"God and the Inner City" tells the story of three faith-based social service groups: Boston's Ella J. Baker House, which works to prevent street violence and provides counseling and job training under the direction of charismatic Pentecostal minister Eugene Rivers; a Maryland branch of Teen Challenge, whose nationwide programs help substance abusers go drug-free and embrace Christianity in the process; and Philadelphia's Amachi program, a mentor program based in local churches but run by Big Brothers/Big Sisters, a national secular organization that takes children of incarcerated parents under its wing.
Directed by Michael Pack, the film opens with Reverend Rivers walking the streets of the notoriously tough Dorchester section of Boston. He confronts idle teens on doorsteps, throwing them off-guard and getting them to talk. But it is Rivers's promise to get these kids jobs (which he does) that earns him unwavering respect. Rivers never preaches to the kids he meets, nor does he invoke Jesus as a means to get troublemakers to mend their ways. Instead, he exhorts a human accountability: "At the end of the day, this all comes down to the failure of the fathers. In the black community the fathers fail the kids, and now we see the sins of the fathers being visited upon the second or third generation."
The cameras follow Rivers as he works with police and meets weekly with both secular and faith-based groups at the Ella J. Baker House. A Harvard dropout, his relationships with the kids he visits on the street, in jail, and at the Baker House appear casual--he's hip and witty in a grandfatherly way--but he is serious about making sure these kids lead responsible lives.
Next, we are introduced to Larry, a 20-something crack addict with a violent past, who has just entered the Teen Challenge home in Capitol Heights, Maryland. Teen Challenge is a Christian rehab program and a bit of a misnomer, as its participants are men 18 or older. Teen Challenge does not want government support nor is it eligible for government grants, because prayer and Bible study are integral parts of the program. Larry studies and works diligently during his four months at the home and, in turn, is able to continue his soul-cleansing journey at "The Mountain," a Teen Challenge retreat in Pennsylvania, where he will live for an additional eight months. Program director and pastor Mike Zello gets Larry through the rough spots with counseling and a whole lot of prayer. He speaks of how most men he counsels really want to change, but need a little help from God to do so. "If you have the will, then God has the power," Zello says. "And that's where [Teen Challenge is] different from a secular group."
The last part of the documentary focuses on the Amachi program, created by John DiIulio, the former director of Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The Amachi program was designed so that relationships between mentors and their carefully assigned charges could be tracked, and results measured and evaluated. The concept is innovative in that churches team up with the secular, non-profit group Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The duo matches mentors with the children of prisoners. The situation of one mentee, 10-year-old Juan, is particularly moving. Juan's father was in jail and eventually died of AIDS. At the time of the documentary, his mother is facing her own battle with AIDS and cancer. Juan's mentor tries to look on the bright side, though the fact remains that Juan, at such a young age, really has no direct control over his future. The last thing we see Juan do in the film is attend church with what appears to be his mentor's family.
As "God and the Inner City" makes clear, the question is not which faith-based program works best, or even if faith-based programs work better than secular ones. All three groups are successful in their own way, each meeting an essential human need. Rivers provides paid jobs, Zello spiritual fulfillment, and Amachi companionship. "God and the Inner City" suggests that even society's most troubled individuals can make it, if they just have a little faith.
National Broadcast on PBS: Sunday, June 22nd at 10 p.m.
Erin Montgomery is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.