Grand Rapids A Showcase For Bush’s Plan

May 17, 2002
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Probably neither George W. Bush nor Richard Cheney learned much about this town during their campaign stops here. To them, it must have seemed a slightly-more-hospitable-than-usual Midwestern stop.

So somebody — maybe Vern Ehlers or Jerry Ford — ought to slip the word to Dubya: Grand Rapids is a social action faith-informed hothouse that might enable Washington’s doubting Thomases to grasp the efficacy of faith-based social programs. One might say Grand Rapids is a sort of demonstration project, a national laboratory, but without any of the federal seed money.

We’ve never needed the federal funding because this community has a habit of giving so generously that it arguably is one of the most charitable communities per capita on the planet. (If Congress does, in fact, enact a proposal to raise corporate donation tax deduction limits … look out, baby!)

But as in so many other things for so many years, Grand Rapids quietly has been showing the rest of the United States what faith, commitment and a sense of mission can do.

One quick example: the case of Faith Inc.

A successful New York businessman named Verne Barry some years back became an alcoholic, hit the skids, lost everything and wound up penniless and homeless but, fortunately, not hopeless. How he clawed his way back from that situation is a not so much an epic tale but a spiritual epic.

And what makes Barry’s story so stirring is that his journey showed him what keeps people mired outside the economic mainstream: namely, the utter lack of a set of habits most people take for granted.

In his worst moments, Barry himself never lost the awareness that meaningful employment and personal independence depend, for starters, on mere punctuality, cleanliness and neat attire. Yet in their best moments, a great many of the chronically unemployed never had a clue about these matters; worse, they never had the chance to acquire a clue.

Realizing such people had three strikes against them while still in the dugout, Barry founded Faith Inc.

Most of area business leaders know it: a privately funded nonprofit conducted as a business with everyday, but tightly structured, rewards and penalties. You get here on time and perform; you profit. You don’t work Tuesday; Friday’s check shows it. Its clients are eased into the water and then can earn progressively greater challenges and rewards. Managing Faith are people who have succeeded in business; people who want their clients to understand that the world of work will embrace them if they embrace it.

It's glaringly different from archetypal government let’s-run-‘em-through-and-fill-out-the-paperwork programs operated by lifelong civil servants with virtual job guarantees. They may care, but it’s not a requirement of tenure.

Grand Rapids has something else unique: it’s the Institute for Healing Racism, a faith-inspired nonprofit with tendrils reaching from churches and college campuses and through corporate boardrooms and employer training centers into schools. It confronts racism head-on. Sometimes it’s painful, but healthy, too. So far as most of its participants are aware, there’s nothing else quite like it in the country.

The Business Journal doesn’t maintain that this community can show the United States exactly what it must do to deal with social problems. This town has plenty of its own problems left to solve. But what Grand Rapids can show is that Dubya’s notion of faith-based programs is quietly achieving things here.

By contrast, fabled “massive federal poverty programs” never managed to lower poverty in this country by a single percentage point.

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