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Jesus loves a 4-Door 

At Wheels4Hope,"moral values" are standard equipment--as they must be for the left-turners as well as the right ones.

There's nothing all that complicated about Wheels4Hope--except, of course, making it work. It's a small nonprofit organization in Raleigh that will accept your donated car or other vehicle as long as it's in pretty good shape, they can fix whatever's wrong with it, and then sell it--for a flat rate of $500--to someone who really needs it. The recipients are referred by one of a half-dozen social charities in Raleigh running transitional programs. Typically, they've found a job, but need a car to get to it; or else they need a car to find a job. The fixing-up is a combination of repairs done by volunteers at the Wheels4Hope garage in Southeast Raleigh, plus major service work that Wheels4Hope pays for at one of several cooperating auto shops around town. On average, the paid-for service costs $700 per car they place.

Which clearly makes Wheels4Hope the undisputed price leader in these parts, regardless what anyone else says.

And if your donated vehicle isn't quite up to that good Wheels4Hope purpose, but is reasonably reliable (or can be made so without much expense) and passes inspection, then the volunteers will take and sell it to the public for what it's worth, using the proceeds to help with their overhead. There's a public sale one Saturday morning each month, except in December. The next sale: January 15.

Either way, your donation is tax deductible.

Pretty simple, really.

Anyway, on a recent night a man in his 40s, after he was referred by one of the six charities, came to the garage to pick up his car. He works--well, I know where he works, but he didn't want his picture taken for this story, so I won't use his name or say what he does for a living. The important thing is, he was getting to work on a bicycle, riding 12 miles each way along some fast suburban roads that were just not designed for commuting without a car. The man had been doing this all summer and fall. But with winter coming, his new 1992 sedan--a one-owner car donated to Wheels4Hope by a friend of one of the volunteers--was clearly going to be a godsend.

A godsend. There's a word. Do you think God--He? She? Divine Providence in some inchoate form?--really sent this car to this man in his time of need?

One of the volunteers, Susan Baker, asked the man for permission to conduct a brief Bible service and blessing before he drove off in the car. It would serve to underscore their ministry.

Yes, the man said quickly, but he was surprised. He hadn't realized that Wheels4Hope was a faith-based group. No one had asked about his beliefs, or if he believed at all. There weren't any crosses on the walls, no pictures of Jesus or any other religious figures. But yes, absolutely, he was happy to join them in a word of thanks. And in that instant, he relaxed for the first time since he'd come in the door.

And so he sat for a few minutes and bowed his head as Henry Wynands, another volunteer, read from the Bible, the 98th Psalm: "Let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth." The passage evokes the idea that our earthly works reach toward heaven, Henry said, and that Wheels4Hope is about trying to sing together before God.

Then Susan thanked the man, and he looked a little embarrassed. He thanked her--again--and the others--again--and after a moment he asked, almost whispering the question, why they were thanking him. Because he was so diligent, Susan said, in following up after the initial referral, calling when he was supposed to, arriving on time for his interview and to do the necessary paperwork to have the car's title transferred to him. And for paying the $500 promptly.

In short, they were thanking him for doing his part so they could do theirs. It reminded me of that old saying, that when you help somebody, you get back more than you ever give. Helping people obtain dependable transportation isn't a job for these volunteers. It's a joy. But it's also a lot of time spent with wrenches, cranky wiring and a whole host of other "challenges" that go with being--if you can imagine--a nonprofit used-car dealer.

A few days later, I talked to Chris Simes, the president of Wheels4Hope, and also its co-founder, tireless volunteer and, lately, its sales manager--or as he put it, characteristically cackling with laughter as he said it, "I'm a car salesman for Jeee-sus."

Wheels4Hope was founded based on the principles of "servant leadership," he said, the same spirit that led Jesus to wash the feet of his disciples at The Last Supper.

"Jesus was truly a servant, and the message of the Scriptures is all about serving others, placing others' needs before your own," he went on. "We feel blessed. No question that we are. Most people in the United States are blessed. We are blessed by this ministry, and we feel it is our calling to bless others and help them to pass their blessings on to their families and their friends by being able to give them rides, allowing them to get a better job, take part in their kids' school activities--everything that comes in our society when you own your own car."

