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Wednesday, June 5,2013

Church and state

Bishop David Maxwell, in defense of Lansing's Office of Community and Faith-based Initiatives

by Andy Balaskovitz
For the second year in a row, a majority of the Lansing City Council removed funding for a part-time position in Mayor Virg Bernero’s budget proposal. And on Monday night, for the second year in a row, the Council didn’t have the necessary six votes to override the mayor’s veto when he put it back in.

While meeting with constituents, some Council members say they’re often approached with the question: What does Bernero’s Office of Community and Faith-based Initiatives actually do? Or: How is paying for this position out of the General Fund a separation of church and state? And: Isn’t keeping this position just an in-road politically for Bernero into the African-American community?

For budgetary purposes, the $23,000 annual office budget pays the part-time, 25-hour-a-week salary of Bishop David Maxwell, who has led the office since Bernero created it in 2006. Supporters of the office wonder why there’s such contention over $23,000 in a $112 million budget.

Maxwell, the Mayor’s Office and supporters on the Council say the office plays a valuable role in fundraising and serving the less fortunate. And while that may mean organizing various sectors of the religious community under a common cause, like providing food to low-income residents, by no means does the office indoctrinate residents with a particular religion, supporters say. Maxwell, 57, is also pastor of Eliezer Temple Church in Lansing. He said they first met when Bernero ran for the state Senate in 2002.

“In my opinion, they’re deciding they want to cut from the man’s office for political reasons and don’t understand the depth and width of this coalition,” Maxwell said of the five members on Council who attempted to block funding for his position last year and again this year. They are Carol Wood, Brian Jeffries, A’Lynne Boles-Robinson, Jody Washington and Derrick Quinney.

Maxwell said such a government-faith relationship is an “intersection that’s been part of American history since (the country’s) inception. The separation of church and state is the separation of the state trying to impose its will upon the church and the church’s will upon the state. It does not prohibit collaborations with these entities.

“We do not indoctrinate or impose,” Maxwell said. “When proselytization is involved, that’s problematic.”

In January, the office helped the city secure a $1.5 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies for a Financial Empowerment Center to give free financial counseling to low-income residents, Maxwell said. A two-page document provided by the Mayor’s Office lists other initiatives the office helps with, which includes mentoring and helping secure grants.

But supporters say the crowning achievement of the office is helping organize the Church of Greater Lansing in 2008. Maxwell said the organization has raised $375,000 “to assist persons in need” and has served over 55,000 “men, women and children with emergency food needs over the last five years.”

If you look at its website, it’s also an overtly Christian organization. It cites various subjects in scripture as “values” and “core beliefs,” particularly: “We believe that the Godhead eternally exists in three persons — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18). We believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. (Acts 4:12).”

While the Church of Greater Lansing is a collection of 90 churches in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties, “representing diverse populations, denominations, ideas and worship styles,” all of its partner churches are Christian, the website says. The main banner proclaims: “Uniting to transform Lansing for Christ.”

Washington, who represents the city’s 1st Ward, is concerned that the office’s outreach methods are limited to Christian organizations.

“I have an issue with it,” Washington said about the separation of church and state, “particularly when reaching out to a small area. You don’t see the Jewish or Muslim community except once a year” at the mayor’s annual Ramadan Unity Dinner, a benefit to combat hunger and promote Muslim culture. She thinks the city could find someone to do Maxwell’s work on a volunteer basis.

Maxwell said while the Church of Greater Lansing includes only Christian denominations, it is “one aspect of the office.” He noted that an event his office organized, “Love Wins Today,” was a counterprotest against Neo-Nazis who came to town that included the Muslim and Jewish communities.

Boles-Robinson is also concerned about not having concrete information about what Maxwell has done in the seven years the office has existed, blaming both the Mayor’s Office and Maxwell for not documenting it.

“If in seven years you can’t tell me what you do, who is the shame on?” she asked.

Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who supports the office, said such a relatively small line item in a $112 million budget taps into “social capital through a network of faith-based communities,” which in turn leads to greater fundraising.

Boles-Robinson also said she hears in the community that maintaining the position is “the mayor’s way of staying in touch with communities of color,” through Maxwell’s role in the African-American faith community. Particularly, staying in touch politically.

“I have never been used to leverage black pastors or anything else,” Maxwell said. “That’s an illusion, a ruse to distract. On the contrary, if anything is political it’s what these Council members are doing trying to block the office.”

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