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Working the system

Working the system

The praying tailback gains yardage whenever he can

As the Republican convention approaches, delegates and reporters are asking how churches and government might work together in a new Bush administration. One vision of the future is on display at Greater Exodus Baptist Church on Broad St. in Philadelphia, a straight shot north from city hall. On the outside are red pillars and big glass doors below elegantly carved arches. Churchgoers stream through those doors into a sanctuary with 1,000 blue, white, and red seats. Above is a 50-foot-high ceiling with intricate designs etched into it. Two decades ago the building was double-mortgaged, pigeon-infested, and structurally damaged. Deacons faced a $32,000 utility bill with $300 in the bank. To the rescue came Herb Lusk, known as "the praying tailback" because he was the first NFL player to crouch prayerfully following a touchdown. Just retired from the Philadelphia Eagles and considering whether to follow his father into the pastorate, he saw the sanctuary, with its buckets to catch roof leaks, as God-given opportunity. Mr. Lusk used dramatic confrontation to build his church. Prostitutes hung out on the church steps, but he went out with a Bible and started reading in a loud voice, beginning with the first words of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." He filibustered on until the hookers either started coming to church or moved on. Meanwhile, Mr. Lusk gained a master's degree in divinity from Reformed Episcopal Seminary. The church building now has not only functioning utilities but computers everywhere. Several computer labs are filled with 586's, all networked, all with ergonomic and surprisingly uniform desks and chairs, unlike the ragtag collections typical at faith-based organizations. The computers are from the government and are for the use of federally funded welfare-to-work training programs held at the church five days a week. But the church can use those computers for youth programs in the evening and a Bible-based mentoring program on Saturday. Other benefits also run both ways. Mr. Lusk notes, "We don't talk about Christ during the training, but we promote our offer of a free lunch for participants, with Bible teaching during it." Many trainees choose to come, and some choose to come to church. Rental money paid by the state for those training rooms pays for supplementary youth programs, including an after-school one for 120 elementary- and middle-school children who eat dinner at the church because most of their moms are on drugs or in prison. Mr. Lusk realizes that churches have a tendency to go to extremes concerning government funds. Some say, "Don't touch, don't taste," and others croon, "We'll get all the money we can, anyway we can." Mr. Lusk, however, says, "I'm a taxpayer, that's my money," so he does not think churches should be excluded. Since he also understands that government gives and government takes away, he never wants to accept anything from the state that affects Greater Exodus's core financing: "This is all extra." Mr. Lusk is also trying to use his earlier football fame to make contacts with big businesses. He joined Philadelphia's prestigious Union League Club; pastors pay only $300 a year. When he comes for lunch-wearing a black suit with a white pocket square, a French-cuffed shirt with big black cufflinks, and wingtips-he peeks into the club's small rooms and tells his guest, "I'm going to pick the room to eat in by who is in there and can help." Suburban churches are full of CEOs who eat at the Club, Mr. Lusk knows; he wants them to adopt five welfare families each and develop more inner-city jobs, in the knowledge that Greater Exodus is helping to produce a responsible workforce. Mr. Lusk consistently shows the running-back mentality of scrambling for as much yardage as he can. He's glad to work with financial giants to set up a banking camp in which students will "learn about banking and also about Jesus." The bank executives, Mr. Lusk noted, "are not giving us the money to teach Jesus, but they know what's going to happen." Purists may object, but Mr. Lusk says, "As long as I don't have to compromise the gospel, I'll play the game." It's a dangerous game-not for the country, but for the faith-based groups themselves. Some have thought they could dance with government on the edge of a slippery slope, only to slide down and become a government look-alike. But during the first week of August many eyes will be scrutinizing George W. Bush's idea to put religious groups like Herb Lusk's on a level playing field with the non-religious.

-Marvin Olasky writes about Herb Lusk and other Christian poverty fighters in his new book, Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Transform America