Faith-Based Community Ministries in a 9/11 World

by Carl S. Dudley

Dial 9-1-1 in an emergency! Nine eleven has new meaning burned into citizen consciousness following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.1 "Emergency conditions" continue for people of this nation and in other countries throughout the world. Among its countless consequences, even after time has passed, this event continues to pose a profoundly religious challenge that finds expression from the individual psyche to broad national policies and international relations. It increases the need for faith-based ministries of compassion and justice, while it influences every aspect of organizing and supporting these programs through religious communities.

Religious responses to the attack were immediate and virtually universal: Impromptu religious shrines were erected; spontaneous worship events occurred in public places along with hastily scheduled traditional liturgies in established sanctuaries. News media provided religious images and interpretations, and seasoned reporters offered theological reflection on the meaning of these events. On the weekend after the attack, attendance burgeoned at all sorts of religious gatherings of worshipers who mourned the suffering and loss of life. Religious leaders raised and responded to questions of meaning, and provided muchneeded spiritual reassurance for a confused nation.

Historically in most neighborhoods, churches and synagogues have attempted to help people get through hard times, especially those caused by sudden emergencies. The community ministries that churches most frequently mention are those that address crises with emergency money, food, clothing, shelter, medical attention, and personal counseling. As seen in information from the study of Faith Communities Today (FACT),2 religious congregations see themselves as the "safety net" for neighbors in need, offering the basics: money, food, clothing, counseling and medical care.

Figure 1.
Five Most Frequent Community Ministries in Faith Communities Today
Five areas of most frequent response: % YES
Cash assistance to families or individuals 88%
Food pantry or soup kitchen 85%
Thrift shop / clothing closet 61%
Counseling or crisis “hotline” 46%
Hospital and nursing home 45%
Faith Communities Today (FACT) A Report on Religion in the United States Today, 2001

The magnitude of the September 11 attacks overwhelmed existing emergency systems beyond the resources of churches, hospitals, and state agencies combined. In the aftermath, religious bodies are more challenged to respond to the continuing injury to the psyche and soul of Americans. More than a natural disaster (like an earthquake or storm), this attack destroyed the myth of American invulnerability, and was more difficult to "explain." Some literally in shock, citizens absorbed the reality that we had been attacked within our borders. Like all others, our nation is vulnerable.

The stress akin to combat fatigue, previously known only on foreign soil, has become a domestic, personal, and continuing experience. Subsequent terrorist incidents involving anthrax from unknown sources have further destabilized assumptions of personal security. These threats are aimed not only at highly visible leaders but also at postal workers and other ordinary citizens. Americans show the physical, psychological, and spiritual symptoms of stress. This stress is a medical and public health issue, and it is a significant faith-challenge to religious leaders as well. This chronic crisis creates a new context for all social ministries.


Although the context has changed, the need for a wide variety of community ministries has increased; at the same time our national resources for responding to crises have diminished. Americans have been extraordinarily generous in an outpouring of financial support to agencies offering direct assistance to families and individuals who have suffered loss and injury. But in the process, we have seen a significant reduction in available funding for many other philanthropic programs.

Caught in a trough of nongiving that has followed the massive generosity in response to September 11 attacks, local charities across the country are suffering a stunning loss. From soup kitchens to symphonies, from AIDS programs to animal shelters, from museums to medical research, a decline has occurred in anticipated financial support for local support, according to news stories from every part of the country. Only a rally among a few giants softens the blow. Writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Carolyn Said captured the essence:

The culprit for the "perfect storm" scenario of increased need and decreased donations is already well known: The existing economic downturn, which was accelerated in sectors such as tourism and aviation by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has led to a huge spike in joblessness. At the same time, people who are feeling the pinch are donating less to charities—or contributing to relief efforts instead of giving to local groups.3

Some large campaigns and crisis-related organizations (like the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army) have maintained their "market share," while other more prominent efforts have suffered. In the shadow of this watershed event, faith-based social ministries have been asked to do more with less.

Beyond philanthropic limitations, the general economy has suffered as well. The global conflict with terrorism, unlike mobilization for other wars, has not produced a robust economy at home. Rather, economic disorientation has increased domestic unemployment for some and poverty for others. Although this might have been a time for congregations to expand social ministries, their traditional funding sources are suddenly severely limited. To survive in these difficult conditions, all nonprofit organizations, including community ministries, must be more aggressive in challenging volunteers and more imaginative in their funding their programs.

