Prepared Remarks of Attorney General John Ashcroft
White House Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Conference Denver, Colorado January 13, 2003
Good afternoon and welcome. It is an honor to be with you today. I thank especially Jim Towey, Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, for organizing this conference and for his outstanding service to our nation.
This is the third in series of White House Faith-Based and Community Initiative Conferences. We gather today in a nation that has changed fundamentally since this initiative was launched by President Bush.
Someone noted recently that there have been about 200 books written about Pearl Harbor in the 62 years since that attack and well over 400 books written in the sixteen months since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
And what stands out amid this mountain of information and analysis are the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. As you may know, I am from Missouri, the home state of Mark Twain, who said, among other things, "There is nothing so embarrassing as a good example."
Over the past sixteen months we have been inspired by the extraordinary acts of many good Americans from all walks of life.
One such example was the people on Flight 63, bound from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001. Passengers and crew confronted and restrained Richard Reid, an admitted member of al Qaeda and enemy of the United States, as he attempted to ignite a wire protruding from his shoe, threatening the 197 people on board.
We also remember the heroes of Flight 93, who sacrificed themselves in a field in Pennsylvania. And Todd Beamer who asked a telephone operator to recite The Lord's Prayer with him before turning to his fellow passengers and saying, "Let's roll."
We remember the rescue workers, police and firefighters, doctors, nurses, and countless other volunteers who put aside their personal lives and worked beyond fatigue in order to help save the wounded, comfort the survivors and bring dignity to those who perished.
At this extraordinary moment in history, we have been given a great gift -- the gift of a deeper awareness of how the selfless acts of ordinary people can impact others in ways we cannot begin to imagine or to measure. September 11 reminded all Americans of our most fundamental values: Country. Family. Service. And Faith.
These concepts are by no means new. When he traveled through America more than 100 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French observer, was struck by the American spirit of service to one another. He said, quote, "The Americans'… regard for themselves, constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property for the welfare of others." This spirit of service and community has existed as long as America has existed, and it remains deeply rooted in our faith traditions.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the streets of American cities were lined with liquor shops, houses of prostitution, and gambling houses. They were littered with addicts, orphaned children, and destitute immigrants struggling to make a life for themselves and their families.
The first Americans to step forward and address these dire conditions weren't government officials but volunteers from private institutions of charity and assistance - the first of what have come to be known as faith-based and community organizations. Disease was treated by church-run hospitals. Children were sheltered by church-sponsored orphanages, and educated by church-sponsored schools. Families were fed and lives were saved by ordinary Americans who reached out to those in need.
Over the years, many of these private charities have been replaced by government-run social services programs. But even today, the majority of social services are not administered by Washington bureaucrats but by many of the same people who fed the hungry a hundred years ago - compassionate citizens in churches and neighborhoods across the nation. In fact, for every federal worker who administers social services, there are six people - many of them people like you - working in communities on behalf of those in need.
Many of you administer social services through faith-based organizations. Unfortunately, over the last several decades, the government has discriminated against people of faith who are striving to do good for others. Out of fear, ignorance and occasional bigotry, faith-based groups have been prohibited from competing for federal funding on a level playing field with secular groups.
During my years in the Senate, I worked with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to reduce discrimination against faith-based groups by enacting Charitable Choice in four areas of the law, including welfare reform and substance abuse treatment. Charitable Choice levels the playing field so that all community-serving organizations - not just secular ones - have an equal opportunity to cooperate with government to help feed the hungry, heal the sick, and shelter the homeless.
Under Charitable Choice, organizations cannot be excluded merely because they have a cross on their wall or a rabbi on the board of directors. Faith-based organizations cannot be denied the opportunity to meet needs simply because they hire workers who share their religious beliefs. And they cannot be forced to change or to compromise their beliefs or their mission in order to qualify for participation in federal programs.
Charitable Choice has played a fundamental role in delivering services to those in need, particularly in easing the path from welfare to work for millions of Americans. While the legislative framework has been in place since the 1990s, it was not until President George W. Bush took the oath of office that faith-based organizations serving our communities began to receive encouragement from the federal government. This encouragement and support expands their unique capacity to serve America and meet human needs.
George W. Bush came to office with the belief that charities, grassroots organizations and faith-based groups fill needs that government, no matter how well intentioned, generously funded, or carefully designed, cannot possibly fill.
For the first time in a long time, our leaders in Washington understand what Americans of all religious backgrounds have long held to be true: Through faith, all things are possible.
- Faith ministers to the less fortunate. Eighty percent of the more than 300,000 religious congregations in America provide services to those in need.
- Faith shapes lives. Over 90 percent of urban congregations provide social services, ranging from preschool to literacy programs to health clinics.
- Faith shepherds communities. Polls estimate that between 60 and 90 percent of America's congregations provide at least one social service, and about 75 percent of local congregations provide volunteers for social service programs.
- Faith nurtures children. One out of every six child-care centers in America is housed in a religious facility. The nation's largest providers of child-care services are the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention.
- And perhaps most significantly, faith inspires the faithful to love their neighbors as they'd love themselves. Nearly one-quarter of all Americans volunteer their time and effort through faith-based organizations.
Many of America's best ideas - and best results - for helping those in need have come not from the federal government but from grassroots communities, private and faith-based organizations of people who know and care about their neighbors. For years, America's churches and charities have led the way in helping the poor achieve dignity instead of despair, self-sufficiency instead of shame.
A government check may relieve hunger, but it cannot supply hope. It can provide temporary shelter, but it cannot offer the long-term integrity of independence.
You, and all Americans who give of themselves as acts of conviction, do things that government cannot and should not try to do. You touch hearts with a message of faith and lives are changed. We can and should do more to help you unleash the extraordinary power of hope to serve and heal America.
At the Department of Justice, home to one of the federal government's five Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, we have partnered with caring and compassionate religious and community organizations to support a number of social services. We are working to:
- assist rehabilitated offenders in re-entering our communities,
- aid victims of domestic violence,
- link troubled teens with caring mentors, and
- help alcoholics and drug addicts along the path to recovery.
Their stories, which you have helped to write, are living proof of the life-changing power of your efforts:
Aaron Brown is one such story. Aaron, an unemployed alcoholic and cocaine addict, turned to the Westside Community Ministries for help. Westside, a grass-roots faith-based organization in Indianapolis that is partially funded by our Office of Justice Programs, provided him with support, mentoring programs and job training. Today, Aaron has a full-time job, is training to be a mentor at Westside, and lives his life free of drugs and alcohol.
And the Justice Department's Office for Victims of Crime was able to help Mindi Russell, a chaplain in California, to bring her ministry to New York City in the days after the September 11. Chaplain Russell spent two weeks at Ground Zero providing counseling and comfort to grieving families, law enforcement officers, and rescue workers.
There is nothing more valuable - or more noble - than giving one's self to serve others. All across America, voices cry out in need, and it is up to each one of us to light the candle of hope that can dispel darkness and despair.
Writing in 1963, Dorothy Day - the inspiring founder of the Catholic Workers Movement - said that society's greatest challenge was, quote, "to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us."
It is now as it was then. You are the revolutionaries who hold the power to effect change. In the wake of September 11, your work is more important than ever before. You bind the wounds of a nation shaken by terrorism. You bring comfort to a people searching for meaning. You are the soldiers in America's armies of compassion.
With each act of kindness, a heart is changed. With each act of mercy, hope is rekindled. And each act of faith introduces values that can change lives.
Thank you for your work. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your faith. May God bless you, your ministries, and may God bless the United States of America.