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April 28, 2015, 12:00 AM

Your Tax Dollars at Work?

The renowned astrophysicist, Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently posted that we "lose" $71 billion in tax revenue (most of that would be property tax revenue) from the tax exemptions churches receive.  He then noted that the World Food Programme has stated that it would take $3 billion to feed every hungry child in the world, and that with the remaining money, we could provide universal health care in America.

He ended his post with a rather snarky, "Or we could just go to church and pray to God to end disease and hunger."

Dr, Tyson has often expressed his frustration with religious folks who espouse beliefs that evolution is a myth and that the universe was created by God in just six days (or maybe a few thousand years, depending on their interpretation of the relevant Scriptures).  I share his frustration with those folks.  I have no problem with evolution or the idea that the universe is about 14billion years old.  Neither does the Pope, for that matter.

I genuinely like Dr. Tyson and I think he is often a tremendously effective science educator.  I can understand his frustration and I know how easily such feelings bleed over into a general contempt for religious beliefs and institutions.

But, let's look at the evidence.  It's the scientific thing to do...

Actually, those folks who pray to God have built and supported hundreds, if not thousands, of hospitals and clinics around the world.  Many of them are in otherwise unserved areas of profound poverty. Countless thousands would have no medical care without the efforts of churches. Our Conference largely underwrote the building of  Ganta hospital in Liberia which serves an area that had no such facilities, before it came.   We have provided millions of dollars for Imagine No Malaria, a program which has helped to dramatically reduce deaths due to this disease. I suppose you could call that reduction an "answered prayer."

As for feeding the hungry...He might want to check to see how many food pantries are supported and hosted by churches.  That's the case in our community.  The last church I served was the single largest and most consistent supporter of the community food pantry at the local women's shelter.  The Heifer Project, and several other international ministries supported by churches help to promote agricultural development around the world.

We support children's homes like Chaddock School, a world-renowned facility for troubled children, and a second children's home in Mt. Vernon.  In addition, we support the Baby Fold, which provides a school for special needs children as well as adoption services.  The United Methodist Womern formed and help to fund the Cunningham Home in Urbana, which also provides housing, education and counseling for hundreds of troubled children.

Another program we support is the Lessie Bates Neighborhood House in East St. Louis, which provides a wide-range of ministries and programs to help at-risk kids.  (This program recently learned that state grants which it has received for some of its programs have been drastically cut, due to the epic mismanagement of the Illinois state budget.  More on this, later...)

Our Conference has founded and helps to support four excellent retirement facilities that provide care and dignity for the elderly,  thought their work has also been hindered by the state's financial woes.

Within our Conference, there are three institutions of higher learning (McKendree College, MacMurray College, and Illinois Wesleyan University) which were founded by the United Methodist Church.  Overseas, we have been a major supporter of Africa University which has provided quality education for thousands of Africans who would not be able to go to college, otherwise.

The United Methodist Committe on Relief(UMCOR) has helped thousands of families rebuild their homes and lives after floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes...I know, because I have been part of such efforts across the U.S.  With their help, I have also brought medical and humanitarian aid to hospitals and orphanages overseas, which our government never aided.

The rebuilding of Haiti has been largely driven by NGOs and churches because governments only work with the Haitian government, which is still a hot mess of inefficiency and corruption.   My previous church helped send volunteers and building materials to build five homes in that impoverished land.  In Nepal, the government is being accused of gross incompetence and of directing foreign disaster relief to people who are connected to the government and the ruling elites, while leaving the poor (which is most Nepalis) in the lurch. 

As for aiding the homeless here...Well, I have participated in a number of Habitat projects.  Habitat for Humanity is a Christian  organization which has provided about 300,000 families with decent, affordable housing, and it will not accept a dime from any governmental agency.  I have also helped to repair storm damaged homes across the country working with Habitat and UMCOR. 

While working to repair homes in Joplin, MO after it devastating tornado, we met a women who worked with the Salvation Army (yet another church) to coordinate mission teams from across the nation,  She said that in the year after the storm, 120,000 volunteers...the overwhelming majority of whom were praying church folks...donated millions of volunteer hours to help the community rebuild.  How much tax money would a similar effort have cost, I wonder?  By the way, we were housed in a church there which had provided it's hospitality to about 2,000 volunteers over that time, while charging virtually nothing for the use of their facilities...after another church had sent mission teams to help repair the damage they had sustained in the storm.

Our church provides space for the  Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, Narcotics Anonymous, and a Share Grief Support group.  These groups pay little or nothing for our space, and it helps them serve others.  And, we are frequently the venue for community fundraising efforts to help people in crisis.  Because our overhead is low (we don't have to pay property taxes) we don't have to take a cut out of the income from those events.  It all goes to the people in need.

I'm betting that Dr. Tyson doesn't frequent many churches and is largely ignorant of all this. 

Now, the reality is that the church has not, and cannot fix every problem.  Government has a role to play, and sometimes it does a better job.    But that is certainly NOT always the case.

Given the spectacular mismanagement of the Illinois government...would you really trust it to do that great a job with those extra tax revenues?   Might want to look at what they did with the funds they gleaned from the lottery, which was supposed to fix our problems, forty years ago.

Frankly, neither church nor state are perfect tools.  My preference is that the church and private organizations do as much as they can (and I would argue they could certainly do more and work together better).  But, government also has a legitimate role in "promoting the general welfare" and that includes helping the sick, the hungry, and the homeless.  I just do not trust it with the whole task.

While I respect Tyson in many ways, his claim is rather naive.  Does he really think governments wouldn't squander the money to finance misbegotten wars or give tax breaks to plutocrats?  The Pentagon just announced that it cannot account for $45 billion it spent in Afghanistan that probably ended up in the pockets of local warlords, black marketeers, drug kingpins, and even the Taliban. 

His critique is also rather smug. My church has sent me on missions across the earth to help people in desperate need. I wonder how many times he has personally invested time and effort in doing so...or does he just leave that to government functionaries?

Governments have their role, but there's no denying they can be inefficient, sometimes corrupt,  and have poor priorities.  Church-related institutions in this state, like retirement homes, hospitals, and schools for troubled children,  which count on state funds to help them operate are certainly finding the state a less than reliable partner

And yes, we do pray for the people to whom we reach out.  It's one of the ways we become aware of them and remember them, and affirm their value.  We also attach our hands and feet to those prayers.  A fact of which Dr. Tyson seems almost willfully unaware.  We don't see prayer as a replacement for action...we see it as a prelude and a theme for our action.  It's not a zero-sum game.

I would submit that such prayers are a lot more effective than just complaining about what you see as the failings of other people.  That's a bit like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable who offers a self-congratulatory prayer to God, saying he is "not like other people" whom he considers sinners.  Jesus denounces that prayer as self-righteous delusion.

But, you don't have to be a praying person, to be self-righteous, or a tad delusional.

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