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One of America's best-kept secrets


PHILADELPHIA -- There used to be a ballpark here, at the corner of Lehigh Avenue and 22nd Street. It was an agreeable little bandbox called Shibe Park and then called Connie Mack Stadium, and in it the Athletics and Phillies set records for futility.

In time the Athletics left town and the Phillies left the neighborhood for a new stadium. A few years ago the Rev. Ben Smith, who is now 82, tore down the old one. Relying on prayer and an alarming amount of borrowing, he built the Deliverance Evangelistic Church complex.

Mr. Smith's achievements are remarkable, if unremarked. On a recent Tuesday morning the reverend's place was rocking with the joyous noise of worshipers and the bustle of staff attending to the 32 classrooms and an even larger number of different departments -- adult literacy, youth literacy, prison fellowship, one-on-one attention to drug addicts, and much more -- of this good-works conglomerate. Churches from Georgia to Michigan, with combined memberships of 84,000 and rising, have been spun off from Deliverance. The Nation of Islam -- "nation" indeed -- probably has fewer than 40,000 adherents but registers as huge news on the national media's radar screens.

Deliverance aims to deliver order based on absolutes in an age of chaos arising from relativism. Is that Quixotic? Mr. Smith's Sancho Panza does not think so. He is John DiIulio, 38, a Philadelphian born and bred, who still lives here while teaching at Princeton, a long commute away. Professor DiIulio, a political scientist, says that accumulating evidence confirms the efficacy of faith-based approaches to social problems.

The data are hardly counterintuitive. Just as the density of liquor outlets in a neighborhood correlates with negative phenomena, the density of churches correlates with positive ones. Indeed, individuals who may not themselves go to church but who live on a block where people go to church are less likely to commit crimes or wind up on welfare.

This is why Mr. DiIulio is working on a program to coordinate the ameliorative efforts of the leaders of at least 50 African-American churches in the 20 largest cities.

PTC New life

One such leader is the Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston, who at age 12 was "drafted" into "the life" -- Philadelphia's gang culture -- and at age 16 was drawn out of that life and into the Rev. Smith's orbit.

Mr. Rivers, now 46, made it from Philadelphia's mean streets to Harvard's shaded walks. He did so, he says, largely because a "thirst for literacy" was for him, as it is for some other young people in culturally barren settings, one result of a conversion experience. He is a sophisticate who really believes that "Sunday school is the most revolutionary institution."

Mr. Rivers is nothing if not succinct in his diagnosis of the central affliction of inner-city youths: They have no idea of purpose or destiny arising from a sense of the sacred. He considers himself a man of the left but his cultural conservatism complements his conviction that the condition of inner-city blacks confirms the primary urgency of spiritual, not political, change. He notes that after years of political gains, America now has 8,000 black elected officials presiding over the decomposition of the black community.

A familiar, facile question is, "Can the nation save the inner-city African-American community?" That question may be backward. There are 65,000 black churches with 23 million adherents, most of them in inner cities. The nation thirsts for good news and grounds for hope about the struggles of inner-city African Americans.

Yet Louis Farrakhan becomes a celebrity on the basis of anti-Semitic and other lunatic ravings while Mr. Smith and thousands of unsung others like him remain invisible as they perform daily miracles of social regeneration.

Mr. Rivers says that one of America's best-kept secrets is that "Ben Smith exists." Another is that African-American churches may be saving more than their communities' souls. By preaching -- and demonstrating -- that the solutions of most social problems begin with spiritual rather than material betterment, they may be saving the nation's soul as well.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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