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6/11/03 - Miami Herald

On a crusade: Diaz wants to help poor

By Carolyn Salazar

On good days, Donald Massing, 47, will scrounge enough to buy a 99-cent Whopper. But that's rare. Most days he goes hungry, unsuccessfully rifling through garbage for food or trying to earn a living panhandling on the sweltering streets of North Miami.

But the homeless man looks forward to Thursdays. That's the day Massing gets his only meal of the week at Trinity Church in North Miami, a congregation trying to ease social ills in the community by offering social service programs for the poor.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz is on a crusade to bring the types of programs Trinity offers to religious organizations in his city as it struggles to help its poor. Perhaps more than any other mayor in Miami-Dade County, he has embraced President Bush's controversial faith-based initiative by reaching out to religious groups to help Miami deal with its growing social problems.

Diaz meets periodically with church leaders, inviting them to his bimonthly ''pastoral roundtable'' so he can explain the initiative and why they should take part in it.

Working with the Miami-Dade-based Family and Children Faith Coalition, headed by husband and wife team Rick and Yvonne Sawyer, he has stayed in close contact with national faith-based organizations so they can hold summits in Miami and implore local churches to become active in the community through federal grants.

Through the city's Office of Economic Development, Miami will begin offering training workshops and technical assistance to churches so they can identify federal funds they qualify for and learn how to start social services programs.

Collaborating with congregations is also a cornerstone of Diaz's highly touted anti-poverty initiative, which he said cannot succeed without the aid of faith-based groups.


Diaz said he found it only natural to begin reaching out to religious organizations because of their close ties to the community.

''Churches and religious-based organizations have been around forever helping people,'' Diaz said. 'And I started thinking, `Why hasn't someone else done this?' ''

But the approach is a controversial one. Bush's efforts have alarmed civil liberties activists who accuse him of blurring the lines between the church and state because of his aggressive push to loosen the rules on federal funding for religious programs.

Diaz said he realizes the legislation has caused much debate in Washington, but he believes faith-based groups should be able compete on an even footing with secular organizations in trying to win government contracts.

He seems less enthusiastic about the most disputed part of the policy -- direct funding of church activities -- saying he has not thought it through enough to form an opinion about it.


Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said encouraging religious groups to provide services for the public is commendable, but Diaz enters a slippery slope when he advocates using public funding for religious institutions.

Rodriguez-Taseff said some religious groups have been rejecting public dollars because they scorn the government oversight that comes along with it. She said if a religious organization wants to offer AIDS counseling through grants, it has to follow anti-discrimination laws. But, she said, it may believe the homosexuality is wrong and refuse to hire homosexuals -- which would be a flagrant violation of federal laws.

''It puts religious groups in a very bad position,'' Rodriguez-Taseff said. ``It forces them to abide by different laws, some they don't agree with because of their religious beliefs.''

Miami already funds scores of faith-based, nonprofit organizations to provide housing, child care and elderly programs. It pays for AIDS programs provided by Greater Bethel A.M.E. Church, community programs offered by Jewish Family Services of Greater Miami, and child care services provided by nine Catholic Charities.

Diaz said all he wants to do is make faith-based organizations aware of the government funds available to them. That way faith-based organizations can help lift the city out of poverty, help indigent immigrants qualify for housing assistance or offer rehabilitation program for troubled teenagers, he said.

``As a lawyer, I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. But that doesn't mean we need to build a wall between the two of them. If we can work together, why shouldn't we?''


Trinity Church offers a myriad of social service programs under a nonprofit organization called Peacemakers Family Services Center. Those who show up will get free counseling, free legal services, free medical care or free housing assistance. It plans to offer similar services at the Casa Blanca Christian Center in Little Havana, where it recently opened another Peacemaker Center.

The center, created four years ago, has helped about 4,200 families, according to the Rev. Linda Freeman, a pastor at the church.

Freeman said the center receives more than $100,000 a year in federal, state and local funding. The money comes tied to government regulations, but she said she has no problem complying with them.

''Does that change who we are? The answer is no. I think you can be yourself while following the guidelines,'' Freeman said. ``We never ask what religion they are or if they go to church.''


She did say, however, that she would not hire Satan worshipers because she wants people compatible with the culture of the workplace. She said she believes the faith-based initiatives do a lot of good for the community because they help people who have exhausted, or do not qualify for, federal funding and have nowhere else to turn.

''Who's going to talk to them one-on-one? Who deals with them on a daily basis? The church. We don't see these people as throw-aways,'' she said.

Another church, Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, offers feeding and drug-treatment programs. The Word of Life Community Development Corp., headed by Richard Dunn, the pastor of Word of Life Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, offers housing assistance programs and reading programs at inner-city schools.

''Churches have to be more than stain glass windows and cushions on pews,'' said Dunn, a former Miami commissioner. ``The strongest institution in the black community is the church, and what better way to have access to people in the community than through faith-based programs?''


For someone like Massing, a self-described professional panhandler who has not held a steady job in two years, it offers a way to survive.

After months of sleeping beneath a cramped ledge in the parking lot of a Burger King in North Miami, his arm developed gangrene, an oozy infection that could have killed him. The church provided him with free medical attention to treat his arm. Now it's free of sores.

He also has become a regular at the church's Thursday feedings, the only time, he says, he gets to sit at a table and eat a nutritious meal with people who will not be uncomfortable next to him.

''I can't tell you the last time I had steak,'' Massing said, between bites of spaghetti, peas and a roll. ``These are the best meals I get.''

Massing arrived a little late to the 1:30 p.m. meal. He chats with his friends and catches up with them about his long days of panhandling. Many of them begin to shuffle to the back of the room to rummage through a table overflowing with free clothes. Massing does not get up, but a church employee throws a white shirt in his direction.

''They know me here,'' he said. ``They know I like T-shirts.''

''It's nice too,'' his friend, Lee Kitsis, 48, says. ``And it's new!'