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Robert Wuthnow

I Was Thirsty . . .

How Congregations Serve

The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare by Ram A. Cnaan
New York Univ. Press, 2002
328 pp.; $19.50, paper

On August 22, 1996, President Clinton signed into law a welfare reform bill known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The bill included a provision sponsored by Senator John Ashcroft of Missouri which sought to ease restrictions on faith-based service organizations receiving government funding. This Charitable Choice provision, as it was called, prompted a flurry of interest in the role that churches could play in assisting people who were on welfare to become self sufficient. During the 2000 presidential election campaign Al Gore and George Bush both spoke favorably about the role that churches were already playing and promised to pass new legislation to assist in their efforts.

Soon after he was elected, President Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and appointed John I. DiIulio, Jr., an outspoken advocate of religiously sponsored service organizations, as its director. Hoping to pass additional legislation favorable to faith-based efforts, the Bush administration praised social ministries and encouraged the public to become more involved in supporting these ministries. While these efforts were sidelined by the tragic events of September 11, 2001, they left many unanswered questions about what churches were actually doing to provide social services.

Ram Cnaan, who teaches in the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the first to take up the challenge of systematically conducting research among congregations to find out how they were serving their communities. Through a grant from Partners for Sacred Places, an organization concerned with preserving historic church buildings, Professor Cnaan conducted an extensive study of churches in Philadelphia that indicated the important role they were playing in sponsoring programs to ...

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