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Groups wonder about faith office

ST. PAUL -- Religious leaders say church groups can help people without evangelizing, the goal of a new Minnesota state office.

"The classic phrase is: 'They will know we are Christians by our love,'" said Mark Krejci, a Concordia College vice president and a social work volunteer through his church. "We feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless."

Helping the needy without sermons is the goal of a new Minnesota program for faith and community organizations that provide social services ranging from homeless shelters to aid for convicts getting out of prison.

Plenty of questions have cropped up in the month Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office of faith and community service has been around. The governor's advisor on faith and community initiatives, Lee Buckley, plans to answer those questions during a series of not-yet-scheduled meetings around the state.

Buckley said rural Minnesota could especially benefit from her effort to bring state money and other resources to a wider variety of church and community social services organizations. In announcing the office, Pawlenty said many of those smaller organizations do not know how to get resources from government and private sources.

Minnesota became the 30th state to follow President Bush's lead in opening a White House faith and community based initiative office. Local groups say they have not seen much change since the White House office opened.

"Maybe it is trickling somewhere," Krejci said, just not to groups he knows.

That attitude is widespread enough that Pawlenty's new effort is receiving a lukewarm reception.

Brian Rusche of the statewide Joint Religious Legislative Coalition said his Christian, Jewish and Islamic members don't want social services mixed with religion.

That is the same fear expressed by August Berkshire, a Minnesota atheist leader.

"Taxpayer money must not go for proselytization," Berkshire said. "For example, no one should be forced to sit through a prayer in order to get a government-subsidized meal."

Buckley and Pawlenty promise that will not happen.

"Lee's job is not to bring more people to faith," Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said. "It is to make sure the armies of faith and compassion know where they can access resources."

Buckley, whose only staff is part of one Administration Department employee's time, said that besides state grants, she may be able to help groups find money from private sources as well as non-monetary resources. For instance, if a charitable group provides a service but does not have the means to transport clients, she might find vehicles.

Pawlenty's new adviser will have to do this on the cheap. McClung said he does not expect Buckley to have money to add staff, and the new office does not mean there will be more money available for social service organizations.

Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, chairwoman of the Senate State Government Budget Division, said legislators did not want to put the community and faith office into law at a time when they were cutting most areas of state funding.

However, lawmakers did approve enough of a budget increase that Pawlenty could open the office on his own.

Buckley is paid $85,000 annually.

Buckley knows there are lots of questions. Even though she just got her office furniture on Friday, she has met with many faith and community organizations to begin answering them.

Large groups, such as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, have a much easier time finding money and other resources than smaller groups, Pawlenty said. However, Buckley promised those big organizations will not lose money.

Buckley said the new office will provide training so more organizations can learn how to tap into state and private resources.

Big charitable organizations know how to maneuver through government red tape, Krejci said. It is the small volunteer groups that run homeless shelters in many Minnesota communities that may need help, he added.

Volunteers who run small groups "are not as adept at finding some of the funding sources some of the bigger organizations are tied into," Krejci said.

Tribune photo by Don Davis

Lee Buckley works on paperwork in her new job as special assistant to Gov. Tim Pawlenty for faith and community service.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.