“Does anybody know on what principle police in this city are allocated?” Rabbi Arnold Wolf of Hyde Park’s K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation asked, scanning a crowd assembled in the basement of the Fourth Presbyterian Church. The 50 people in attendance–many clergy and a few foundation staff members–sat at tables strung together in a U shape. Chicken bones garnished Styrofoam plates, blank stares filled many faces. Someone said “crime.” The stocky, gray-haired rabbi shook his head. “Nobody here knows–police aren’t allocated on the basis of crime, but on the basis of property values.

“None of your foundations is working on that problem, because the only way to work on it is through advocacy.” The edge in Wolf’s voice was getting sharper. “Advocacy invites lawsuits, and you don’t want that because you’re chicken. You feel advocacy and churches are unconventional uses of foundation funds. It’s time to break the mind-set, because churches are the key social organizations in the inner city. They’re in terrible need. But you’ve effectively eliminated yourself from getting involved in most of the problems facing this urban area.”

A heated conversation ensued, with almost everyone poor-mouthing. Social-service providers said they’d be more effective if they had the help of philanthropists; foundation staffers countered that they too are scraping by. Lacking the means to fund more than a tiny fraction of the grant proposals piled on their desks, they look for a reason to say no. And, as nobody in the room needed to be told, the bylaws of most foundations prohibit the support of religious institutions.

But times are changing, and Chicago is a focal point in the effort to use houses of worship as forces for inner-city redevelopment. The Lilly Endowment, the largest grant-making program for religious organizations in the country, became interested in the subject about five years ago, when an official read a New York Times story about Brooklyn’s decaying churches. The pattern there has been duplicated elsewhere: As neighborhoods decline, church congregations tend to get smaller and poorer. And as their congregations diminish, churches are unable to keep up with repairs. Recognizing that the last institutions to abandon dying neighborhoods are often the liquor store and the corner church, the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment set out to save the latter. Its first move was funding Partners for Sacred Places, in Philadelphia, to act as a national clearinghouse for information on repairs of church buildings. Chicago was chosen as the place to try a hands-on approach, trying to figure out a practical way to help religious institutions that provide social services. And the social services congregations provide are increasingly significant: after decades of private-sector disinvestment and a decade of public-sector cutbacks, few of the city’s churches, synagogues, and temples can afford any longer to be only in the business of salvation.

Inspired Partnerships was formed here in 1989, with funding from Lilly and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It provides consultations and workshops on building maintenance and energy efficiency, not grants or loans, to congregations active in community outreach. IP–which recently completed its 100th audit of a Chicago religious facility–has inspired the formation of similar agencies in Cleveland and Kansas City.

IP’s 1991 survey of 152 Chicago churches and synagogues found that 59 percent house two or more nonreligious programs for neighborhood residents; 70 percent of the people participating in these organizations’ human-service programs–food kitchens, day care, and family counseling, for example–are nonmembers; 59 percent fund human-service programs themselves; 83 percent provide space to them free of charge; and 52 percent have annual operating budgets less than $75,000. The average religious property has two programs, serves 400 people a month, and has a median congregation of 200.

The survey–which only included congregations whose facilities are 40 years old or older–confirms that some of the city’s most indispensable social services are housed in rickety buildings. Evidently Chicago congregations care less about leaky roofs, busted pipes, and inefficient furnaces than they do about acting on the spirit of giving.

With that commitment to social service, “It’s no accident that neighborhood organizers use church basements to hold their meetings,” said IP executive director Holly Fiala, who oversees the six-person agency, based in the Monadnock Building. In its four years, IP has not only found congregations ways to patch up their facilities but also helped clergy and laity of many faiths to realize they aren’t alone. To make foundations more aware of congregations’ work in sustaining and rebuilding the inner city, Fiala and Valerie Lies, president of the Donors Forum of Chicago (a consortium of area philanthropies also based in the Monadnock), organized the luncheon at Fourth Presbyterian last May, hailed as the first in a series of discussions to spur funding for social-service programs housed in Chicago religious facilities.

Fiala says the logical next step is to put together a tour of inner-city programs for foundation staffers. But based on how the last bridge-building effort went, Fiala hasn’t printed up any invitations, and no follow-up meeting has been planned. She knows the frustration of inner-city clergy who feel they’re completely outside the funding loop–who aren’t even considered nonprofit organizations by many philanthropies. She knows congregations are feeling more strapped than ever. What she wasn’t anticipating–especially after carefully screening the invitees–was the anger of the religious community.

