PRAYER MIGHT not save the Phillies season. But it takes no leap of faith to believe that Philly's churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious congregations spread hope by helping needy fellow citizens of every faith - and no faith.

In a new book, "The Other Philadelphia Story," Penn professor Ram Cnaan documents that our city's over-1,000 congregations supply many social services: food pantries, summer day camps, clothing closets, drug and alcohol prevention, neighborhood cleanup, job counseling and placement, computer training, mentoring, health screening, crime watch, prison ministry, after-school programs, welfare-to-work programs, and scores of others.

You can't put a price on compassion, but Cnaan's calculations show that the yearly "replacement value" - what it would cost others to offer the social services that the congregations supply each year - is at least $250 million. That's without counting services supplied by faith-based groups that are not based at a house of worship.

Our informed guesstimate: All told, the city's faith-based sector delivers more than half a billion bucks a year in social services.

If faith-based groups are doing so much, how come things are still so bad? That's a fair question, but how much worse do you reckon things would be if these sacred places suddenly stopped serving civic purposes? For the truly disadvantaged children, youth, families and neighborhoods that are their primary beneficiaries, things would be much worse.

For example, 40 percent of all welfare-to-work organizations in Philly are faith-based. On average, these groups serve the most severely distressed populations.

Government and secular nonprofits spend roughly five times more per client than the faith-based groups do, but without yielding any positive differences in job placement rates or quality.

Unfortunately, however, in Philly and other big cities, community-anchored faith-based groups get little or no government aid and even less foundation or philanthropic support.

Religious mega-charities that are national in scope sometimes struggle but usually find funding. But, except from their volunteers and donors, grassroots religious groups normally receive nothing or get only financial crumbs from others' tables.

Faith-motivated passion for solving social ills is a civic blessing. But whether the challenge is street violence or whatever, solving serious social problems for real and at a realistic scale requires many partners (public and private, religious and secular), enough money and suites-to-streets follow-through.

It also requires a healthy infrastructure, including local buildings. In Philly, four out of five people who receive services via religious properties are non-members, mostly children and youth. In some low-income communities, religious properties are on almost every other block, and many have great historical or cultural importance. Many are scarred by decades-old deferred maintenance - crumbling walls, faulty heating or cooling systems, untreated water damage, and more. And most older properties remain orphans when it comes to claims on federal aid or private philanthropy.

Mayor Street and other top local leaders have made City Hall more faith-friendly. A study by Columbia analyst Lili Elkins estimated that Philly could reap tens of millions more dollars each year in federal aid if city agencies partnered more extensively with religious nonprofits.

So, how might the next steps be taken? How can the city bolster congregations' resources, like the aging historic buildings that house the programs? What more can be done to save, support and strengthen religious schools that serve low-income children?

These are just some questions about faith-based and community initiatives that the men who would be the city's next mayor should each be contemplating.

As they all seem to agree, bad as things sometimes seem, when it comes to overcoming social ills, there is every reason to have faith in Philly's future. *

A. Robert Jaeger is executive director of Partners for Sacred Places, a national non-profit headquartered in Philadelphia. John J. DiIulio Jr., a board member of several Philadelphia religious schools, is former director of the White House office for federal faith-based initiatives.