Fortunately, at the same time the spirit of community sharing has increased. In response to the September 11 attacks we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people who feel moved to volunteer in community service. Capital Research reports:

Charities are reporting that volunteerism is up. Robert Goodwin, [p]resident of the Points of Light Foundation in Washington, D.C., says the organization has been flooded with calls from people looking to volunteer. The KeyCorp company reports that 10,000 of its 22,000 employees turned out for the company’s volunteer day recently, up from 8,000 last year. . . . Steve Cultertson, president of Youth Service America, is pleased with the surge in volunteerism. "That makes me optimistic that in the long term, philanthropy will flow back into the local communities."4

Many volunteers are looking for ways to express their concerns, act out their beliefs, and find meaning in service to and with others. This enactment of faith includes participation in outreach programs that cross differences in race, class, religion, language, culture, and national origin. A wide variety of faith based programs have provided natural expressions for this renewal of caring in communities across our land.


The working definition of religious diversity in American consciousness has changed forever as a result of the events of September 11. At one time dominated by the public awareness of Christians, Jews, and "others," our public religious pluralism now openly includes Muslims in America. About 2 million Muslims regularly attend worship, suggesting about a 6 million total Muslim population in the United States (if the same proportion attend worship as in other religious bodies). Muslims, although more frequently located in urban areas, now rank numerically about on a par with each of several historic denominations, such as Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Jews, and Presbyterians (but significantly less than the largest faith groups of Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists). Although Muslim beliefs (based in the Qur’an) and faith practices (such as head-coverings for women) are different, the social ministries of Muslim congregations are remarkably similar to those of other religious groups in the United States.

According to a study by the Council on American Islamic Relations, using FACT data,5 for example, Muslim congregations also serve their communities with primary social ministries.

In the high-priority and specific profile of the social ministries they provide, Muslim congregations’ work appears similar to the outreach programs found in the churches and synagogues down the street.

Figure 2.
Five Most Frequent Community Ministries in Mosques in United States
Five areas of most frequent response: % YES
Cash assistance to families or individuals 90%
Marital or family counseling 77%
Food pantry or soup kitchen 69%
Prison or jail program 66%
Thrift shop/clothing closet 64%
From Council on American-Islamic Relations: A Report from the Mosque Study Project


Like an aerial acrobat swinging from one trapeze to the next, even before September 11, 2001, social welfare programs in the United States were in the midst of a precarious transition. Matched only by the impact of the Great Depression, in the past few years social, religious, economic, and political forces have rewritten the rules for developing ministries in at risk communities in America. From the Oval Office in the White House in Washington, D.C., to literally thousands of little white churches (and synagogues and mosques) across the country, faith based initiatives for community ministries had become more significant, and more controversial, than in any generation since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The great shift came in the adoption of legislation that promised to move people receiving public assistance "from welfare to work." In 1996 a Republican Congress passed and a Democratic President signed the bill that delivered the message in its title, "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act." This act, which President Clinton called "the end of welfare as we have known it," provided strong incentives for state agencies to encourage welfare recipients to develop economic self sufficiency. Further, the national legislation demanded that states implement termination dates and lifetime limits for most current welfare recipients.

Because of welfare to work provisions, funding that had once been available through welfare departments was shifted to programs in labor and educational agencies to support employment training, and social case workers were replaced by vocational counselors. The timing of this watershed transition is significant: By September 2001, the majority of former welfare recipients had been guided and pushed into various modes of economic independence. Although the economy had been thriving, these newly trained workers remained particularly vulnerable.

In the year before the September 11 attacks, I had asked the leaders of faith based ministries in my city to assess the transitional situation. In general, they reported that we were in the midst of a major transition. In the process they noted that many welfare recipients were struggling and vulnerable. These are typical responses.6

A very small percentage are doing much better; they are working, and they have an improved sense of their self esteem and are doing well; but there is a bigger percentage of people who are having a worse time than they ever had [director, soup kitchen].

I think the theory that the state can save money by cutting welfare is true. But what is not taken into account is the measurement of the impact, especially on children. You have more and more families doubling up; what is a three bedroom unit becomes a three family unit. A two family house becomes a five family house [executive, housing agency].

We are having more and more parents who are homeless who are coming to the shelter than we have had in the past. . . . People are poorer, poorer than they were before, and they have less money. And then with that money you have to go to work and then you have to pay for day care and transportation costs. So your expenses have gone up and your income has gone down [manager, temporary family shelter].

In this new configuration of social welfare, the social ministries of faith communities were among the first to feel the impact of change, and to seek to reach the lives of those caught in the transition. Political forces, seeing the church in the middle, made a second major change in the socialservices landscape.


Into that tenuous social climate entered George W. Bush with a strong commitment to encourage faith based ministries to take on a larger share of responsibility for encouraging and, it was hoped, transforming the lives of welfare recipients. In the presidential election of 2000 Bush supported the provision in the 1996 Welfare Act known as "charitable choice." This section of the law requires that states using federal funds permit religious organizations to compete and, if successful, to receive funding on the same basis as other nongovernmental agencies—without giving up their religious character. Immediately after his inauguration in January 2001, President Bush made charitable choice a primary initiative for his new administration, including a White House Office and expanded legislative support. As the terrorists attacks hit eight months later, Congress was debating new legislation to expand the use of contracts, vouchers, and other funding for "charitable, religious, or private organizations" to provide services far beyond the initial allocation to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, Food Stamps and similar programs.

