Barack Obama had been president barely two weeks when he revived one of George W. Bush's most controversial programs - a bold fusion of federal money and organized religion in service to America's downtrodden.

The "faith-based initiative" funded by Washington and carried out by a sectarian "army of compassion," Bush often said, was his most important domestic creation. It outlived his administration, though with hints of change on the horizon.

"There is a force for good greater than government," Obama said in naming a 26-year-old Pentecostal pastor as director of his White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

That force is an "expression of faith, this yearning to give back . . . that reveals itself not simply in places of worship but in senior centers and shelters, schools and hospitals."

Obama's words were heavenly music to religious institutions that had shared nearly $11 billion since 2002, according to a White House tally last year.

In Philadelphia, the idea of the faith-based initiative was embraced early in the Bush years, with the city portrayed - however briefly - as its urban laboratory. Today, untold scores of faith groups here get taxpayer money for good deeds.

Notable among them for ambition and savvy is Greater Exodus Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. It established a nonprofit social-service arm, People for People Inc., that has received as much as $30 million a year for a plethora of programs that include welfare-to-work, teen abstinence, and mentors for prisoners' children.

"This city would be uninhabitable without the churches," said the Rev. Herb Lusk II, Exodus' senior pastor and a longtime Bush friend.

Obama's decision disappointed secularists and civil libertarians, such as Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the Washington watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "I would rather there be no 'faith-based' office," he said.

Although grant recipients are not allowed to proselytize to the poor and marginalized people they serve - they risk being cut off if they do - critics have long argued that even this entanglement of government and institutional religion flouts the Constitution.

Former President Jimmy Carter assailed Bush's creation in May 2007, saying, "As a traditional Baptist, I've always believed in separation of church and state and honored that premise."

But if there is one point of agreement among friends and foes of the faith-based initiative, it's this: The reality has been a far cry from Bush's original vision of "a fundamental shift in the way government works to address human need."

What the Obama administration has inherited is a crazy-quilt enterprise fuzzily defined, diverse in scope, with data scattered and funding streams multitudinous, so that judging its impact is practically impossible.

After eight years, it still "may be too early to say if it's a success or a failure," said the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA and one of 25 newly named members of Obama's faith advisory council.

The board, which includes three Philadelphians, met for the first time last week to begin considering how the program might be remodeled.

Obama is "trying to learn the lessons of what may not have worked under President Bush," Snyder said.

For the most part, federal money has not flowed straight to the pews. Houses of worship that have sought grants typically have established separate nonprofits and promised not to spread their faith, to put Korans in clients' hands or to praise Jesus.

Few congregations have set foot down that road.

Of the estimated 2,100 congregations in Philadelphia, fewer than three dozen have the infrastructure and staffing to become significant service providers, said the Rev. W. Wilson Goode, former Philadelphia mayor and now program director of the Amachi Program.

The national nonprofit, which has mentored more than 100,000 children of prisoners, has often been cited as one of the stars in the Bush-era faith-based firmament. It now operates in every state.

As a result of the faith-based initiative, smaller, more obscure groups have competed for money, "and a few of us got in," said the Rev. Luis Cortes, president of Nueva Esperanza Inc. in North Philadelphia, a national Hispanic evangelical organization. It has channeled about $6 million in federal grants to 444 mostly Latino faith-based groups in 12 states.

"But it's still the same old, same old," Cortes said. "The bulk of the dollars still go to the traditional agencies, like Catholic Charities and the Lutherans and Episcopalians and Salvation Army."

However true that may be, there appears to be no master list that shows how many faith-based organizations have been receiving federal funding, or what they are.

On Bush's orders, 11 federal departments - including Justice, Labor, and Health and Human Services - set up offices to hand out grants to faith groups as well as to secular community organizations, which were looped into the program.

In 2007, according to its Web site, the Labor Department gave $24 million to faith-based groups and $163 million to community groups.

The difference between the two isn't always apparent.

The phrase faith-based is often applied to Amachi. However, it is administered by the secular nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters Inc. and turns to religious congregations for only about 40 percent of its mentors to high-risk youngsters.

"What Amachi demonstrated," Goode said, "was that congregations can be part of a solution."

On North Fifth Street, in the heart of the barrio, is a soothingly decorated trauma counseling center, Place of Refuge Inc., for victims of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and gun violence.

"The level of violence and breakdown of the family we see is unimaginable," said Elizabeth Hernandez, the founder and director.

