Question of faith

California enters controversial realm by funding religion-based social programs

Steven Fazil runs Christian Partnerships Inc., one of 21 faith-based organizations to share $5 million in funding from California taxpayers.

Steven Fazil runs Christian Partnerships Inc., one of 21 faith-based organizations to share $5 million in funding from California taxpayers.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Earl Hamilton was deeply mistrustful of organized religion when he came to the Christian Partnerships House, a sober living home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts in Del Paso Heights.

“I wanted very little to do with the concept of organized religion,” said Hamilton, a recovering addict who had his faith shaken by a series of misfortunes and wanted nothing to do with Christian Partnerships’ proselytizing or weekly Bible study programs.

Yet, while still skeptical of religion, Hamilton has in the last six months warmed to the faith-based approach to recovery employed by Steven and Anqunette Fazil, who last year founded the nonprofit Christian Partnerships Inc.

“Since being here, the anger about my beliefs and the betrayal that I felt has waned greatly,” said Hamilton, who now manages the 13-bed home, doing the cooking and shopping while the Fazils handle the programming. “I have my hope back.”

The man largely responsible for restoring Hamilton’s hope is Steven Fazil, a recovering addict who was in and out of the jail and prison systems for drug-related crimes most of his life before finding Christ in prison four years ago.

Fazil is a large, soft-spoken man who speaks sheepishly about his mission and philosophy. But, like many Christian converts, his tone becomes clear and unequivocal when speaking about his faith, and his belief that Christ is the strength behind his good deeds.

“My savior is Jesus Christ. He’s who got me clean and out of the prison system and allowed me to do this,” Fazil said, turning up his palms and gesturing to the house. “The Lord is blessing us. The Lord did this.”

The Lord may or may not have created Christian Partnerships Inc., but it is California Gov. Gray Davis who is helping the program to flourish with a $200,000 grant, money that will be used to expand its outreach efforts.

On the week after President George Bush opened his Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives—touching off a national debate over whether distributing public money to religion-based social service organizations violates the separation of church and state—Davis announced the awarding of grants for a similar program in California that began last year.

During a trip to Washington, D.C., on Feb. 26, Davis announced that California was giving $5 million in taxpayer money to 21 faith-based organizations throughout the state through the Faith-Based Initiative program, proclaiming: “This effort will place California in the forefront of the national effort to develop stronger families and stronger neighborhoods.”

The Fazils are among the Christian soldiers who will lead that effort, one based on the concept of faith.

Faith in Christ—or, at the very least, the concept of tapping into a higher power for the strength to overcome addiction—is at the center of the Fazil’s approach to recovery. They work with several churches in the region, such as the New Testament Baptist Church, which conducts Bible study courses at the house on Thursday nights.

Faith that things would work out is what has also allowed the Fazils to create Christian Partnerships and operate it on a shoestring budget. Neither of the Fazils draw a salary from Christian Partnerships, although they live and eat in the recovery house.

They live mainly off the money Anqunette Fazil makes at her state job, which they say also partially subsidizes Christian Partnerships’ operations, especially given Steven’s philosophy of taking in needy souls without regard to their ability to pay for their room and board: “We take everyone,” Steven said. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

“Steven would take people with no money, and I had a fit with all the bills coming in, and Steven said we just have to have faith that it will work,” Anqunette Fazil said.

The Fazils say they were overjoyed to hear about receiving the grant money. “We were praying about it,” Steven said. “A lot of places have turned us down, but we have a good program here and our proposal was well-written.”

That proposal was to supplement their treatment work with outreach efforts through area churches, looking for people who need help with their addiction. “Who knows better who’s hooked than the mothers and grandmothers, and we’re going to find them in the churches,” said Steven.

While organized religion plays a central role in the mission of Christian Partnerships, the Fazils reject the notion that public funding of that mission represents an improper merging of church and state.

“The whole purpose of this is to introduce people to Christ, and how many accept him, that’s up to them,” Fazil said. “We expose them to Christ’s message, but we don’t push it on them.”

Politics and religion
To Robert Boston, the difference between proselytizing Christianity and exposing people to Christ’s message is a distinction without meaning.

