Good Works

Faith United Behind a Paint Scraper

by Louisa C. Brinsmade

By 9am Saturday morning, half the old shingles were torn off the roof, and the living room was scraped and ready to be painted. By the end of the day, Elvolia Alexander's home on 1711 Springdale would have a new roof, a patched ceiling in the dining room where the old roof leaked, plus a fresh coat of paint. All courtesy of a small crew from Tarrytown United Methodist Church. Alexander is just one of the 450 homeowners since 1990 who have benefited from Austin Metropolitan Ministries' (AMM) Hands on Housing program. Working primarily in lower-income areas like Alexander's Blackshear neighborhood, AMM brings congregations like Tarrytown United Methodist together to rehabilitate houses for homeowners below the poverty level.

It is just one of the ways the coalition does God's work. But not just for God -- for Allah, Shakti, Yahweh, and Buddha, too. Originally conceived over 50 years ago as a coalition of local Christian churches, AMM now welcomes congregations of all religious beliefs -- from Sikhs and Bahais to Jews and Unitarians. All 128 AMM member congregations share one belief: The power of community. And it is spelled out in the coalition's mission: "To make sure there is communication between religious groups about the needs and values of society; and a commitment to hands-on doing of things and work on public policy that will make the community better," says AMM director Pat Flood.

It's obviously more than just words on a page: AMM also runs InterAct, an interfaith AIDS care team system that works with about 50 AIDS patients. "We have 500 people in 60 teams who come out of the congregations and work with people in the advanced stages of AIDS and stay with them until they die," explains Flood. "It's a support system of friendship -- we do tasks, help them reconcile themselves with the world."

The group also sponsors the Community Mentoring Network for first-time youth offenders who are being held at the county-run Gardner-Betts juvenile center. "We team a mentor from a member congregation with a young person," explains Flood. "These are not hardened, violent kids, but they are the feeders to the gang system and the greatest need these children have to get out of that system is a real friendship with an adult." The program has been around for one year, and mentors only 100 kids out of 600 at the center, but Flood claims an 89% success rate with those 100 kids, "meaning that a child has not come back and committed another crime within a year," he says. For those at Gardner-Betts who have not participated in AMM's mentoring program, the recidivism rate is a gloomy 50%.

AMM runs three other programs for the elderly and the homeless, and sponsors the largest AmeriCorps volunteer recruitment and placement program in the city. How do they get all this work done? Flood explains that although the religious community makes up only 35% of the area population, it's the most active part from a community service standpoint. "The religious community is the source of most of the volunteers in the city, and we are the direct source of millions of dollars in contributions -- more even than the corporate community."

It is not just that the religious community is active -- it is also growing at a tremendous rate, which increases participation in AMM programs, Flood is happy to report. "There's a spiritual revolution going on -- a lot of searching in this age of technology," he says. For evidence, Flood says that books on spirituality continue to be among the hottest items in Austin book stores. And he says that churches all over town are reporting increasing numbers of worshippers.

Flood thinks the surge in spirituality is related to end-of-millennium angst. "We're emerging from the science age into the quantum age when science and religion are not disparate forces -- they have a relationship," he says. "As we go into the 21st century, there is an earnest search for meaning, and it's taking on a spiritual expression. People are searching for identity beyond materialism."

And AMM will be there to provide an opportunity for good works, since above all else, says Flood, "AMM is for unity of mission, not unity of belief."

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