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Wednesday, July 18, 2007 05:02 pm

Tightrope

Pastor who works for the state helps oversee faith-based initiative

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Pastor Fred and Wanda Nettles join the congregation of Living Word Fellowship Ministries for worship.
PHOTO BY LARRY CROSSETT
Untitled Document As director of the state’s Partners for Hope program, Frederick Nettles plays a key role in disbursing taxpayer money to faith-based groups. As pastor of Living Word Fellowship Ministries in Springfield, Nettles heads a faith-based group. What some people may see as a conflict, Nettles sees as an advantage. Nettles says he’s able to understand the subtleties — and boundaries — of the relationship between church and state. He’s been doing the state job at the Department of Human Services for more than six years now, coinciding with a major shift in federal policy that’s seen more government money flow to religious groups. The federal Faith-Based and Community Initiatives program, the Bush administration boasts, is responsible for steering more than $2 billion a year to religious groups. The money supports such work as mentoring the children of prisoners, helping the homeless, and fighting malaria overseas. Illinois is the second-biggest beneficiary, behind New York. The initiative is controversial, to say the least.
Many Americans believe that church and state should remain separate in the United States — and there have been legal challenges. But Nettles sees logic to steering money to faith-based groups, as long as the money isn’t used for proselytizing. “Every community has a church,” he says, “but not every community has a government office.”
Although he does not apply for funds for his own church (as a means of avoiding conflict-of-interest issues), Nettles would like to see greater use of the program in smaller communities. “Illinois is one of the largest recipients of grant money through the faith-based initiative,” he says, “but most of the money is being given to established charities that have been around for a very long time and already receive major dollars from both the state and federal government. I think rural churches are missing out on an opportunity.”
Nettles’ job is to be a facilitator. “It’s basically a capacity-building position,” he says, “[helping] churches interface with state and federal foundations so they can compete for grant monies or whatever is available.”
What he knows could be of great value to any church or faith-based community organization wishing support to provide services beyond those related to proselytizing. Tony Pierce, co-pastor of Heaven’s View Christian Fellowship in Peoria, is familiar with the initiative. “We did a program with the local housing authority. They would tear down existing housing and put up new. The program required self-sufficiency training for the homes’ residents. We received funding [to participate in] that.”
Churches shouldn’t rush into the program unawares, Pierce says.
“I would encourage anyone looking into this to become familiar with the charitable-choice laws and faith-based initiative laws,” he says. Applicants would also be wise to familiarize themselves with the grant-writing process, Nettles says. One unfortunate aspect of the initiative is its appeal to con artists who are aware that many church leaders are intimidated by the unfamiliar application process. Nettles receives many calls from churches that have been scammed by people who overcharge for the relatively simple process or take money in return for promises they can’t deliver on. “From a national standpoint,” Nettles says, “the faith-based initiative created desire. Lots of pastors out there are hiring grant writers; scam artists are taking advantage, left and right — so what I try to do is let pastors know the general guidelines to follow if you want to hire help.”

