An Oasis of Good in a Desert of Despair

The Cass Community United Methodist Church, located south of Wayne State University in Detroit's Cass Corridor, serves a neighborhood known for drug addicts, prostitutes, thieves, and homeless drifters. In the face of such adversity, church members and staff are performing deeds of compassion and heroism every day.

Like any neighborhood church, Cass Community offers Sunday services and fellowship for its congregation of about 140. The pastor, Rev. Faith Fowler, describes the congregation as "wonderfully mixed." About one third are from Pakistan, many of whom work in nearby hospitals. For their benefit, some church services are performed in the Urdu language. "Other church members are from Liberia," Rev. Fowler told this writer, "and some are from the South, some are homeless, some are prostitutes, some hold down jobs at GM."

Cass Community is best known for operating a wide range of programs for the poor. Rev. Fowler, in addition to her pastoral duties, supervises those efforts, which include emergency food and clothing distribution programs, a senior center, a case management program for seniors, a homeless drop-in center that serves 200 people each day, a free medical clinic open on Saturdays, a program for disabled seniors, and an activity center for the developmentally disabled. To do all this work, the church employs a total of 44 people and budgets about $1 million annually, more than half of which is provided by grants from government agencies.

Accounting and record keeping are huge tasks. Government funds must be kept in 14 separate checkbooks, and each program has a different reporting schedule with different forms to fill out. "We are audited by every agency that gives us money," said Rev. Fowler. "Our books are audited 20 times a year and our programs are audited 20 times. That's a total of 40 audits each year."

Sadly, the church is victimized continually by thieves. "We have had ladders and lawnmowers stolen," said Rev. Fowler, "and microphones, cars, parts of cars, and telephones." She added, "They once stole a working toilet." Because thefts are so frequent and police can seldom do anything to either prevent them or to recover stolen property, church officials usually do not call police to report these crimes. The Cass Community Church has a long history of service to neighborhood residents, dating back to 1929, but the area has decayed to the point where it is now the worst of Detroit's bad neighborhoods, and the problems seem nearly insoluble.

A conscientious person cannot visit this church without asking, "What more can be done to help?" Clearly the church needs more money to finance its work. But money problems prompt a series of other questions: How much money does it cost to perform all those audits? Are they needed? For every dollar the church receives, how many are spent on government paperwork? And how much must be spent to comply with rules from 20 different government funding sources?

Another important question is whether the church, through its programs, is encouraging dependent behavior. Unfortunately most of those who depend on its services will never be self-supporting. Whether through age or infirmity, many are incapable of doing work of the quality and reliability required to earn wages.

To aid those capable of working, however, the church could use help from entrepreneurs and executives--those who know how to create jobs and who can provide on-the-job training. The church has long-range plans to provide jobs through economic development projects, and skilled managers will be needed to implement those plans and create successful businesses.

Like most private social welfare organizations, Cass Community Church would benefit from stronger direct links to donors and skilled volunteers. The people of the Cass Corridor would surely be better off if aid were provided directly and privately, instead of through a maze of government agencies and bureaucratic middlemen.

U.S. Senators Dan Coats and John Ashcroft recently proposed legislation that would allow individuals a 100% tax credit for donations that serve the poor. Taxpayers would receive total reimbursement, in the form of a federal income tax refund, for direct contributions to such charities as the Cass Community Church. This would be a radical departure from the status quo, but one that deserves serious attention. Michigan state government ought to consider the same approach.

The good people at Detroit's Cass Community Church are helping the needy in spite of horrendous challenges. Governments ought to think about lightening the unnecessary burdens they impose and encouraging more private assistance for such worthy organizations.