SALT LAKE CITY — People of faith are taught to heed calls for help from their communities. In recent months, these calls have been piling up, according to clergy members and leaders of faith-based service organizations.
But it's becoming harder for religious groups to answer them.
Hurricanes and fires this fall left people without food, water and a place to sleep. Shifts in federal immigration policies put more people at risk for deportation. Just last week, the Trump administration proposed dramatic reductions in federal financial aid to low-income Americans.
"The president's budget proposal … would slash nearly half a trillion dollars over the next 10 years from the three main pillars of the social safety net: Medicaid, federal housing assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps," The Washington Post reported.
Faith groups have done what they could to comfort the afflicted. They've expanded outreach to refugees and illegal immigrants. They've held blood drives and collected food and clothing, serving people from other religious traditions and even total strangers.
"When someone is in need, we need to reach out," said Dennis Kelsch, a former Catholic priest who worked at Catholic Community Services of Utah for 16 years, during a Feb. 19 panel in Salt Lake City on religiously inspired service.
But these charitable organizations face new obstacles, including an updated tax code that disincentivizes donations and falling attendance at houses of worship. A growing number of Americans are also skeptical about whether faith-based activism matters when it comes to solving social problems, according to Pew Research Center.
"If religious communities continue to lose adherents, it's natural to assume the money is not going to be there to continue to fund these kinds of social services," said Shaun Casey, who worked closely with faith-based service organizations while leading the State Department's Office of Religion and Global Affairs, during an interview earlier this month.
Acts of service
Policy changes, such as cuts to federal aid, create new opportunities and needs for people of faith to channel their generous spirit into meaningful action. But congregations and faith-based nonprofits face many new hurdles on the path to getting involved, including decreased public interest.
"Americans' declining level of religious involvement may cripple institutions' ability to provide wide-scale services to vulnerable populations," The Atlantic reported last year.
Utah faith groups have already ended some services due to lack of participation, Kelsch said, noting that some Catholic hospitals in the area had to acquire new owners when the population of religious sisters, or nuns, shrunk.
"Those legacies are here but there aren't enough sisters," he said.
However, faith groups still do support an impressive array of social services, spending around $9.24 billion each year on community programs, according to the 2012 National Congregations Study from Duke University.
"Most congregations (83 percent) … engage in some social or human service activities intended to help people outside of their congregation. These programs are primarily oriented to food, health, clothing and housing provision," the study reported. "The median congregation involved in social services spent $1,500 per year directly on these programs."
Congregational service projects add to the work of religiously affiliated service organizations, such as Catholic Community Services and American Jewish World Service. These groups loom large in America's charitable landscape, facilitating adoptions, resettling refugees and sending aid to people of faith persecuted around the world.
"The State Department had nine implementing partner agencies that actually did the work" of resettling refugees, Casey said. "Six of those nine were religiously affiliated."
The religiously diverse group of panelists at the Salt Lake Interfaith Roundtable event struggled to stay within their five-minute time limit when asked to describe how their houses of worship and denominations contribute to community well-being. The Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Hindu speakers described feeding homeless families, serving in soup kitchens, operating a food truck at an elementary school and serving free vegetarian meals.
"There are so many ways to do outreach, not just through your pocketbook, but through your heart and mind," Kelsch said.
Overall, religious attendance is down in America, where nearly 1 in 4 adults (24 percent) now identify as a religious "none," according to Public Religion Research Institute.
Around 6 in 10 Americans (58 percent) still believe that houses of worship contribute a "great deal" or "some" to solving social problems, but that figure has dropped 17 percentage points over the last 15 years, Pew Research Center reported.
Moving forward, faith groups and religiously affiliated charities will work to keep these trends from dulling their impact, the interfaith panelists said. They highlighted the value of interreligious cooperation, noting that each group's outreach projects grow stronger when outside volunteers get involved.
"We love to bring people from different backgrounds and religions together," said Zeynep Kariparduc, a Muslim woman who spoke on the panel with Kelsch. She serves as outreach and event coordinator for the Emerald Hills Institute.
Kris Mecham, another panelist and the director of national resources for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, noted that one of his favorite parts of his job is collaborating with non-LDS organizations.
"It's a wonderful part of my job to associate with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and others," he said. "They're run by exceptional people doing important work."
People of faith and religious charities have also learned to find the silver lining of frustrating changes to federal policy, said Janet Healy, community and volunteer director for Catholic Community Services of Utah. Shifts in federal aid programs can raise awareness of religiously inspired service, leading more people to "step up to the plate" and volunteer their time, she said.