THE BLOG
07/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Zanesville On Obama's Faith-Based Initiatives: Thanks But No Thanks

A week after Senator Obama and his campaign descended upon Eastside Community Ministries in Zanesville, Ohio, where Obama delivered his controversial remarks calling for an expansion of federal funding to faith-based ministries that deliver social services, I head to Zanesville to see if its churches share the Senator's vision. After spending the better part of a day talking to people there -- at seven downtown churches, another over the Muskingum River, and at Eastside itself -- I find little interest in Obama's plan. Indeed, the lack of enthusiasm for the plan among these churchgoers matches the lack of enthusiasm it has generated among secular Democrats.

"We don't want any strings attached to help from Washington," says Scott Johnston, the pastor of Market Street Baptist Church, founded "as a statement against slavery" in 1837. Scott walks me through the historic church -- which he points out contains "the most Tiffany-style glass of any church in America" -- and then, when we finally sit down in his office, tells me about his experience meeting Senator Obama at Eastside Ministries.

"I'm a political junkie, and the whole church knows it," Johnston says. "So I get this phone call from a guy named Joe asking if I want to meet Senator Obama, and I think it's a joke. I'm not taking him seriously, but then to prove it to me, Joe rattles off all my phone numbers, various things about me -- now I know it's not a joke." So Johnston goes to Eastside on the appointed day. "There were about fifty press," he says, "lots of campaign staffers, including Joe, some Eastside volunteers and thirty kids. All the windows had been taped over with construction paper, and there were trucks parked to block any view into the courtyard where Obama gave his speech.

"Joe takes me to an upstairs room. The mayor is there, and the lady in charge of United Way, and this old guy... who started Eastside Ministries about fifty years ago. 'Will we get to hear Senator Obama?' I ask. 'The Senator wants to talk to you personally,' Joe says. 'He'll be here in ten minutes.' The four of us just look at each other."

Johnston, as a clergyman and a connoisseur of a certain style, shares his impressions of Obama. "Very nice, very personable, very much a politician. His body language--he knows how to lean into a person when listening--he has been to school! He makes good eye contact! Very much a politician."

I ask him what the four representatives of Zanesville told Obama. "We are a community that takes care of our own," the United Way lady told him. The old guy didn't say much, the mayor talked money and Johnston pressed for more help for the elderly -- specifically, a change in the privacy laws so that outsiders can act as advocates for old people who don't have any family.

But Johnston is dubious about Obama's plans and about the man himself. "There are more strings attached under his program than under Bush's. You can hire a person who agrees with your theology, under Bush. With Obama, you're getting more government involvement -- we don't need that."

While we're talking, Johnston is waiting for a phone call from the Cleveland Clinic, where one of his congregation, a thirty-seven year-old man with two young children, is dying. Scott and his wife have spent much of the last few weeks driving back and forth between Zanesville and Cleveland. And so on the day Obama came to Zanesville, Johnston got a call from Cleveland and had to leave Eastside before Obama had finished his speech. Walking down the hill to his car, he encountered "a lot of people strung out along the road holding Obama signs." "'Did you see him? Did he touch you? What is he like?' they asked me," Scott says. "'Very nice, very personable, very much a politician,' I replied."

Earlier in the day, driving east from Columbus, I had gone straight to Eastside Community Ministries, an unprepossessing building with an annex and playground half-way up the side of one of Zanesville's many hills. Eastside's appearance belies its importance: most of the local churches funnel their social outreach through Eastside. The neighborhood is all nineteenth-century houses -- well-fitted clapboard and pre-Civil War red brick, beautiful in decrepitude. Poverty shouldn't be appealing to the eye -- and certainly rotting porches and broken window glass are a warning against any illusions -- but there's an irresistible charm to a city with no split-levels, no Tuscan villa homes, no post-World War Two houses at all. Zanesville is on the farther edge of Appalachian Ohio, marked by hills and hollers. Johnston tells me that he and his wife love the hills of southeast Ohio. "You can see where the glacier stopped and the hills start," he says. "The hills fold us into them. There's a comfort to it."

When I walk into Eastside Ministries, a counselor at the front desk is trying to help a couple find a source for affordable prescription drugs. Volunteer Mary White sits down with me and shares her impressions of Obama. "I was very much impressed with his people skills. He interacts easily with people, makes people feel comfortable. He does a lot of listening. He's a nice person. Very compassionate." White has offered her observations in such a way that I know she has no intention of voting for him. She's the kind of soft-spoken Appalachian woman who will go out of her way to phrase her remarks so as not to offend. Not causing distress, especially to a stranger, is uppermost in her mind. Interestingly, she's more ebullient about Obama's entourage than the man himself. "They had done a lot of research on us!" she says. "But we don't know how they found out about us." As the day passes, I find no one in Zanesville who can answer that question. "Their campaign people and Secret Service are great to work with! Not what you would expect -- very friendly."

