While the “faith factor” has been cited in cover stories and popular books as contributing to physical and mental well-being there has been less attention paid to the effect of religious beliefs and practices on social problems, particularly concerning at-risk youth.
Recently, however, a spate of reports from think tanks and academic conferences are starting to address this issue. A recent conference at Columbia University’s School of Journalism also dealt with the question of why there has been a dearth of reporting on faith-based ministries’ beneficial effect on at-risk and criminal youth.
The first part of the Columbia conference, attended by RW in early April, looked at the secular dimension of the issue of at-risk youth, such as the social and political roots of such problems as unwed pregnancies, teen violence, crime, and drug abuse, and how the media covered them. The few references to religion were usually to non-Judeo Christian faiths, such as American Indian traditions and Tibetan Buddhism. James Gabarino of Cornell University was more forthright on the importance of the religious factor in working with at-risk youth.
A pilot project on which he is working for the State of New York is attempting to change the orientation of violent offenders’ programs from that of a “boot camp to a monastery.” The “boot camp approach does it the wrong way — it tries to threaten youth to change. A youth prison that takes a contemplative approach works for spiritual development inward and upward,” Gabarino said. Such an approach would work with faith-based programs which have shown the most progress in dealing with troubled youth.
The second half of the conference, sponsored by Columbia’s new Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and Spiritual Life, brought together religious leaders and social scientists to deal more openly with the faith factor. The fact that all of the panelists discussed Christian approaches to the issues raised some objections from the audience.
One reporter’s remark during the question and answer session showed the difficulty the media has in reporting on religion’s impact in promoting social well-being. She said that the media’s belief in the “secular nature of society” often means that journalistic “coverage tends to downplay the Christian element in such work.”
Distinctly Christian teachings are often an important part of the mushrooming faith-based programs for at-risk youth, acknowledged John DiIulio, a political scientist at Princeton University. DiIulio has been in the forefront of studying and promoting faith-basproaches to poverty and crime issues. He said that while the research is still preliminary, studies in cities across the U.S. show that “children fare better” in faith-based programs than in others.
Such networks of inner-city clergy as Boston’s “Ten Point Plan,” or Philadelphia’s independent Catholic Gesu Elementary School excel among at-risk youth because they drive home the point that “God loves you, and so do we,” DiIulio says. The congregations involved in such ministries display such common characteristics as: they are usually small and medium-sized congregations; the pastors live in the community and often run “youth chapels” that deal directly with this age group; the congregations tend to be non-ideological and not very political, although the pastors may hold “progressive” views.
Most importantly, DiIulio finds that these congregations are deeply involved in serving youth and other people who are not members of their congregations. “Many are evangelical or Pentecostal, but really don’t preach at people or push people out [if they don’t respond]. They never turn people away.”