March 27, 2010

African-American churches partner with Census Bureau

ST. LOUIS —"Dear Pastor," the letter began. "The U.S. Census Bureau needs your assistance, as community leaders, to help us fill crucial positions in order to carry out a fair and accurate count in the 2010 Census."

ST. LOUIS —"Dear Pastor," the letter began. "The U.S. Census Bureau needs your assistance, as community leaders, to help us fill crucial positions in order to carry out a fair and accurate count in the 2010 Census."

The March 10 letter was sent by the Rev. James Morris, pastor of Lane Tabernacle Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis, who also represents the 58th Missouri House district as a Democrat.

Morris' letter asked pastors to recruit people in their congregations to apply for census jobs.

"This will help in providing your community with its just share of federal resources," Morris wrote.

U.S. Census forms began arriving in mailboxes last week, and census officials are asking people to fill out the 10 questions on the form and mail it back by April 1. Those homes that don't send the form back by then can expect a visit from an "enumerator," a census worker who will go door-to-door asking the same questions that are on the original form. Morris wants to make sure those temporary jobs — which start at $17 per hour — are filled by people in his neighborhoods.

The Rev. Anthony Witherspoon, pastor of Washington Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in St. Louis, received Morris' letter, and took it to heart.

"He asked us to tell the people what the census is for, and to spread the word that this is an important thing for our community," Witherspoon said.

So he's doing his part — discussing the census with congregation members, and printing census materials in Washington Metropolitan's bulletin.

Washington Metropolitan is one of 145 faith-based organizations in St. Louis working with the U.S. Census Bureau, according to Bonnie Johnson, the census's partnership coordinator for the Kansas City region. The census has also partnered with 238 faith-based organizations in St. Louis County and 25 in St. Charles County. Across Missouri, 1,143 faith-based groups are working with the bureau. In Illinois, the bureau has set up about 1,000 local "complete count committees," almost all of which have faith-based outreach subcommittees whose members go into the community and recruit faith leaders to partner with the census.

Faith-based partners have been working alongside the U.S. Census Bureau with a two-pronged goal. The first is to ease fears that the census is a way for the federal government to gain access to their private lives. And the second is to raise awareness that increased participation in the census brings more federal money into their communities.

Ministers, especially among African-Americans, are seen as trustworthy sources of information, and the Census Bureau is relying on that relationship to get its message out.

As director of the U.S. Commerce Department's Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships program, Cedric Grant has been planning that organizational effort, leading the push to get religious organizations involved in promoting census participation.

Grant was in St. Louis last week to convene a roundtable discussion with community leaders at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. He said that while church leaders have helped get the word out during previous censuses, the 2010 partnership with religious organizations has been "the most robust" ever.

"Like anything else, you get better as you go," Grant said.

He said U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke (who visited Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" this week to encourage Americans to fill out the census forms) led eight town hall and roundtable meetings with leaders of several faith traditions around the country between last June and this February.

That kind of access to a Cabinet member shows the promise the Census Bureau believes faith-based leaders have in getting the bureau's message out to their flocks, Grant said.

The message is so important, faith leaders say, because of what's riding on the final census count.

"This is so important because it is so impactful on our communities," said the Rev. Earl Nance Jr., pastor of Greater Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis and a member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, a powerful alliance of African-American pastors. "People feel their pastors are trustworthy, so the census can use us to reassure those people who are still skeptical of filling out the form."

The census results determine the number of congressional seats received by each state, and population numbers are used to draw boundaries for state legislative districts and city wards.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, is chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the census. He has said Missouri is among slow-growth states "on the cusp" of losing a congressional seat.

About $400 billion in government funding is allocated each year to states, counties and cities based on population. The money goes to about 140 programs, including school lunches, senior citizen services and highway construction. Some of the discussion at the Urban League last week was contentious, with city and county officials agreeing with nonprofit and some religious leaders that the census effort has been disorganized and inefficient.

There was even debate among religious leaders at the meeting about the effectiveness of using the pulpit to preach the gospel of the census. Fourth Ward Alderman Samuel Moore, an elder in the Church of God in Christ denomination, said he thought it would make more sense for him to use $300 to record an automatic phone message to all 14,000 of his constituents, than it would for a pastor to tell his congregation to fill out the form.

Those pastors are "preaching within the four walls of the church," Moore said. "If we're depending on the church to bring people to the census, it's not going to happen."

But the Rev. Charles Brown, pastor of Mount Airy Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, said he knew of 150 Baptist pastors in the St. Louis area who had agreed to promote the census and encourage their flocks to fill out the form.

"Don't say what our churches are not doing," Brown countered.

"Why not put the word out there any way we can? We're talking about it, we're putting it in our bulletins, we're doing our part."

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