White is less sanguine about Obama's proposal for federal funding of faith-based ministries like Eastside. "Every aspect of us has some aspect of faith built into it," she says. She gestures towards the second floor. "Our youth program has a Bible Club." She points out the food pantry. "Each order of food has a prayer in it." She goes further. "People come to us to pray with them. You see we have a chapel there. In emergency situations, and we are often helping people in emergencies, people want prayer. So we have to be very careful in the money we take. It's very important to us, it's very important to the individuals who fund us, that we be able to minister with faith."

Eastside, the site of Senator Obama's proposal to fund faith-based ministries, has no intention of applying for or accepting tax-payer dollars. Eastside is not even tied to any one particular branch of the Christian faith. For the most part, Zanesville's downtown churches share ecumenical Eastside's disposition. While Pastor Steve, newly arrived from Wesley in Jackson, Mississippi, unpacks books in his office, his secretary Judy explains that Grace United Methodist Church has no need for government funds. Grace United used to give food to the pantry at Eastside but winter weather had proved problematic, and so they had quit. Next door Jane, the secretary at St. James Episcopal, is equally emphatic that her church is not interested in federal monies. The diocese gives them the wherewithal for the free dinner they host the last Saturday of every month. Everything else the church members raise themselves and give to Eastside.

The prescription drug program I had seen in action up at Eastside had actually begun down at St. James Episcopal with the death of a parishioner. Taking her bequest, St. James had asked a local druggist to help the church set up something for the uninsured in Zanesville. Eventually, that druggist had gone out of business, and St. James had transferred its program up to Eastside. Now St. James, with the exception of its Saturday meal, funnels all its members' local outreach dollars to Eastside.

In fact, faith-based social programs in Zanesville are a closed loop. The mainstream churches give their money to Eastside and rely on Eastside to do the work; Eastside eschews federal funding. Moreover, none of the churches with whose members I speak are interested in expanding into the kind of ambitious social programs, in education for example, that Senator Obama mentioned in his speech. When I ask Renee at St. John's Lutheran about any summer school programs, she says that, yes, they have a two-week Amazing Grace day camp for which they bus in fifty children. Mary at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, like Renee at St. John's a few blocks away, shows a distaste when I mention government funding. Their outreach is to seniors and shut-ins and nursing homes; sometimes they bring food, but importantly they bring the Eucharist. St. Thomas Aquinas also holds rummage sales, and the leftovers go to Eastside. Mary at Saint Nicholas, an imposing basilica-like Catholic Church with three cross-crowned domes, tells me that their collections are down, but everything they have they give to Eastside.

Most of these churches have an outreach beyond Zanesville, as well. Typically in Catholic and Episcopalian parishes, a portion of all collections must go to the diocese and from there abroad. Often Protestant churches directly support missions abroad. Scott Johnston proudly tells me about the hospital in Vanga, Congo, and the work with Burmese refugees in Thailand that Market Street Baptist supports.

Central Presbyterian is different than the other churches I visited, the exception that proves the rule. Mary Perone, director of outreach, tells me that "if he [Obama] can do it, it would be fantastic." She's all in favor of federal grant money for her faith-based outreach. She'd like to start a parish nurse program and do more with adult literacy. But the first thing she says, when we each take a folding chair at a long dining table in the low-ceilinged basement, is critical of Obama's visit to Zanesville. "He really didn't get to meet the people," this Perone says. "The people he got to meet were on his level -- not the common people -- he didn't touch base with them." She is disapproving. "They're really hurting, and they don't think people listen."

Perone proceeds to give me a very different picture of Zanesville than I hear elsewhere. The steel and wire plants have cut back. Even Longaberger Baskets near Dresden has laid off workers. "Paying for gas, people don't have money for baskets," she says. She runs a soup kitchen here in the basement on Sunday evening, "the last free meal in town after lunch on Saturday." The local Sam's Club has given Central Presbyterian and the other eighteen food pantries in the local Hunger Network a refrigerated truck to carry off the outdated meat Sam's Club supplies them. "But I could use some help cutting it up," Perone says. "A lot of the other downtown churches sit idle. They could at least come over here and help me with the meat." She tells me about some of the people she feeds. "There's this dad, he has a good job, but three kids and a wife with some health problems. He mows yards in the evenings to help make ends meet, but still if his family don't eat here Sunday, they wouldn't eat. It's all service jobs now, and they don't pay enough." But even Perone wonders how the federal funding for faith-based programs would work. "We say grace before our meal," she says. "And when I go out into the countryside, people often want me to say a prayer with them."

