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Published: Wednesday, 9/1/2004

Commentary: Liberals mock GOP charity mission

BY DENNIS RODDY
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

NEW YORK - Pennsylvania's Republican delegation lasted three days inside Democratic territory before they were rounded up and sent to a re-education camp.

About 30 delegates, their spouses, a few children, and one U.S. senator were put into an environmentally friendly bus and dispatched to the Bowery Mission. They peeled potatoes, sorted castoff clothing, tutored the unschooled, and served lunch to the lost. Because Republicans were doing this, a collection of indignant liberals, some of them from the neighborhood, engaged in the ultimate protest: picketing a soup kitchen because they consider the volunteers uncharitable.

"It's like, 'Oh, let's go feed the homeless. Let's arrive in our air conditioned, magic bus and we'll be here for an hour and then we'll all go back to our five-star hotel,'‚óŹ" said Cole Schneider, 21, a New York University student from Denver.

Volunteers helped at the Mission for more than an hour. The bus might have been air conditioned, although the vent windows were open, and the Hilton New York - where the delegation is staying - is a paltry four stars, and some of the Republicans, such as Leigh Clark of Philadelphia, is a volunteer at the Old St. Joseph's Church Public Service program there.

The Republicans are politically strong because they are seen as unyielding and steely eyed. Democrats are loved for knowing the second verse of "Happy Birthday."

Yesterday, one entered the other's turf and an arc of negative ions stretched between kitchen and sidewalk.

"They deal with imperialistic dogs. This is all for show, to try to gain votes," said Darryl Rice, who was putting down the Pennsylvania Republicans and a plate of pasta a delegation member had served him.

Mr. Rice might be easily dismissed as another Bowery bum who does not appreciate charity, but he is, in fact, a graduate student at Long Island University.

"I just came here to see what's going on," he said.

What was going on was a program called "Compassion Across America." The Bush campaign encouraged Republicans to get to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and counseling centers. Then they put it on the press schedule.

Debra Glass, a Bowery resident, lingered outside with a sign saying, "Caring for the less fortunate should be more than a photo op."

Ms. Glass, along with friends Mor Pipman and K - "just the letter; no period" - Webster, are regular volunteers at the M'Finda Kalunga Community Garden. The Bowery, the traditional last stop for men and women whose lives got away from them, exists in some measure as a place where one half of the neighborhood takes care of the other half. In that, it reflects a long standing notion of America, one dominant in 1879 when the Mission opened its doors to evangelize to what in those days were called drunkards.

The Mission was the ideal photo op because it is a religiously run institution. The men inside receive meals, training toward high school equivalency certificates, alcohol and drug counseling, and, foremost, Bible study.

"We believe if God can change a man's heart, then God can change a man's life," said Terry Brennan, vice president for operations.

Nearby, Sen. Rick Santorum and delegates Eileen Melvin and Errol Flynn were helping young men with schoolwork. Mr. Santorum was with a man named Jeffrey Haynes, who came from Barbados to study but fell into addiction and homelessness.

"God speaks in whispers," Mr. Santorum told the man. "In the end, if you're faithful you know where you're going to end up. You're saving lives and you're saving souls. God didn't put you through this not to use you."

Senator Santorum then met the press, pronouncing the Mission strong evidence that the Bush administration's faith-based charity program is on target, and why, if a school or mission can teach philosophy and get federal funds, they certainly ought to be able to get funds for teaching the Bible.

"To me, it's just discrimination. They're both theories on how to live your life," he said.

The Bowery Mission neither receives nor wants federal money. Would the Mission like some? "Not really," Mr. Brennan said.

The Mission works on a budget of $6 million a year, all of it from private donations that are tax deductible - an indirect, but potent subsidy. The Mission's subsidiary, a drug treatment center, gets $1.3 million a year in federal dollars through the New York City Department of Homeless Services. The grant began in 1993, the first year of the Clinton Administration.

Mr. Santorum could be right about God speaking in whispers. But every once and again, I think I hear Him chuckling.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Dennis Roddy is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Dennis Roddy at:

droddy@post-gazette.com

or 412- 263-1965.



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