lack of church resources and time to ferret out funding sources, observers say black churches remain a vastly underutilized resource in the battle against poverty and neglect.

“I think it’s a growth area, but the rate of growth is probably not where we’d like it to be,” said Louis Knowles, senior director for religious philanthropy at the Council on Foundations. “There still is a general pervasive feeling among philanthropists that you don’t give grants to religious institutions, a feeling that religion is another world, and you don’t get involved.”

Cause for Hope

Still, foundation officials say, there is reason to believe the barriers are beginning to fall:

Next fall, the Congress of National Black Churches, with more than $1 million from the Carnegie Corporation, the Hearst Foundation, and the Lilly Endowment, will launch a major expansion of Project spirit, a parenting and after-school tutorial program for children ages 6 to 12.

In 1986, the CNBC opened pilot programs in 15 churches in Oakland, Atlanta, and Indianapolis. The program, which since has expanded to Savannah, Ga.; Richmond, Calif.; Berkeley, Calif.; and Washington, D.C., now reaches 1,400 children.

Thanks to the new funding, statewide expansions are planned in the fall in Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Texas, Arkansas, New Jersey, and Washington.

Last month, the Lilly Endowment began awarding two-year implementation grants of up to $150,000 each to 19 church-led economic-development and housing corporations, as part of a $5.74-million program to cultivate churches as community-development agents.

Last fall, the National Science Foundation awarded $3.7 million to a Chicago consortium of churches, educators, and community organizations, with part of the money going to improve science and math education for black youths.

The Chicago Urban League is developing mathematics and science learning centers in 10 black churches throughout the city, which will be fitted with computers for computer-literacy projects and “science nights” organized by the Argonne National Laboratory.

In March, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation approved a $195,000 grant for a two-year pilot program to link education students from historically black colleges and universities with black churches in Atlanta.

Under the project, coordinated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, at least 20 student teachers a year are to be placed in church-operated education programs, giving the students field exposure and the churches badly needed help with their financially strapped programs.

Since 1989, with $693,530 from the Ford Foundation and $141,000 in donated equipment from Apple Computer, Inc., the AAAS has trained leaders from more than 200 churches across the country in computer education and has fitted their churches with computer laboratories for after-school and summer education programs.

Also since 1989, the Pew Charitable Trusts has awarded $2 million in grants for economic and social development fostered by black churches in Newark, N.J., Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, El Paso, Boston, Miami, and the Appalachian regions of the East Coast.

This year, Hoffman-La Roche Inc. has earmarked $30,000 for “mini-grants” of up to $5,000 for black churches in Paterson, N.J., that are engaged in education, family-support, and youth-outreach programs.

And for the past four years, the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan has awarded 50 small grants worth a total of almost $200,000 to support after-school tutoring programs, family-counseling centers, and other Detroit-area neighborhood-outreach projects.

Shift to the Grassroots

“What’s happened is a gradual recognition over the last 10 years that, if you’re going to make an impact on the black community, you’re going to have to address the church,” said Alicia Byrd, project director of the National Fellowship Program for Black Pastors at the Congress of National Black Churches.

Funders “are trying to provide the resources to help strengthen existing resources, bring in other churches, and foster partnering,” Ms. Byrd said.

For most of this century, observers say, black churches have tended to focus on the national picture, and have devoted their efforts to working for desegregation, civil rights, and improved educational opportunities for blacks.

“One of the real legacies of the civil-rights movement was the recognition that the black church had a real role to play in society,” said Mr. Spann, the Church of the Messiah’s pastor. “But the strategies weren’t really on target. Change has to come from the grassroots, not the government, to be sustainable.”

“The starkness of the Reagan years probably has played into the favor of this new movement,” he added. “It’s obvious where the help is not coming from. The community leaders now have to become the brokers” of change, he said.

The new commitment heralded by Mr. Spann focuses far more on local issues and depends more on grassroots support than earlier efforts. The movement was born out of the 1980’s, when federal cutbacks in social-welfare spending and increased tax breaks for the wealthy greatly increased the gap between rich and poor, he said.

“We’ve been watching the neighborhood crumble all around us,” said Linda Perkins, director of education programming for Greater Christ Baptist Church on Detroit’s East Side. “We couldn’t stand by doing nothing.”

Poor Congregations

But tackling the educational and other needs of the inner city takes money, and that fact places most urban black churches at a severe disadvantage.

Because the congregations are so poor in most urban churches, the collection plate often will barely suffice to maintain the church building, pay for staff, and carry on essential functions.

