Religion and government aren’t often discussed together, but Multnomah County leaders are capitalizing on their shared goals with faith communities to improve residents’ health and well-being.
Staff for the county’s Interfaith Initiative have reached out since the Initiative’s inception about a year and a half ago to more than 1,000 people and nearly 640 houses of worship and faith-based service organizations through community events and one-on-one meetings to expand its network. That ongoing outreach better positions the county to collaborate with faith communities, social service providers, community organizations and local government to connect people to vital services such as housing placement, domestic violence providers and healthcare.
The county’s approach reflects the changes in how faith communities serve others, Interfaith Coordinator Raffaele Timarchi said at a Multnomah County Board of Commissioners briefing on Tuesday, March 19.
“Faith communities have historically provided shelter for the homeless, food for those who need it,” Timarchi said, “but more and more, they are moving to social services that are more technical, more clinical.”
The Interfaith Initiative, which is overseen by the Office of Diversity and Equity, offers training and professional development to faith communities and educates them about county services.
“What we really try to do is focus on faith communities as voluntary associations that deliver social services, that help to organize kinship networks,” Timarchi said.
At the briefing, Timarchi and fellow Interfaith Coordinator Barbara Willer outlined the Initiative’s goals for 2013, which include expanding to issues around seniors and veterans, emergency preparedness, offender re-entry, climate action and mental health.
Under the leadership of Commissioner Diane McKeel, the Interfaith Initiative will host an event on Thursday, April 18 to engage county staff with faith leaders on issues affecting East County residents and how to form a more unified front to help those in need. Topics to be discussed include family support, health education and emergency preparedness.
The Initiative has also started a newsletter to circulate among its expanding network to keep faith communities in the loop about services and volunteer opportunities.
In addition, the coordinators are cataloging the region’s diverse faith population, which includes a steady influx of immigrants.
“Multnomah County is a re-emerging immigrant gateway,” Timarchi said. “At the turn of the (20th) century we had lots of people coming here. Then there was sort of a stillness until about the ‘70s when we started to have large refugee communities coming from Vietnam, and then again in the ‘80s through the ‘90s when we had big Russian populations. And then really in the last 15 years the Latino population. Three-quarters of the Latino population has arrived within the last 15 years.”
Commissioner Judy Shiprack said these partnerships spur the county and faith communities to talk more about working together to serve people.
“Basically the mission of Multnomah County, in terms of providing a safety net for vulnerable people, and the secular mission of faith, is to take care of other people,” Shiprack said.
Timarchi noted that those partnerships are key, especially as the county moves closer to culturally competent services.
“If we could have people in the faith communities, clergy or otherwise, who are able to deliver services, who are able to understand the kind of continuum of services that we deliver, we would do a great service for people who otherwise distrust the government,” he said.
And since faith groups are expanding to create groups that address topics such as domestic violence and child sex exploitation, the partnerships are even more critical.
“They’re not just feeding the poor, they are doing more,” Timarchi said. “And the point is that they care. And if we can’t capitalize on communities that care then we’re missing a huge opportunity.”
“With us as partners, we can really bone up their skills set, but more importantly we can use them as intake,” he said. “They are working intimately with children, families, people in crisis, they are working very closely with people who are new and need help navigating the system. They need us just as much as we need them.”
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