Regardless of the shape of additional legislation, the role of faith based ministries will remain a defining issue for the next several years.

Historically the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Family Services, Jewish Federation, and other religious agencies have contracted for programs with funding from government agencies. They have worked at local, state, and even federal level with millions of public dollars invested in the programs they provided. "Charitable choice" legislation reaffirmed the value of the work that these religious bodies contributed to the whole society. As models for additional faith based community ministry programs, they underscored the appropriate roles for professionals serving with volunteer caregivers in large and sustainable programs. Over the years they have provided a religious witness without denying the freedom of clients to retain their own very different religious persuasions. But the current debate on charitable choice and faith based ministries goes beyond the practices of these long established social agencies.


On a national level, the debates surrounding charitable choice have often heightened tensions produced by differences. Evangelical and liberal Protestants, for example, have differed over the clarity of religious expression permitted as a condition of receiving services, while some conservative Christians have resisted funding programs provided by non-Christian religious groups, or permitting the government to decide what is a legitimate religion. Although the national rhetoric has focused on differences, local communities seeking charitable-choice funding have bridged some of the bitter divisions. Often they have worked together as siblings within a family of religious groups, not by resolving differences but by accepting them. Local networks of stakeholders (beginning with churches and agencies, but often including schools and businesses) gathered in support of community ministries have a power to renew faith within each group, even as these community programs provide common ground to accept their differences. These ministries have been midwife to fascinating coalitions of black and white; city and suburb; Catholic and Protestant; evangelical and liberal; Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. While recognizing our differences, some faith based community ministries provide a deeply satisfying experience of common ground.

This need for additional help in combination with the potential of faith based ministries has produced new, unexpected partners drawn from previously distinct institutional groups of business, philanthropy, education, and religious organizations. New partnerships form as old divisions disappear. Government agencies already work closely with business in concerns for employee health and safety, for example. Business overlaps the public sphere in a wide variety of institutions, from prisons to hospitals to welfare agencies, where "privatization" is a recognized alternative. Philanthropy, education, government, and business often come together for research and product development. Employment agencies may create horizontal links with secular agencies and religious job-training programs. A government sponsored housing development may include private, religious, and commercial interests. Abounding examples of productive collaboration underscore the wide margins of cooperation that already link government with business and philanthropy.

In the context of new and unexpected collaboration throughout the culture, charitable choice is only one of many partnerships in a much larger movement. Because of the uniquely American tradition of the separation of church and state, charitable-choice funding for faith-based social ministries raises unique questions for participants, which we shall explore from various practical perspectives. But in the larger sweep of social changes, it comes at a time of great need when innovative alliances are already being constructed that cross many old institutional differences.


Terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—momentarily the most dramatic— were only one of several powerful forces that have put faith-based community ministries in the center of a "perfect storm." Collectively these forces include new welfare legislation as interpreted by the president, a national (and worldwide) economic depression and struggle for recovery, and the expanded need for social services for people moving from welfare to work, and for others simply out of work in a transitional and uncertain economy. The implications for faith communities are both harsh and promising:

Our ability to make something positive from these new conditions will depend on many factors. These include maximizing leadership and location, and a wise use of history, politics, and resources—physical and spiritual. The leaders we interviewed particularly stressed these three issues that challenge faith-based ministries in this radically new era, namely:

In this time of transition, adaptive congregations can find amazing new resources to develop and expand their social ministries. Such congregations can renew their commitments and relationships to have an impact on the communities from which they come and in which they are, by God’s grace, agents of care, healing, and transformation.


Your group needs to address four interdependent choices if it is to build a solid foundation for your ministry. The first is your social context—the place and people around your center. While your community context does not determine your ministry, it provides the framework of social forces, lifestyles, and community resources within which your ministry takes place. Second is your congregational identity, that unique character of faith, history, and personality that form your culture. Congregational identity reflects the core values and commitments that shape your church and guide its response to the challenges of change. The third is the organization for ministry that gives your ministry the capacity to respond to your context in ways consistent with your identity. Fourth are the partnerships, the networks of relationship and commitment that broaden the base and give the ministry stability over time.

Together these elements are essential to gaining the commitment of any congregation to a community ministry. For your parish to support the ministry, four things need to happen:

These four elements are interdependent, and in a sense, they must happen at the same time. Most groups, however, choose to concentrate on one aspect at a time.

