Pun­ish­ing over­looked faith-based first re­spon­ders

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

When the news hit that tor­na­does had ripped through Alabama, helpers sprang into ac­tion. They handed out wa­ter and med­i­cal sup­plies. They pro­vided food, cloth­ing and shel­ter to the many vic­tims and cleaned up the mess that Mother Na­ture left be­hind.

FEMA? No, the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion (SBC).

The New York Times high­lighted the group’s hu­man­i­tar­ian ef­forts in a re­cent ar­ti­cle:

“From an elab­o­rate ‘war room’ in a church build­ing in Mont­gomery, Ala., to di­rect lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with fed­eral and lo­cal emer­gency agen­cies, the South­ern Bap­tist disas­ter min­istry is a model of ef­fi­ciency.

“Its renowned chain-saw crews were cut­ting fallen trees so med­i­cal crews could get to the in­jured in the hours af­ter the tor­na­does hit. They had an enor­mous mo­bile kitchen, com- plete with a hot-wa­ter heater for dish­wash­ing and five con­vec­tion ovens.”

If you’re like many Amer­i­cans, though, you prob­a­bly aren’t even aware of the role the SBC plays in help­ing disas­ter vic­tims.

“We’re the best-kept se­cret out there,” Ron War­ren, cleanup and re­cov­ery co­or­di­na­tor for the Alabama South­ern Bap­tist disas­ter re­lief group, told the news­pa­per.

But the fact that pri­vate char­i­ties out­per­form gov­ern­ment agen­cies should sur­prise no one.

For the agen­cies, it’s a job. Al­though they can be — and of­ten are — staffed with good, car­ing peo­ple who do their best, it still comes down to a pay­check. For pri­vate char­i­ties, how­ever, hu­man­i­tar­ian work is a call­ing. They do it be­cause they want to.

One rea­son is ob­vi­ous: They’re lo­cal. They’re phys­i­cally close. When they go to the scene of a disas­ter, in many cases they’re help­ing friends and fam­ily mem­bers. And that per­sonal touch re­ally makes a dif­fer­ence, both for the per­son help­ing and the per­son be­ing helped.

Any help is grate­fully ac­cepted, but “there’s al­ways a sense of com­fort when you see some­one who looks sim­i­lar to you,” says Juliet Choi, se­nior di­rec­tor of part­ner ser­vices for the Amer­i­can Red Cross.

Re­li­gious faith of­ten plays a role in mo­ti­vat­ing these char­i­ta­ble works. And one of the smartest things for gov­ern­ment to do is not to sup­plant these groups but to rec­og­nize their strengths in the ar­eas where gov­ern­ment of­ten fails.

That is what mo­ti­vated Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush to cre­ate the Of­fice of Faith-Based and Com­mu­nity Ini­tia­tives.

“There were a lot of groups that felt like they weren’t plugged in be­fore,” says David L. My­ers, di­rec­tor of the De- part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity’s Cen­ter for Faith-Based and Com­mu­nity Ini­tia­tives.

A Men­non­ite min­is­ter, Mr. My­ers serves as a li­ai­son be­tween faith groups and gov­ern­ment emer­gency of­fi­cials to bet­ter co­or­di­nate re­lief ef­forts.

Pre­par­ing for emer­gen­cies — and re­spond­ing to them ef­fec­tively — calls for just this kind of in­te­grated ap­proach.

Not all of us, of course, can rush to the scene of a disas­ter. So we do what many Amer­i­cans do: We pray, which surely finds its an­swer in the num­ber of groups and in­di­vid­u­als will­ing to help, and we do­nate to char­ity.

Un­for­tu­nately, Pres­i­dent Obama’s pro­posed bud­get for the next fis­cal year may well dampen such giv­ing.

His call to raise the tax rate on high-in­come earn­ers be­gin­ning in 2013 is well known, but he also wants to re­duce their in­come-tax de­duc­tion for char­i­ta­ble giv­ing be­gin­ning in Jan­uary. “This both weak­ens the in­cen­tive for the wealthy to give and shifts the per­ceived re­spon­si­bil­ity for so­cial wel­fare from in­di­vid­ual donors to the state,” writes Ryan Mess­more, the Wil­liam E. Si­mon Fel­low in Re­li­gion and a Free So­ci­ety at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, in a re­cent pa­per.

This would be a big mis­take. We’ve seen in re­cent weeks, in Alabama and else­where, how much good pri­vate char­i­ties can do.

We should be do­ing all we can to make this “best-kept se­cret” bet­ter known — and in­spire oth­ers to em­u­late the fine ex­am­ple these groups set.

If there’s one area where the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors can work ef­fec­tively hand-in-hand, it’s disas­ter re­lief.

Let’s not spoil it. Let’s help those who help oth­ers.

Ed Feul­ner is pres­i­dent of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion (her­itage.org).

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