Zanesville is like many of the small cities I've visited on the campaign trail in that its inhabitants have very different views of what is rather a cohesive place. Scott Johnston assures me that "the town is making it." One of the main industries now is medicine. Johnston mentions the heart center, the black lung center. He praises the work ethic and honesty of Zanesville. Mary Perone, on the other hand, tells me about the substance abuse. "The prostitutes line up out there on Seventh Street and proposition people on their way to church."

On my last stop of the day, I'm standing in front of Putnam Presbyterian across the Muskingum River from the rest of Zanesville and staring up at the lead-shingled needle spire resting upon the frail wooden body of the narrow old church. Putnam was an Abolitionist Church (the first minister was a brother of Henry Ward Beecher), and just recently an Underground Railroad tunnel from the church to the river has been discovered. I have a strange feeling as a Southerner in Putnam's presence, for its people and my people once fought and died over an issue of faith and politics.

It's going on six o'clock and suppertime; nevertheless, I try the door to the vestry and find it unlocked. Hearing a fan whirring somewhere, I climb the stairs past the smell of must and very old oak. In the office I find Wade Coffey working at his laptop a young man with curly hair pushed down under a baseball cap. He's not with Putnam Presbyterian, although the first thing I ask him about is Putnam's tunnel. Coffey is the outreach director for Muskingum Valley Vineyard Church, which rents space from Putnam. I have never heard of the Vineyard Churches, but Wade tells me they originated in California with one of the Righteous Brothers, and that their form of worship combines Scripture and healing. I ask him about his church's social services.

Muskingum Vineyard, not surprisingly for a church that tithes, does quite a bit. They contribute to the food pantry at Eastside and the Door of Faith Orphanage. They're starting a teenage substance abuse program. The church has just bought the old pottery on the street, Coffey tells me, and is turning it into a "mall of ministries" in which they will locate their furniture bank, as well as places for haircuts and free oil changes. Coffey's Vineyard Church applies for private grants and in fact just got one for a "Jobs and Life Skills" training program in downtown Zanesville. But Coffey laughs when I ask about Senator Obama's proposal for federal funding. "Cut out the Jesus part? I don't think so!" Coffey says that Vineyard is an affiliate of the Bethel Mission down near the river. "Their heart is to set up camp in that part of town," he explains. "They throw picnics, plant flowers, fix up homes -- they help people through prayer, to be honest." "They're healers -- people don't have insurance -- so broken bones, spider bites, tumors -- all those for what it's worth, they've had some success."

Coffey and I chat for a while about the neighborhood ("a lot of drug dealers") and the Book of Acts, as well as government bureaucracy. Eventually, Coffey gives me his opinion of faith-based social outreach. "The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world --" He works his hands to show that they are not a fit. "You'll never find the full answer in humanity. But you have to belong where you are planted. And you are planted in this world." Before I leave, Coffey asks if he may say a prayer for me. Somehow he has divined that I have a troublesome right leg and hip, and so he prays for me to be healed.

Driving away, I marvel at the distance from Putnam Presbyterian to the river. I drive it twice, to make sure. It has to be at least half a mile. How had those folk dug a tunnel down to the Muskingum? Likely they had had miners to help. But surely the underground commotion had agitated most of the dogs and horses in the neighborhood. And what backbreaking work for people the laborers would never meet. It's almost dusk now, and I'm driving west down out of the hills back through the barely-ridged land that the glacier smoothed millennia ago. Blackbirds are wheeling away from my car across the long rows of mown hay waiting for the baler, and the clumps of Queen Anne's lace lining the back road to Chillicothe are white lanterns in the twilight. I'm trying to untangle my thoughts about faith and politics, but really all I'm sure of are the Ohio boys, like the ones from Iowa and Pennsylvania I've also remembered now and then along the campaign trail, those Ohio farmboys part of a high bluff on another river, the Tennessee, above Pittsburg Landing, near the small city in which I grew up. It's a slow road to Chillicothe, but strangely my leg and hip never bother me once.

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