The volunteers don't all read the Bible's lessons the same way, Chris said, and diversity of opinions is respected. But that's how he reads them--and how he's trying to live out his moral values.

I hope you will indulge me a little bit here. I'm not religious--not in the sense of going to a place and participating in a service, anyway. On the other hand, the love of my life does, and is. My wife Pam Wilson is a person of deep faith, and is an active member of West Raleigh Presbyterian Church--former deacon, elder, sings in the choir, and so on and so forth as she's called. Whenever I'm tempted to dismiss the faithful, or crack on their beliefs--and I am tempted, whenever I see a TV preacher or a Bible-thumping politician--I try hard to resist, because I know from close observation that believing there's a heaven can have a big upside. But I think you have to really believe it.

And since Wheels4Hope got its start at West Raleigh--where Chris, Susan, Henry and numerous other volunteers also belong--I know a fair amount about it, too. That was true even before they signed up Pam, who is a terrific organizer and operates her own consulting business helping community development projects, as their first paid executive director five months ago. She works part-time, for $12,000 a year. I mention this mainly for purposes of full disclosure, but also to underscore that there's a faith-ministry in my life, too, all of a sudden.

Indeed, when those once-a-month sales come along, I'm on the lot myself pushing iron for Chris and Pam, if not exactly for Jesus. Come out next month and see me. No pressure, but I know I can put you in something sweet at a price you'll ... oops.

For obvious reasons, then, the subject of moral values has been on my mind since the elections, and now at the holidays I feel a need to come to grips with that term and the way it's been used, and misused, in the public sphere lately.

Did his moral values help George W. Bush hold onto the White House? I think there's no question they did. These are frightening times for many in our country. Without belaboring why, parents have good reason to be afraid for their children and see our society under tremendous strain, coming apart economically, socially and spiritually. When Paris Hilton is the "It Girl" of 2004, surely progressives and conservatives can agree that something's seriously off-track.

Conservatives, as I understand them, are determined to make a stand around their own families--ergo, family values--and keep all the threatening forces away as best they can. Into this category go all the things they fear or don't understand, from terrorists to pornographers to the sexually promiscuous, which for many include gays and lesbians. God is on their side in this, as they see him. They want their president there, too. And Bush clearly is.

Does this make me angry? I started to write that it "really frosts me," which had a nice seasonal ring to it. But when I listen to Bill O'Reilly, the Rev. James Dobson or any of a number of other conservative haranguers who've shoved themselves into our daily lives, I'm reminded how incongruous it is that a loving God would repose her moral values in folks who rant and rave about the people they hate and how stupid they are.

If we on the progressive side are going to reclaim the moral-values mantle, and I think we must, ranting and raving is not the way to do it. So I won't rant, at least from this point on. Good Catholic boy that I still am at some level, I think God comes to us with a smile and his hand out to help, even if--especially if--there's no rational reason why he'd want to help you.

I see a God at work at every execution, when People of Faith Against the Death Penalty come to Central Prison to plead for a life to be spared and stay into the early morning hours to pray for a soul when it isn't.

I see some higher power in all the congregations who stopped buying the Mt. Olive Pickle Company's dills, even though it's our own homegrown company down there on the corner of Cucumber and Vine, and stayed with it for five long years. I see it in Bill Bryan, the CEO who said he'd never sign a contract with the farmworkers-- but when you heard the folks from the N.C. Farmworker Ministry describe their conversations with him, well, he reached out his hand and signed this year, just as they said he would.

I've made a short list of faith-based ministries of this kind, which exist to help the needy. It's not exhaustive, obviously. There are many, many more of them that exist, especially within churches, who run soup kitchens, collect clothes for the poor, books for children, toys for tots. Nor are they all "progressive," "liberal," or even un-conservative, as I know well from my experiences with Wheels4Hope, where a number of the most active volunteers--including several of the "car guys" who work in the garage--tell me they voted for Bush.

