I long ago lost interest in the God Wars, the bombastic clashes between Christians and the New Atheists over whether the Man Upstairs exists, whether He is good or evil, whether Judeo-Christianity has been a blessing or a curse. Put simply, whether Christopher Hitchens is resting in peace or roasting on a spit.
Today, when I hear snide comments from atheists – who often assume I too am an unbeliever because my knuckles do not drag the ground – I spontaneously slip into Defender of the Faith mode. I wait patiently while he (for it is almost always a he) rants about the Inquisition, the trial of Galileo, the pedophile priest scandals, the pope’s silence during the Holocaust, and a thousand years of Jewish pogroms. I don’t deny that over the past two thousand years some who have called themselves Christians -- from archbishops to church secretaries -- have behaved sinfully. All of that is well documented. And if that were the end of it I too would smugly slap a Darwin fish on my pickup truck.
Only there is more to the story.
A lot more, and all of it seems to be conveniently overlooked by the enemies of faith.
How, for instance, can one overlook the role faith communities have played in health care? In my city nearly all the hospitals are run by religious organizations like the St. Louis-based Franciscan Sisters of Mary, who operate 18 nonprofit hospitals in four states, partner with more than 40 rural hospitals, and run two nursing homes. The Mercy Health Ministry, also headquartered here, operates 28 hospitals throughout Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas. (Fly-over states. Who cares, right?) Franciscan nuns also founded nearby St. Anthony’s Hospital, while the Jesuits run a local medical school whose doctors treat mostly inner-city patients. Nearly every local medical center, from Jewish Hospital to Missouri Baptist Hospital, has its roots in a religious denomination. On a more human scale there’s the local Knights of Columbus who raise money for cancer research, a local children’s hospital, and, in their spare time, Special Olympics.
Perhaps the largest provider of social service programs in our area is Catholic Charities. What do they do? What don’t they do? Their programs provide shelter, counseling, and education to battered women, as well as treatment to women with addictions and mental illness. Their professional counseling agencies offer education and mental health services. There is day and residential treatment for troubled youth, including diagnosis, treatment, education, and healthcare. For families, Catholic Charities provides expectant parent counseling, and foster care, adoption, and residential services. Widows and widowers can attend grief support groups. The poor and homeless receive housing, food, jobs, mental health, and drug counseling and treatment. Free legal assistance, refugee services, housing assistance, and homeless prevention is available to individuals and families in need.
SPEAKING OF THE HOMELESS, the New Life Evangelistic Center, the Catholic archdiocese, and the Centenary United Methodist Church sponsor drop-in centers for the homeless, while the St. Vincent de Paul Society operates several nonprofit thrift stores and provides assistance with furniture, food, clothing, rent, utilities, and transportation. Less than a block from my home sits the Franciscan Connection, which provides emergency assistance to low-income families. Meanwhile the Sisters of Divine Providence offer emergency shelter and a stabilizing support system to women and families in need. Last, the Islamic Foundation of Greater St. Louis’ social services and charity fund has served the needy for more than 30 years.
It’s well known that the only schools that work in St. Louis are the religious ones. Remove the Catholic, Lutheran, and Christian schools from the equation and the dark soul of the night just got a lot gloomier. What’s more, these schools provide tuition assistance for low-income families. As for higher education, all religiously affiliated colleges have faith-based student service organizations, mandatory community volunteer hours, even free legal and health clinics.
For the elderly, the South Grand Senior Ministry, of which my parish is a member, provides exercise classes, day trips, home repair, yard work, and transportation to medical centers or religious services. Cardinal Ritter Senior Services and Lutheran Senior Services are just two of many church-based organizations that provide retirement housing and support.
Family services are widely available. Lutheran Family and Children's Services, Bethany Christian Services, Jewish Children and Family Services, and Christian Family Services are just a few of the nonprofit religious groups that aid families, children, and individuals by providing adoption, counseling, education, and other resources.
I am only scratching the surface. And that doesn’t include any of the hundreds of national or international aid efforts.
In addition to their good works, churches, parishes, and their service groups often provide the only community left in big cities or sprawling commutervilles. From quilting bees to fish fries, churches are about the only place left where Americans can feel a real sense of belonging.
I am still waiting for a single atheist group to open a hospital or school, offer free health clinics, beds for the homeless, food for the hungry, or transportation for the elderly. I have yet to see worshipers of the flying spaghetti monster establish a prison ministry or send their members overseas to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Personally, when it comes to belief in the supernatural I am a bit of a skeptic. But there’s one thing I am certain of: the world would be a hell of a lot worse off without religious do-gooders.
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