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The Census and the Faithful

How the Census Bureau Is Partnering with Faith Communities

SOURCE: AP/Ross D. Franklin

Copies of the 2010 Census forms.

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Homes across the country started receiving the 2010 U.S. Census form this week. It contains just 10 questions, which makes it one of the shortest in history, but it will still be a struggle to achieve the high levels of participation needed to effectively allocate funding for vital services such as education, law enforcement, health care, transportation, and housing.

One doesn’t immediately associate communities of faith with the U.S. Census Bureau, but the bureau has reached out to faith communities as well as other civic and social service organizations for assistance in grassroots outreach. Faith leaders are respected leaders in their communities, and as such, they are critical to achieving full participation by all Americans, especially those in immigrant communities and communities of color, which historically have had lower than average census return rates. Hard-to-count populations also include noncitizens, renters, and the poor.

The Census Bureau has a history of partnering with civic and faith communities. The effort escalated in the 2000 census and aided in the significant increase in form return rates, but the bureau has developed these partnerships even further for the 2010 census. The bureau has for the first time provided clear directives for these partnerships, including faith-based materials so that organizations can more effectively dispel myths and raise awareness of the importance of filling in and returning the form.

Faith communities are involved in a variety of activities to increase participation. Here are some of their efforts:

North Carolina Council of Church’s endorsed a statewide campaign called “Count All Souls,” in which faith communities have joined various census-related programs, one of which, “Adopt a Neighborhood,” assigns outreach for hard-to-count communities to individual churches.

Houston’s Census Sabbath campaign from March 5-7 called on the area’s Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faith leaders to include the census in their weekend sermons. Informational packets, which included biblical, Quranic, and Hindu references to the census or related issues of record taking and accountability, were distributed to faith leaders throughout the area.

The Atlanta Burmese community used its annual Myanmar Buddhist Association meeting to hold a census presentation. There was a zero count for Burmese in Georgia in 2000, although the community believes there should have been a count of more than 300—the community estimates that this year’s will have more than 3,000.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and specifically the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity in the Church, is partnering with the Census Bureau to engage its more than 25,000 parishes and missions to encourage participation through church bulletins and sermons and also channel interested persons toward employment as census takers. The Archbishop of San Antonio, Jose Gomez, believes the Catholic Church can effectively increase participation because “a Church that seeks to evangelize is characterized by outreach.”

It is especially important for faith leaders to build trust in Muslim communities. This is the first census since 9/11, and there is fear in some communities that the information collected will be shared and misused.

Imam Johan Abdul-Malik from the Dav AlHijra Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. discussed fear within the Muslim community around census participation at a meeting in Washington, D.C. on March 8, organized by the American Muslim Interactive Network. Imam Malik said that it was important to move beyond fear to faith. “God created man into tribes and nations,” he said, “so that we may know each other. The census is a process for our nation to know itself.” Imam Malik, on a panel with other faith leaders and census workers, explained that the Patriot Act provisions do not override census confidentiality laws.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, a coalition of more than 200 national civil rights organizations, has helped faith groups develop religiously literate posters and church bulletins. This December, they released a Christmas story campaign that suggested Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem to be counted for the Roman census. The poster, which read “This is how Jesus was born,” and in smaller type, “don’t be afraid,” was translated into six languages including Creole, Vietnamese, and Spanish.

Faith-based organizations are some of the largest distributors of government services and are adept at reaching communities through their local service networks. That’s why Census Bureau workers met with faith leaders in February at an event hosted by Faith Matters, an alliance of faith groups in Southern California, to determine how to effectively engage Los Angeles’s approximately 48,000 homeless.

Unfortunately, a few faith leaders are preaching a negative message from the pulpit, urging their communities to boycott the 2010 census. Rev. Miguel A. Rivera, chairman of the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, the largest Latino Christian advocacy organization in the nation, and others have called for Hispanic immigrants to refuse to participate until Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform. Rev. Rivera told The Guardian that it is “immoral to ask undocumented immigrants to step out of the shadows, count themselves…then go back to the shadows.” And he fanned the fear that information could be used against noncitizens and their families.

In the growing antigovernment movement, some conservatives have spoken out against the census based on a fear of government intrusion into private matters, or in opposition to the recognition of same-sex couples—whether licensed or not—that will be tabulated for the first time in 2010.

But the outreach among Hispanic and conservative Christian churches encouraging census participation has far outweighed the opposition despite these criticisms. Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, is a vocal proponent for the evangelical Hispanic community. He insists the full count will ensure that Latino communities get their share of government services.

Activists also argue that it is first imperative that every person be counted in 2010 in order to enact policy changes.

For Census 2010 faith materials visit http://2010.census.gov/partners/materials/faithbased-materials.php. Once forms are mailed, check http://2010.census.gov/2010census/ to track your community’s return rates through the bureau’s daily updates.

Eleni Towns is an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. She graduated from George Washington University in May 2009.

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