“I walked away thinking the luncheon was a total disaster,” Reverend Gerald Weiss recalled. Pastor of First Presbyterian Church–a tiny congregation that provides several programs to Woodlawn residents–Weiss agreed with Wolf’s diatribe but felt his bluntness may have hurt the effort to convince foundations to support church-based projects. “There we were in a fight before we’d even had a chance to dance,” Weiss said, adding that nothing was wrong with the luncheon except the location and the main speaker, philanthropy bigwig Brian O’Connell.

Fourth Presbyterian, located on Chestnut near Michigan, is a city landmark radiating Magnificent Mile gentility; it can’t convey the desperation of people working in the bombed-out remnants of inner-city communities. Indeed, Fourth Presbyterian made a $250,000 donation to the $1 million building campaign mounted by Weiss’s south-side congregation. Making matters worse, in Weiss’s view, was O’Connell’s speech, which gave the misleading impression that all religious organizations are wealthy.

A husky, soft-spoken, silver-haired Boston native, O’Connell has climbed the ladder of professional voluntarism in the last 35 years to become a giant in the field. In 1980, while president of the National Council on Philanthropy and executive director of the Coalition of National Voluntary Organizations, he and Common Cause founder John Gardner began Independent Sector, which O’Connell has served ever since as president. This Washington-based coalition of 850 corporate, foundation, and voluntary organizations (including the Donors Forum) promotes giving, volunteering, and not-for-profit initiatives nationwide. O’Connell was on a midwest tour and was already booked in Chicago for an IP workshop that May morning, so his availability is partly what led Fiala and Lies to gather foundation folks and clergy for the luncheon.

“Congregations provide the meeting ground for people to discuss their concerns on a lot of issues,” O’Connell told the gathering, pointing out that congregations nationwide are nearly as active in community work as they are in religious education. And he bolstered his argument–not to take the social contributions of religious organizations for granted–with statistical data that unfortunately reinforced the notion that churches and synagogues are rich. Citing the results of an Independent Sector survey, O’Connell said that people who identify themselves as religious are the most giving Americans–in 1991, they provided some 258,000 congregations nationwide with $39.2 billion, while the volunteering time of 49.4 million people was valued at $19.2 billion. Congregations’ financial donations for charity, community groups, and individuals came to $6.6 billion, a total that exceeded that of corporations ($6.1 billion) and was only slightly less than that of foundations ($7.7 billion).

“This is a little bit of a false picture,” panelist Weiss piped up at that point. “Religious institutions have a lot of resources, but not in inner cities where the need is greatest.”

Though it’s partly the funding community’s own fault that the social contributions of religious organizations have gone unrecognized, O’Connell said, he added that religious groups are also to blame–they tend to work independently, and they don’t ask for credit. The survey itself is an indication: researchers had to review every telephone book in the country to find the names of religious groups–a first step in being able to tout their growing role to society. “Studies show the American people have the highest confidence in the nonprofit sector, and that religious organizations are at the top of the list. People respect and envy those who are involved,” he said.

In his meetings with foundation boards, O’Connell said he describes proselytizing as only a small reason congregations open their doors to the public. Many community-based organizations simply have no place else to go and so take root in a church, synagogue, or temple. “I tell boards, what better way to have an impact on issues like teenage pregnancy, school dropouts, illiteracy, or crime?” he said. “Many foundations are recognizing they must find a way to work with congregations.”

Panelists and audience members at the luncheon then addressed more specific issues. Funders called financial accountability one key to writing successful grant proposals; another is tailoring requests to a foundation’s funding preferences. Members of the congregations responded that money is scarce for anyone advocating systemic changes that challenge the status quo.

Getting around foundation bylaws against giving to religious organizations requires a proposal that focuses on the work, not the name, said David Ramage, McCormick Theological Seminary president, former president of the New World Foundation, and chairman of the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions taking place here next week. “If a foundation realizes the “what’ precedes the ‘who,’ you might get to the interesting conclusion about why the ‘who’ is useful.”

“‘When is a church a church?’ remains a legitimate question,” a man in the back of the room responded. His comment epitomized the donors’ earnest yet complacent air: for many of them these questions are intellectual, a matter of policy and not of everyday life.

For panelist Reverend B. Herbert Martin, however, the questions are more urgent. Pastor of Progressive Community Church, a nondenominational church that stretches its nickels and dimes to serve the Robert Taylor Homes, Martin was plainly frustrated by his inability to establish a relationship with private funders. His grant proposals keep getting shot down, he said, maybe because “our poor little church isn’t affiliated with one of the major churches. That’s spiritual bigotry in its worst form.”