And any project that is funded by outside sources will need constant support, and consequently such efforts tend to be sporadic, dying and reviving as funds dwindle and become available again.

The Church of the Messiah has raised enough money to hire a full-time grant seeker, Ray Hammill, to keep projects afloat. But church leaders in Detroit say Messiah’s good fortune is the exception, not the rule.

For Messiah is unusual among Detroit churches. Although its pastor, Mr. Spann, is black, most of the congregation consists of middle-class whites who moved into the city in the early 1970’s to establish a community amid Detroit’s poverty. Slowly, the church has begun attracting members of the predominantly black community, but the congregation remains 60 percent white and middle class.

The vision articulated by those first parishioners included a strong social agenda that at first aroused neighborhood suspicion and charges of colonialism, Mr. Spann admitted. But their background also helped garner support from the affluent suburbs, as well as from Detroit-area corporations and such national foundations as the Lilly Endowment and the Gannett Foundation.

The youth and housing projects funded by those philanthropies have made believers of community members, who are the primary beneficiaries of the programs. The church will spend $77,000 on K-12 tutorial and teen-outreach programs this year, according to Mr. Hammill.

But programs of that magnitude are beyond the ability of most of Detroit’s black churches.

‘I Just Got Tired’

Three years ago, the Metropolitan Church of God received six computers from the AAAS and a two-year mini-grant from the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan to hire a teacher to offer classes on computer literacy, mathematics, and banking skills for 45 students in the 4th and 5th grades at nearby Monnier Elementary School. The National Bank of Detroit also kicked in mock checks and money to be used in the program.

The program was so successful that it was honored by the Michigan Partnerships in Education program, a school-business coalition, after its first year.

Now the funds have dried up, and the program has ended. The computers are still used by the Detroit school district’s adult-education program held at the church, but no one has volunteered to teach the children.

And Yolanda George, a program officer at the AAAS in Washington, admits that many other participating churches throughout the nation have faced similar fates.

“I’d come in here some nights until 2, 2:30 in the morning writing out proposals and looking for money,” said Mr. Dulin, the church’s pastor. “Maybe I could’ve gotten more, but I just got tired.”

“What churches need is some kind of resource that will help them seek grants and help them put together program ideas that foundation people are accustomed to dealing with,” he said.

James Perkins, the pastor of Greater Christ Baptist, echoed that notion. His church received four AAAS computers in 1989, plus a mini-grant from the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan to set up a teen- and parent-counseling center.

But for the most part, the church’s tutoring and mentoring program, youth athletic league, summer youth-employment program, and once-a-month health clinic are labors of love, always at the mercy of volunteers and the collection plate.

Like Mr. Dulin, Mr. Perkins has big dreams that may never come to pass. He would like to purchase the adjacent, boarded-up sites of two businesses to house the church’s job-training program and possibly to raise money for the church.

But such a plan would cost thousands of dollars the church does not have.

And if the church does not act fast, according to Ms. Perkins, the education director and the pastor’s wife, both buildings will go the way of another building in the neighborhood--burned down and gutted.

Untapped Potential

The inexperience of churches in seeking funds and drafting acceptable grant proposals has hampered the efforts of the few foundations who have shown an interest in providing funds.

In 1988, for example, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving set aside $500,000 for churches seeking to address social issues in their neighborhoods.

To date, only one-fifth of that money has been claimed, according to Alan Green, the foundation’s assistant director.

“We knew it would take the churches a little while to become familiar with how foundations work and what they wanted to do with the grants,” he said.

But Ms. Perkins said all the time in the world will not help most urban churches.

In Detroit, virtually every city block boasts a church--many of them two or three--but with congregations of 50 or fewer, most of these churches would never be able to attempt the projects that the larger churches and the foundations envision.

“In a city with as many churches as Detroit, if all these churches were doing what we’re trying to do even in a minor way,” Ms. Perkins said, “we wouldn’t have all these problems.”

Despite such doubts, church leaders and funders insist outreach to black churches must continue to expand.

As the AAAS study concluded, the black church has already conquered problems that other social programs have not been able to touch. They have built facilities among the nation’s poorest people. They have gathered together a body of individuals from which to draw volunteers and workers. And they have earned the trust of the community.

“When you look around in many of these cities,” said Emmett Carson, program officer of the Ford Foundation’s rights and social-justice division, “when you see what’s already being done, and then if you think of the potential that could be reached if these churches got the kind of assistance that other nonprofits get, the prospects are simply mind-boggling.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 1991 edition of Education Week as Short on Funding, Long on Vision, Black Churches Take on Education