ARLINGTON?The White House director of Faith-Based Initiatives told Southern Baptist volunteers, “No longer are you considered a group of last resort, but a group of first resort. The government doesn’t take for granted your contributions, but seeks to take advantage of them.”
Jim Towey spoke to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief leaders at their Disaster Relief Roundtable April 25-27 at Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington.
Expressing the gratitude of President George W. Bush for Southern Baptists’ response to last summer’s hurricanes, Towey said, “The president knows the efforts taken during the disaster relief phase were extraordinary in scope and compassion because government cant love the way your people did.”
In early conversations with SBC leaders following the hurricanes, Towey said they raised legitimate concerns that government not commandeer the pulpit or contaminate the churchs prophetic work.
“We don’t want to favor one faith or have the government defend religion. That will rob the church of vitality and its purity,” Towey said. “At the same time, we don’t want to show government hostility toward any religious organization.”
While faith-based organizations once were expected to change their names, take crosses down from backdrops and remove the name of Jesus Christ from mission statements when seeking federal grants, Towey said that attitude has changed during his five-year tenure.
“We’re looking for ways to make the system of disaster preparedness and relief more faith-friendly so your groups can get in there,” he said. “The president doesn’t fear faith. When people are devastated and have lost everything, they’re looking for hope.”
In a recent visit to a faith-based homeless shelter in Austin, Texas, Towey said he told the expanding ministry’s leader that the government might be able to help with bricks and mortar without expecting the organization to sacrifice faith activity.
“Some of you may have zero interest in government money,” Towey said, “but you have a right to expect cooperation when you’re out there doing works of good and mercy.”
A few days after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush toured a church where 1,500 people found shelter throughout the facility.
“That played out over and over again all over the Gulf State area,” Towey noted. “It’s very exciting to see those responses because it renews all of us in our faith ? that we’re not just talking about the Gospel, but living it.
“We saw people like you who transformed sanctuaries into shelters overnight,” he said. “Racial divisions that existed in some of these churches went down. It’s beautiful to see.”
With the hurricane season just a month away, Towey said the country faces many additional threats, including a pandemic flu or terrorist attack that could empty a city the size of New Orleans. Through a government website available at www.fbci.gov, information is available on faith-based community efforts to prepare for such disasters. He expressed President Bush’s “great confidence” in the ability of Southern Baptists to welcome with compassion those people who are hungry, thirsty, suffering, rejected and living in flight.
Towey, along with a FEMA representative and an American Red Cross leader, acknowledged mistakes made and lessons learned from the hurricanes.
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