Helping the needy is a value conservatives share, but their terms may differ, as Chris Moran, the executive director of the Interfaith Council for Social Service in Carrboro, told me when I sought him out. Moran's organization was created 40 years ago by seven women from different congregations who shared an interest in helping the poor. Today, it has 1,000 volunteers who run a shelter for homeless men, deliver tens of thousands of meals and grocery bags to the hungry each year, and help families in crisis with money, transportation, referrals and a kind word.

The day I visited, the crisis counselor on duty was an older woman whom Moran told me had voted for Bush. Politics aside, though--and Moran's politics are well to the left of hers--she's great at what she does, he said, and that's all that matters to him. "Let's put it this way," he said. "Our organization has a set of values we believe in"--so saying, he reached for a list which begins with "caring" and "advocacy"--and "we embrace anyone who feels they can address a human need, whatever their motivation may be."

What they don't do, he said, is proselytize. The Baptist volunteers don't pitch their conversion stories, the Catholics leave the Holy Ghost at the door, and the Jews their tefillin. The volunteers aren't asked about their beliefs, and neither are the people seeking help.

That, I think, is a basic distinction between what I regard as progressive faith-based groups and conservative ones. Or, better, perhaps, liberal groups--meaning broad-minded--and fundamentalists.

A couple of years ago, I attended a meeting in Raleigh at which the members of a faith-based organization helping unemployed men find work in the construction trades made it clear that their first objective was helping the men find Jesus Christ. With Jesus in their hearts, they said, the men's problems with substance abuse, crime, or whatever would be lifted, and they would be saved.

I don't object to that. I do think it's a mistake--and unconstitutional--to support such a program with government funds, of which this one was under the Faith-Based Initiative begun by Bill Clinton and expanded by Bush. This group wasn't just pitching spirituality or moral values. They were presenting a specific religion and a literal reading of parts of the Bible, but not others; and in their reading homosexuality was a sin, abortion a crime, and abstinence until marriage a requirement.

In my mind, God must love gays and lesbians just like he loves the poor because, as Abraham Lincoln said, he/she created so many of them. And sex? I dunno.

To Moran, it's the great mystery what "God" thinks, or is, and the effort to figure anything out about that "is what makes life interesting to me." What he objects to is fundamentalists asserting with certainty what God thinks and, based on that certainly, presenting a "right agenda" that everyone must follow.

There's a second distinction to be made. It's between the idea that the "saved" alone are righteous versus the kind of liberal advocacy included on Moran's group's statement of values. The former results in soup kitchens, he said, and nothing wrong with that. But the latter tries to address society's problems of hunger and homelessness not just one soul at a time, but by a set of public policies that--for Moran's group--include living-wage laws, jobs programs and the like.

"These issues have to be owned by everyone in the community if they're going to be solved," he said. Everyone, that is, regardless of their faith, or lack thereof. It's not right that only the saved deserve help.

About Chris Simes. When I think of the pounding we progressives take over moral values, I think of him and Wheels4Hope, and I look for some lessons we can draw on.

He, too, shuns proselytizing, or waiting for people to "get it" before you get with them. In fact, far from being the "serious" type, he's a jokester, an extrovert who doesn't talk his beliefs at all unless you want him too, at which point he's as serious as anyone I know.

The idea for Wheels4Hope came from two sources, he said. First, he's a car guy. He's an engineer by training, and his company, Capital Engineering, designs air-conditioning and plumbing systems for small buildings; but if he could afford it, he'd put all his time into the cars. Understand, however, that he doesn't take a dime from Wheels4Hope despite the fact that he routinely puts 20 to 30 hours into it a week.

He doesn't need the money, he said when I asked him why. And, when I came back to the subject, he said that he supposed "it would taint it for me a little if I did."

Which leads to the second source, which was the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., where he was introduced to the idea of servant leadership, which he both practices and, in church groups locally, espouses. At the time, West Raleigh Presbyterian was encouraging members to present new ideas for mission service, and he stepped forward with his car thing. Other ministries help the needy with shelter, food, jobs and the like, he said, but when it comes to transportation--and getting to that job out on the bypass--there's very little help to be had.