“If the group sees conversion as a key part of the program, you must be skeptical of giving government money to it. It is taxpayers funding religious conversion,” said Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.,-based group that has led the fight against Bush’s faith-based proposal.

Given the deeply held and oft-stated religious beliefs of our new president, who is a born-again Christian, civil libertarians have slammed Bush’s faith-based initiatives program as a steamrolling of the line between church and state, forcing taxpayers to subsidize missionary work and religious conversions.

At the other end of the spectrum, conservative religious leaders like Pat Robertson have criticized the program’s promise to distribute grant money equitably without regard to religious affiliation—opening the program up to the Hare Krishnas, the Moonies or even more marginal denominations—something it must do to remain constitutional.

Boston’s group believes that public funding of faith-based programs violates the first sentence in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Yet Grantland Johnson, California’s secretary of health and human services, said the Faith-Based Initiatives program he administers has been careful to avoid crossing the line between church and state. And he disagrees with Boston that exposure to religious messages constitutes proselytizing.

“We eliminated a number of applicants who clearly indicated an inclination to subject people unnecessarily to religious proselytizing,” Johnson said. “We make clear that you could not challenge their religious beliefs.”

At the same time, Johnson said government has traditionally gone too far in avoiding connections to faith-based groups that have demonstrated effectiveness at providing valuable social services, particularly in areas traditionally ill-served by other government programs.

“They offer a degree of expertise and commitment that many other groups don’t have,” Johnson said. “The key question is whether or not these organizations that apply have a demonstrated track record on serving their communities.”

Johnson said faith-based programs often prove more effective than secular ones at dealing with problems like drug abuse, homelessness and domestic violence—all social ills that require fundamental, life-altering transformations in individuals. The program, Johnson said, is based solely on how best to address these problems.

Yet Boston is more cynical about Davis’ motives, which he says are more political than humanitarian. He notes that Democrats have traditionally been labeled anti-religion, but centrist Democrats such as Davis have come to see public support for faith-based programs as a way to counter that perception.

“So this is a political issue,” Boston said, adding that Bush also sees the faith-based program as a way of making connections to the African-American communities that overwhelmingly voted for Al Gore in the presidential election.

The bottom line for people like Boston is that no matter how effective some faith-based programs may be, directly connecting governments with church-based groups will ultimately be bad for both entities.

“If it’s about converting people or bringing about a religious transformation,” Boston said, “that should be funded by private dollars.”

To the Fazils and many others who work with addicts, it is impossible to talk about rehabilitation without talking about transformation, and it is impossible to transform oneself without some kind of spiritual grounding.

“We use the word ‘rehabilitation’ very loosely, and that’s the wrong word to use,” Anqunette Fazil said. “Transformation is the key; not going back to the old life.”

Overcoming addiction is about envisioning a new life, and having the strength to leave the old one behind. So religion can become both a reason to lead a clean life (subscribing to a moral code), and a means to get there (spiritual transformation leading to behavioral change).

The Fazils point to the strong spiritual components of supposedly secular programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Cecily Bustillos of Community Alternatives to Sentences works closely with Christian Partnerships’ clients and shares the Fazils’ belief that faith-based transformation is the key to overcoming addiction, violent tendencies and other social ills.

“I think faith is the only tool. If you don’t have a faith-based home like this, you can only go so far,” said Steven Fazil, adding that “faith” need not be synonymous with Christianity. “Whatever they take from to find strength is fine. All we can say is what made us change.”

That kind of “whatever it takes” attitude is shared by government officials who have come to embrace the role of faith-based groups in providing social services.

“I’m just concerned that my guys are taken care of and getting off of drugs, no matter how it happens,” said Yolo County probation officer Adriaan Tgilde, who has three of his charges at Christian Partnerships and sings its praises. “The majority of the homes we have are faith-based, and it seems to work.”

Anqunette Fazil said she is happy to see the growing mainstream acceptance of faith-based organizations, and the current trend toward making public funding available to them without forcing them to compromise their spiritual messages.

“Faith-based programs have been here for a long time and not been in the limelight,” she said. “But that’s changing now.”