Twenty-five years ago, a group of religious leaders formed Community Ministry of Prince George's County to promote racial healing and do good works.

Today the organization has gone from sponsoring dialogues about busing and racial reconciliation to feeding and housing the poor. Now the leader of the group is on a mission to weave a safety net for the needy throughout the county.

"I would really would like to see the faith community in this county lead the way so that people in need can be helped in their own back yards," said the Rev. Jack VandenHengel, 49, executive director of Community Ministry of Prince George's County.

Community Ministry runs the Warm Nights program, through which about 30 churches and synagogues take turns housing the homeless during the winter months. The religious consortium also funds the Community Cafe in Hyattsville, which serves a hot lunch to 30 to 40 needy people five days a week.

Although these programs are doing well with limited resources--a budget of about $300,000 per year from grants and donations--VandenHengel said that in some parts of the county it is hard for those in need to get assistance. As a result, he has divided more than 800 churches in the county into 38 clusters to help get assistance to people in need without forcing them to travel great distances.

"The goal of the clusters is to provide a vehicle through the faith community where people get human services in their geographic back yard," VandenHengel said. "Because there are more than 800 congregations in the county, everyone can be touched by a local congregational cluster."

Karyn Lynch, director of the Prince George's Department of Social Services, has praise for VandenHengel's efforts.

In an interview earlier this year, she said it is not surprising that the religious community would be a place where people seek help.

"It happens naturally that people in need to turn to the church," Lynch said.

VandenHengel, who joined Community Ministry in 1997, said about one-third of the clusters are functioning. "The faith community has a window of opportunity to respond because the public sector is reaching out in dialogue with us."

CAPTION: Andrew Rooths, 11, performs a rap composition by the Rev. Jack VandenHengel, on guitar.