Out of that idea, a small group formed five years ago. A family foundation, since closed, wrote a $20,000 check, which was used to rent the garage and qualify, under DMV rules, as a car dealer. That first year, they placed a dozen cars. Each year since, they've placed a few more. The number this year: about 50. They'd like it to be more, which is why they hired Pam, to contact other churches, expand the volunteers, get more donated cars, and work with more recipient charities.

What's interesting to me about Wheels4Hope is the way they deal with the cars they get that aren't suitable for recipients, or come in when they've got enough good cars already. The easy thing to do would be to flip the surplus cars to an auction lot, which would save a tremendous amount of muss, fuss and storage space. The auctioneer sells it, you get a split, piece of cake.

But the Wheels guys don't want to do that, because they consider the way used-car lots treat the poor to be fundamentally corrupt. They take your down payment, which covers their costs, Chris said, and sell you the car for twice what it's worth, with payments that are too high and--if you miss one--they repossess the car and sell it again.

That's why Wheels4Hope runs its own sales, asking a fair price, which it collects in full up front. Makes money? Yes. As much as flipping them? Trust me, the answer is no.

But Chris was never looking for the easy thing. He's searching for the right thing. To him, it's summed up in the difference between "believing" in Jesus and "following" Jesus.

"Believing is not a very demanding thing," he said. "You can buy into a set of beliefs and not change your life at all. And there's a lot of that going on in churches today--throughout our society, really. We don't want to make demands on each other. The churches, to grow, that's kind of a marketing thing, so they're looking to scratch your itch, or meet your need. But as far as challenging them to meet others' needs, well, they're kind of reluctant to do that."

But Jesus, Chris went on, said to "feed my lambs, tend my sheep, and his sheep were the poor, the downtrodden, the poor in spirit. That's pretty challenging stuff."

I don't think progressives can ever win elections in this country without appealing to moral values and presenting our own. We want people to step up to the problems of the world. We need to step up first--the way the Wheels4Hope folks did last week for Leversie McClain, a Wake Forest woman who came to them from Pan-Lutheran Ministries.

McClain, a single mom (but, thank goodness, no longer a battered wife), has four great-looking kids ages 14, 13, 9 and 4, and a job as a teacher's aide in Raleigh. But her old van was a goner.

Now, she has a new one--a red '93 Mazda with just 75,000 miles on it that had everybody smiling. "It's a blessing," she said.

The lesson I take from Chris, as from the Inter-Faith Council, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, the Farmworkers Ministry and the many good faith-based groups, is that before we challenge others, we need to challenge ourselves.

And not be bashful when anybody asks about our moral values.

Wheels4Hope (, 255-1325) is the only faith-based group I know of providing cars to people who need them. But as soon as I say that, someone will write in to tell me about another one, because the number of ministries in our midst doing good works of all kinds is vast. Just for starters, here's a list of Wheels4's partners--the ministries (and one secular program) offering food, housing, counseling and other services to folks in transitional programs:

  • Mission House for Women,, 829-0806.
  • Pan Lutheran Ministries,, 212-1123.
  • Passage Home,, 834-0666.
  • Step-Up Ministries,, 834-0372.
  • Triangle Family Services,, 821-0790.
  • Urban Ministries of Wake County,, 836-1642.

    The others mentioned are:

  • Inter-Faith Council for Social Services in Carrboro,, 929-6380.
  • National Farm Workers Ministry, Durham office,, 489-4485 (Lori Khamala)
  • People of Faith Against the Death Penalty,, 933-7567.
  • Servant Leadership School of Greensboro,, (336) 275-0447.

    And two more on my list:

  • Building Together Ministries, Raleigh,, 834-7626.
  • Stop Hunger Now, Raleigh,, 1-888-501-8440.

    Wherever you get your moral values from, and wherever you use them--faith-based or otherwise--Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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