Gilbert working with faith-based groups - East Valley Tribune: News

Gilbert working with faith-based groups

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Posted: Friday, November 13, 2009 8:34 pm | Updated: 1:15 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Gilbert, facing dwindling resources, is turning to churches and other faith-based groups for everything from crime victim assistance to making sure people return their U.S. Census forms.

Mayor John Lewis began an effort to harness the volunteer power of religious groups. He kicked it off recently by gathering nearly 60 leaders at the seat of town government for the first Gilbert Faith Group Summit. And he'salready planning to repeat it next year.

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"As long as it appears to be meaningful, we will continue to do it," he said, clearly pleased by the turnout at the Nov. 5 gathering.

Lewis, already experienced with interfaith activities from his years as a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints stake president, said he received the inspiration for the summit from a League of Arizona Cities and Towns presentation. In it, he learned about initiatives other East Valley cities launched to engage residents through their places of worship.

Those models, along with case law, provided him with a guide for trying it in Gilbert without breaching the wall that separates church and government functions.

"We worked with our lawyers very closely in this," Lewis said. "And as long as we don't leave anybody out, we're OK."

Arizona American Civil Liberties Union executive director Alessandra Soler Meetze said the effort successfully walks the line between church and state by striving to include every faith group possible without giving them any public money.

"When you're giving out grants to religious groups, there's always the issue of possible discrimination," she said.

Lewis' call to action was intended to go out to clergy whose congregations meet in Gilbert, but the invitation list expanded to include some from nearby cities who have members in the town.

Dr. P.N. Misa, communications director for the Hare Krishna Temple of Tempe/Chandler, explained the temple is in Chandler, which he called "extended Gilbert." He gave a blessing midway through the summit, just before the participants stood in line to partake of a $456 Subway lunch, paid for out of Lewis' discretionary mayoral budget.

Mirroring Gilbert's demographics, the vast majority of attendees were representing Christian congregations, including two Catholic parishes and five LDS stakes. But a couple of Jewish centers and the Baha'i Faith were also represented.

The summit was mostly an overview of volunteer opportunities and other ways residents can assist the town government, anything from helping the police department fingerprint suspects to "adopting" a town park. They are services Gilbert is having a harder time paying people to do.

"We need your help," said Jim Norman, community services director. "Down to earth, we need your help right now."

Town Manager George Pettit asked attendees to tell their constituents about the importance of filling out census forms. Other representatives outlined town resources available to the public, such as neighborhood block watch supplies and emergency preparedness networks.

There was also a brief discussion about the Development Services department, of particular interest to many leaders of groups in the fast-growing town that are meeting at schools or other temporary locations while searching for a permanent home.

Kent Bertrand is pastor of one of these groups - Bridge Covenant Church, which has about 70 members and meets at Spectrum Elementary School.

As the summit was winding down, Bertrand said his congregation is relatively new. He said he'd heard "bits and pieces" of information officials presented. "But this put it all right here, so it was very helpful, because we're very interested in being part of the community," he said.

Several days following the meeting, Rev. Greg Slarp of St. Anne's Catholic Church, which serves more than 7,000 families within its parish, said he shared a table at the summit with representatives of groups not as familiar to him, such as the Baha'i Faith. But the conversation stuck to small talk and away from deep theological discussions, he said.

"It wasn't so much of a faith leadership summit as the town reassuring us about what the town was there to do, and what we could do in return," he said.

As the leader of a large, well-established group, Slarp said he was already aware of most of the town programs mentioned at the summit. But he has still been able to use most of the materials he received there, circulating police department flyers with tips on preventing auto break-ins and giving the youth pastor information about volunteer activities for teens.

Lewis told the crowd about the town's fledgling marketing push for volunteer opportunities, which at least for now is being called Gilbert GIVE (Gilbert Invites Volunteerism Everywhere). It is somewhat comparable to the "For Our City" programs in Chandler and Tempe, which include faith groups in their networking efforts.

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