RNS

A number of faith-based groups were among the nearly 300 recipients of $US2.7 billion in grants announced Tuesday by billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott to organizsations addressing a range of social issues.

Scott, who was formerly married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, wrote in a Medium post that she and her husband, Dan Jewett, worked with researchers, administrators and advisers to figure out how to best distribute the money to “high-impact organizations” in areas “that have been historically underfunded and overlooked".

US Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee Minnesota and MacKenzie Scott

Left, Amazon fulfillment centre in Shakopee, Minnesota and right, MacKenzie Scott. PICTURES: Tony Webster/Creative Commons, and courtesy of Scott’s website

It is the third round of no-strings-attached, major philanthropic gifts Scott has made since 2020. Scott’s wealth, estimated by Forbes at roughly $US60 billion, has grown since she divorced from Bezos in 2019 and walked away with a four per cent stake in Amazon.

In her post, Scott listed the 286 organisations and institutions that received funding but did not disclose the amount she gave to each group. 

Faith in Action, Faith in Public Life, HIAS, Repair the World, Inner-City Muslim Action Network, Muslim Advocates, Pillars Fund, Homeboy Industries and Repairers of the Breach were faith organisations listed among those receiving funding.

"Discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities has been deepening, so we assessed organizations bridging divides through interfaith support and collaboration,” Scott wrote.

Rev Jennifer Butler, chief executive officer of Faith in Public Life, said her organisation was first notified about the financial gift by phone about two weeks ago. Initially, Butler said, the money was characterised as coming from an anonymous donor, but it was later disclosed the funding came from Scott and her husband.

Butler told Religion News Service she was floored and in tears by the “amount of trust that they put in the organisations that they’re investing in". She wouldn’t disclose how much money Faith in Public Life was granted, but she said it was a “significant multimillion-dollar gift".

Butler said Faith in Public Life serves about 50,000 religious leaders, with networks in Florida, Georgia and Ohio. The organisation, which has increased in staff and budget in the past few years, has worked to combat Christian nationalism and the religious right, according to a statement.

“We’re working across the Black belt of Georgia. We’re working in communities hit hard by the opioid crisis in Ohio. We will continue to build out in additional space and deepen the networks where we’re already organizing to work for just policies and to challenge racism,” Butler told RNS.

With funding going toward a range of religious groups, Butler said she foresees a “continuing resurgence of a more progressive faith movement that truly represents what our traditions are about".

"Our mission has always been to build a faith movement for justice, compassion and the common good, and so I am ecstatic that other faith groups were part of this gift,” she said. 

For Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, an international Jewish humanitarian organisation, the money will help in HIAS' transformation from a Jewish refugee resettlement agency to an organisation that can further assist refugees wherever they may be.

"Whether it’s helping them be protected from being deported to a place where they would be in danger, whether it’s preventing sexual and gender-based violence among refugee populations, or whether it’s helping to ensure that they can support themselves," Hetfield said. 

"We’ve expanded the scope of our work in recent years and now we hope to really improve our capacity with this transformational grant to respond to refugee crisis on an emergency basis," he added.

Hetfield said the organisation wasn't ready yet to disclose the amount it is receiving but said it's significant that HIAS was among other faith groups awarded this funding. 

"HIAS was funded over 100 years ago to help refugees because of their faith, and now we help refugees because of our faith," he said.

Muslim Advocates Executive Director Farhana Khera said in a statement that the money her group is receiving will help in its work “to secure the rights of Muslims and all people."

She said the grant is meaningful because "Muslims often get left out of conversations about civil rights and the future of our democracy".

The national civil rights organisation has advocated for Muslims seeking to build mosques and cemeteries in their communities and has urged federal and state prisons to accommodate the religious needs of incarcerated Muslims during Ramadan. It has also worked to hold tech companies accountable for anti-Muslim hate content online.

In April, Muslim Advocates filed a lawsuit against Facebook, claiming the platform failed to remove anti-Muslim content.

"This gift from Ms Scott ensures not only that this vital work continues but also that we can do even more to fight anti-Muslim bigotry and ensure freedom, justice and equality for all,” Khera said in the statement.

US Iowa Vote Common Good Rev Alvin Herring

Rev Alvin Herring speaks during the Vote Common Good  summit in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday, 10th January, 2020. PICTURE: Video screen via Vote Common Good.

Rev Alvin Herring, executive director of the congregation-based organizing network Faith in Action, told RNS the multi-million-dollar grant it received will allow the organisation to invest in its network of member federations.

The multi-faith, multi-racial group boasts 45 member organisations spread across 200 cities and towns in 25 states. Each organisation claims the membership of multiple worship communities of various sizes dedicated to advocating for certain policies and legislation.

The organisation, previously known as PICO National Network, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year, Herring said. Faith in Action has rallied behind prison reform in California and equitable funding for public education in Pennsylvania.

"We're probably one of the best-kept secrets in this country, although millions of people every day organize their faith and their voice through our organisation," Herring said.

"We often encounter folks who may not have heard of us or who may not be aware of our work even in their own communities. This will give us an opportunity to share more broadly about the amazing people who make up this network," he added.

Herring said these financial gifts "clearly signal that there's a recognition that faith and people of faith have a role to play in this democracy."

- With Religion News Service reporter JACK JENKINS and The Associated Press.