You need not go through all the steps before you respond to a particularly obvious need for community ministry. From experience, I have listed the essential elements for mobilizing social ministry. These reflect the foundations that are most helpful, but they can be constructed in whatever order seems appropriate. You may wish to begin with a study of identity rather than context, or begin with the study of people rather than boundaries. If you have already begun your ministry, or have been working at it for a long time, these steps may provide a review of what you have done and fresh energy as you continue. By picking and choosing, you may find ways to strengthen your ministry, set it in a larger context, or discover additional resources. I am advocating not a formula for ministry, but a selection of working tools to be used in ways that only you can identify.


As you explore the guidelines, you will discover that congregations of all sorts can engage in compassionate outreach to help people in need and to transform communities. They may organize and support similar programs, but the ways they explain their ministries are different, unique to their congregation’s own character, and compelling to many of its members.

You will also notice that congregations become involved in social ministries for different reasons. Some ministries respond to the needs of families and individuals in their community, some reflect the fear of changes in the church neighborhood, some result from the efforts of a few committed members, and others seek to recruit new church members. Most congregations act from a mixture of motives, but their ministries of concern are virtually always a natural expression of their faith. Typically the motives for these ministries are rooted in a common Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus began his ministry with these compassionate words from the prophet Isaiah (61:1): "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor" (Luke 4:18-19).

Christian churches reported their community ministries were established in response to the "great commandment" that Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Scripture (Deut. 6:4 and Lev. 19:18): "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . and you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31). Christians emphasized their commitments to enact the expectations envisioned in Jesus’ parable that we will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, and minister to the infirm and imprisoned—remembering the words of Jesus, "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:40). For many religious communities, as in a synagogue in our more recent interviews, the act of gathering food has been incorporated into the rituals of worship. "People bring food when they come to Yom Kippur, and all the food we collect is sent to Food Share, the regional food bank. We collect between 17 and 18 thousand pounds of food in a single day."

Whatever a faith community’s motivation for ministries of compassion and justice, however, such ministries do not happen until someone cares enough to act. No amount of pressure and no organizational procedure can make someone love another enough to step forward and help. Pain, hardship, loss, and sadness are often triggers for sensitive believers. Sometimes we worry about our own conditions, and that concern expands to include others as well. When poverty wears a child’s face, when a friend is unemployed, when the children or the elderly or the broken families are real to us—then, by the strange power of God’s Spirit, their pain may trigger the necessary energy and endurance in us to organize a ministry in response. As one church member discovered, "It hurts more when you know their names."

Social ministry begins with one or two individuals who care, but they must gather others who share their hopes for touching individuals, changing systems, and empowering people. This act of faith provides the foundation and sustaining energy for building a new ministry. The group may be official or informal; it may be homogeneous or diverse; it may focus on a specific ministry or share a wider concern for the welfare of the community—but the members of this group must be willing to make the development of this ministry a priority in their lives. In short, you need a group—task force, alliance, collective, committee—that feels God’s call to take up this cause. That action group is the basis of your new or renewed ministry.

Carl S. Dudley is Professor of Church and Community at Hartford Seminary and on the staff of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.


1. Sections of this chapter have been abridged from Carl S. Dudley, "Faith-Based Community Ministries in a 9-11 World," in September 11, 2001: A Historical, Theological and Social Critique (Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2002); used by permission.

2. Faith Communities Today (FACT) includes 14,301 congregations from 41 denominational and faith communities; see Carl S. Dudley and David A Roozen, Faith Communities Today (FACT): A Report on Religion in the United States Today (Hartford: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary, 2001), on line at

3. Carolyn Said, "Foundations launch campaign to support safety net charities," San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 5, 2001, from Web site

4. From "Philanthropy Notes" in Foundation Watch (Dec. 2001), Washington, D.C.: Capital Research Center,

5. From "The Mosque in America: A National Portrait," using data gathered in cooperation with Faith Communities Today study (above), published in A Report from the Mosque Study Project (Washington, D.C.: Council on American-Islamic Relations, April 2001). On line at

6. Quotes from congregations and agencies from Carl S. Dudley, Welfare, Faith-Based Ministries, and Charitable Choice (Hartford: Hartford Institute for Religion Research, for Program for Non-Profit Organizations, Yale University, March 2001). On line at Also from Carl S. Dudley, Basic Steps toward Community Ministries (Washington: Alban Institute, 1991) and Next Steps in Community Ministry (Bethesda: Alban Institute, 1996), and from Carl S. Dudley and Sally A. Johnson, Energizing the Congregation: Images That Shape Your Church’s Ministry (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993).

Adapted from Community Ministry: New Challenges, Proven Steps to Faith-Based Initiatives by Carl S. Dudley (Bethesda, Md.; The Alban Institute, 2002). Copyright © 2002 by the Alban Institute, Inc. All rights reserved.