Nettles was raised in Harvey by his mother, Gloria Paul-Nettles. A devout Catholic, she placed a high value on education and sent young Fred to a parochial high school in Chicago Heights, even though the school was mostly white and it took him three buses and an hour and a half each day to get there. “There might have been maybe 10 blacks in a freshman class of 400 or 500,” Nettles says. A standout football player, Nettles hoped to play professionally, but that dream ended during his senior year. “During high school, sports was a driving motivation, and when I hurt my knee in a scrimmage and that came crashing down, I started seeking the Lord and being mad at him all at once. It was a pivotal point in my life.” At that time, he started to pull away from the Catholic Church. It was Wanda, his future wife, who brought him back to Christ and started him on the road to ministry.
“I met her playing basketball in my neighborhood, visiting from Gary, Ind. We were playing basketball, and she was sticking to me a bit too tight. I left, and she followed me home on her bike, and we started dating.” Nettles was 16 at the time. “My wife,” the pastor recalls, “had a tremendous mother — Mary Helen Williams. She would talk about Jesus all the time. I would literally sit listening to her for hours. It was her connection that drew me into the kingdom of God, drew me in to accept Jesus as Lord and savior.”
Nettles realized that he wanted to marry Wanda just after high school. “It was at a church service where she was doing a speech. She had a glow about her, and the Lord told me, ‘That’s going to be your wife.’ A year later we were married, as soon as I was in a position to support her.”
That support came from the Air Force, the military branch in which his father had served. “In the Air Force, I worked in the personnel office — a two-man area responsible for 1,500 people with access to nukes. Our job was to monitor unfavorable info and flag a person’s PRP [Personnel Reliability Program] if they got into trouble. For example, if they took medicine that could make them drowsy, we had to pull — or suspend — the PRP. I worked 12 hours shifts for a year and a half, often more than five days a week.”
PRP is a psychological-evaluation program instituted during the Cold War by the Department of Defense. Its intention is to see that only the most trustworthy individuals have access to nuclear weapons. That job taught Nettles the cost of not paying attention to detail: “I only had two stripes, but I saw grown colonels break down and cry when they got called to go before the generals because they broke some PRP thing.”
Nettles won numerous awards, including distinguished airman of the year, while in the Air Force. Nettles and his wife joined an on-base church. He had decided not to return to Catholicism. “A lot of people who leave the Catholic Church, they’re hostile to it for a lot of reasons, but it was my Catholic upbringing that helped me with my moral upbringing,” he says. “We were taught higher standards. So I embrace my Catholic upbringing as something the Lord used to keep me on the straight and narrow. If that hadn’t been there, I’d have been a different person.”
In 1985, the Nettles had their daughter, LaTrice. Because she needed surgery immediately after birth, the family was flown to an Army hospital in Denver. In 1992, after 10 years of service, Nettles, then a staff sergeant, left the Air Force. He took advantage of service-related benefits to get an education. By 1997, he had a master’s degree in public administration. He joined DHS, and Wanda found work with the Department of Transportation.
As good as Nettles feels about his work, and the potential for good embodied in faith-based and community initiatives, his true passion lies outside his state job. Along with his wife, he has a heart for the kids. Although LaTrice, a student at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is their only biological child, they’ve raised several children. “We adopted family members that stayed with us and that we raised,” Nettles says. “We have six kids that we raised, five that stayed with us and we adopted. We helped them get through school, and they kind of call us Mom and Dad.”
The kids belong to relatives. “We inherited a lot of kids due to doing a good job the first time,” the pastor jokes. “Tim — he was the middle of 11 kids. His mother, my wife’s sister, contacted us and asked if we could help. When we got him, he couldn’t read or write. Our daughter worked to teach him, and after that year he went from an F as a sophomore to being a B and C student. When my wife’s mother saw that, she said, ‘Let’s see what you can do with Javae. . . . ’ ”
Living Word Fellowship Ministries reflects this concern for young people. Although there are churches closer to Springfield’s college campuses, Living Word draws many students. “There’s a great need for the college kids,” Nettles says. “So many of them are away from home. They live in the cafeteria. They have issues that come up. Some of the influences on college campuses are adverse to family values. We’ve become the reminder of what their parents have taught them and not to get away from that.
“There’s a statistic I saw, that of freshmen in college, 70 percent lose their Christianity after the first year. Having a church actively facilitating and supporting college kids helps them stay on track and not get caught up in things going on on campus.”
Wanda is a big part of the couple’s college ministry. She went from IDOT to a strong career as a women’s-basketball coach, including stints at Lincoln Land Community College and the University of Illinois at Springfield. “They moved her out,” Nettles says, “and last year she was assistant coach at Harris-Stowe [in St. Louis]. They went to the NAIA Division I nationals tournament.”
Mrs. Nettles says, “We have a good outreach to college kids. We’re kind of college-oriented — bringing out their talents, abilities, and spiritual gifts.”
Shaun Von De Bur, 24, graduated from Robert Morris College in 2001. He’s just finishing his master’s in business administration online and has started his own management and booking company for Christian and gospel artists. “God just led me here,” he says. “I was going through tough times, didn’t have a job.”
Von De Bur speculates about why Nettles’ church appeals to the college crowd: “I think what’s drawn a lot of students here is just the freedom. You’re free to worship God. I grew up in a religious type of church, everything structured. I’ve always known God could do more for me.”
Nettles is satisfied with this emphasis in his church. “We’ve started Deeper Bible Study with students from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on Thursday evenings during the summer, a service that’s student-led. Student leaders come in; they guide praise and worship, testimonies. . . . We’ve had over 40, 50 kids during the summer come here.”
“I really feel God is going to raise up the young people in this city,” he continues. “If we neglect them, we’re going to miss out on a big opportunity. God is going to work on them, and that will expand into the overall church community.”
Another interesting aspect of Living Word is its racial mix. Nettles says, “I lived in an all-black community and went to an all-white school. I got the bulk of both worlds. That showed me the church needs to reflect a diverse cultural and racial mix, instead of being one-dimensional.
“In other words, we should look like heaven.”

For information on the state’s Partners for Hope program, contact Nettles at 217-782-1268 or go to www.dhs.state.il.us/dco/PFH/.  

Freelance writer Larry Crossett’s profile of Brigit Dyer-Reynolds appeared in the April 26 edition.
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