A $17,000 federal grant - channeled through the Department of Health and Human Services and Temple University - gave Place for Refuge a lifesaving fillip in 2005.

The center has no congregational ties and serves people of all faiths. But on the walls are a few crosses; on the shelves, books about Jesus.

"I would never ask [a client] to pray with me," Hernandez said. "But if they ask me to pray with them, I do."

Paving the way in 1996

Though Bush is considered the father of the federal faith-based initiative, its precursor popped up in 1996.

As Congress slashed away at welfare that year, lawmakers created a way for faith organizations to shoulder some of the load in caring for the poor. Under the Charitable Choice Act, religious groups could apply for government contracts with the understanding that they would open their doors to people of all faiths and not proselytize.

The next year, a professor of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, Ram Cnaan, published a study showing an enormous range of social services provided by Philadelphia's congregations.

His "census" caught the eye of John DiIulio, a Princeton University political scientist and criminologist who leaped at the idea of using a network of churches to deal with at-risk juveniles and ex-offenders. He expanded it into a vision of government harnessing the faith community for social-welfare projects.

A Catholic and Democrat who grew up in Southwest Philadelphia, the gregarious DiIulio became an adviser to both the Bush and Al Gore presidential campaigns of 2000. Days after his inauguration, Bush named him the first director of his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Those were heady days for Philadelphia, which had an "embarrassment of faith-based riches," said DiIulio, painting the city as an urban laboratory to test bold ideas.

Not the least of those riches appeared to be former Mayor John F. Street, a Seventh-day Adventist who spoke ardently of the role of faith in turning around troubled lives.

So it was that Bush, in his first State of the Union address, pointed to Street in the House gallery and praised him for encouraging community and religious groups to make a significant difference in the lives of the poor.

On July 4, 2001, Bush came to Philadelphia to see "compassionate action at work." He visited a faith-based block party at Greater Exodus Baptist Church, where he tossed a football with its pastor, Lusk, a former Philadelphia Eagle.

But for DiIulio, the foray into church-state partnership proved rocky. He quit after seven months, complaining that "Mayberry Machiavellis" in the Republican Party were hijacking the initiative.

Street already had lost credibility as America's faith-based mayor.

Just a week after the State of the Union speech, the director of Philadelphia's new faith-based office, the Rev. Randall McCaskill, was arrested on charges of shaking down judiciary candidates and pocketing $6,200.

Ever since, the city's faith-based office has maintained a low profile.

Mayor Nutter retained Street's last faith-based director, the Rev. Marguerite Handy, to run the two-person office, with a budget cobbled from several city agencies.

In a recent interview, she said her office "does not get involved in funding faith-based programs." Most grants to faith-based nonprofits come from the city's Department of Human Services.

Mostly, Handy's faith-based office provides constituent services to congregations and other faith groups that need something from the city. It has helped put together fugitive safe-surrender programs, in which nonviolent fugitives can turn themselves in at a church. And it has created some of the 160 mentoring partnerships between public schools and congregations.

Pennsylvania's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives closed down several years ago, said a man at the Department of Public Welfare who answered an old phone number for the program.

New Jersey's Office of Faith Initiatives has been around for more than 10 years, according to Edward LaPorte, its executive director. Under the Whitman administration in the late 1990s, state funding for the office ran at $5 million a year," LaPorte said, "but then it got tight."

By last year, its budget had shrunk to $1.5 million - enough to fund 50 small projects for at-risk youths, the teaching of English as a second language, services to seniors, and prisoner reentry. The 2010 budget will dip to $1.35 million.

A new direction

Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships already is departing from the Bush model, said Judy Vredenburgh, departing president of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

She is one of the Philadelphians on the advisory council. The others are Fred Davie, president of Public/Private Ventures Inc., a think tank for poverty programs, and the Rev. William Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in West Philadelphia and president of the National Baptist Association.

At a Washington meeting early last week that included the council, the Rev. Josh DuBois, the federal office's new executive director, said Obama was "much more concerned with outcomes for families and children in poverty" than in the funding process, according to Vredenburgh.

The president's stimulus package, DuBois told the assemblage, would be used to fund programs that reduce abortion and unintended pregnancy, and to promote responsible fatherhood and interreligious dialogue.

"That's how we'll be judging our success," DuBois said in his prepared remarks. "It's how well we make advances in those areas - not on how many groups end up getting federal grants."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly
at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.