It was at about that point that Wolf dropped his verbal bomb. In his fifth decade of ministry, which has included pioneering efforts like being the first official Jewish representative in the World Council of Churches Assembly in Kenya in 1975, Wolf is accustomed to speaking his mind. He ended his angry little speech by telling funders that the issue “isn’t only do you trust the church, but do the churches trust you?”

“This conversation needs to be ongoing,” Weiss said quickly, talking as fast as a salesman who senses a prospect slipping from his grasp.

“You don’t really know the enormous effort made by foundations as aggressive advocates of society’s needs,” O’Connell then chided Wolf. The best of the foundations, he’d said earlier, support the principle of empowerment, which is often achieved most effectively by supporting congregations in the cultural frontier of the ghetto. “Whether corporations or foundations support a redistribution of wealth is an issue of constant debate. Most critics of foundations say they’re too liberal or anarchistic.” He told the luncheon: “A great many foundations are constantly challenging the status quo.”

Too many donors demand “measurable results,” responded panelist Raul Raymundo of the Pilsen Resurrection Development Corporation, a consortium of southwest-side Catholic churches. Foundations want to see something tangible–new housing, for example–when a greater need in the inner city may be an intangible like leadership development. Martin, who sat next to Raymundo, added: “There’s no way to measure how a family’s life is transformed.”

Leslie Case of the Chicago Community Trust, which funds $1-2 million in church-based inner-city social-service programs a year, noted that the IP survey O’Connell cited gives the impression that religious organizations are less likely to need funds: “The Jewish United Fund will take care of the temples.”

“You should live so long,” Wolf moaned.

“I’m Rabbi Wolf’s boss,” said Nikki Stein, chairperson of his Hyde Park synagogue, eyeing him wryly from across the table. She happens to also be executive director of the Polk Brothers Foundation, which she said invests in agencies that have fiscal integrity and organization–indicators that a nonprofit will stay afloat. While foundation trustees are usually more conservative than staff members, she said this meeting had left her feeling “like a bogeyman sitting on a pile of money.”

“I came here expecting to hear constructive ways that churches and foundations could work together,” said Patricia Morgan, executive director of the Baxter Foundation in north suburban Deerfield. “Give us better examples of successful funding projects. I’m not a spiritual bigot, but I know that if the trustees of my board were here today, you’d drive that spike [of misunderstanding] even further.”

“I’m about to burst!” Martin nearly shouted. (The reason, he said later, was the patronizing nature of the remarks. “It takes a lot of energy to see us for who we are. What infuriates me is the perception that the materially poor are bereft of values and intelligence. What poverty means is that we’re voiceless, powerless people in need of partnering. Money isn’t the issue. There’s other ways to be supportive–technical assistance, pro bono legal or accounting services, getting through the red tape. If I can get your time and talent, I won’t need your money.”) Looking at Morgan, who sat on the same side of the table about ten chairs away, Martin said, “I see the same type of misunderstanding that you’re talking about where I come from. People view funders hostilely.”

“I don’t even like to say where I work,” Morgan replied, “because everyone hates you.”

“I don’t hate you,” Martin said quietly.

“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Wolf bellowed from the other side of the room.

IP’s Fiala stood in back, arms folded, doing a good job of hiding her fears that all her good intentions were blowing up in her face. Indeed, the affair billed as “Congregations and Communities: An Opportunity for Philanthropic Response” seemed to be turning into another excuse for foundations to ignore religious organizations. Fiala reminded the audience at that point that partnerships could be created through intermediaries like IP and the Community Renewal Society, a fiscal agent that plays middleman for a number of church-based initiatives.

“Give us money,” Wolf said, reiterating the remarks he’d made that morning at the IP conference, about the importance of keeping religious structures useful and alive in an age of material and spiritual decline. “What drives churches into the ground is the funding of our buildings. That’s why we’re going down the drain.”

As Donors Forum meetings between funders and service providers go, this one was unique, Stein remarked later. The give-and-take was heartfelt, she said, “a real dialogue. Usually there’s a presentation and conversation, and then everyone goes their separate way. It’s a very polite world, partially because we in the donors’ community control the cards and are treated with more deference than perhaps we should be.”

After the luncheon, ghetto America’s Herbert Martin approached corporate America’s Pat Morgan, shook her hand, and asked that “you hear my heart and mind and not walk away angry at me.” He invited her and her board to come down to 48th and Wabash to see his Progressive Community Church. He called her this month, and they set a date in September. The neighborhood should be quiet by then, he said–provided the bankrupt Chicago school system has figured out a way to open its doors and get the kids off the streets.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.