Sunday, April 24, 2005

Churches and Urban Reality (Part One)

On a weekly basis, if not more frequently, church folk call to ask, "How can we help?"

I always appreciate these inquiries and, even more, the spirit motivating them.

The notion that communities of faith can really matter certainly is in vogue these days.

During his first administration, President Bush created the White House Office for Community and Faith-Based Initiatives. Having made a few trips to Washington to visit with those involved in this new department, I feel as if I understand something about its purpose and philosophy.

Most of the churches and community groups involved in the work of the White House Office focus on inner city issues because they are urban congregations located in tough neighborhoods.

Most the calls I receive come from suburban congregations.

What can churches, especially those from outside the inner city, do to address the tough issues facing inner city communities?

I have a few ideas. So, over the next few posts I'll just list them in no particular order for consideration and hopefully discussion.

1) More affluent suburban and "high steeple" churches could literally play a leading role in the transformation of our inner cities by creating loan funds for reputible community development corporations (CDC) devoted to economic and affordable houing development.

Breifly, here is one approach. Congregations involved in capital improvement funding campaigns could devote half-a-tithe as a "mission set aside" for this purpose.

For example, in a $30 million campaign (not all that unusual in large cities like Dallas) the set aside would total $1.5 million. Such a fund could provide loans to partner CDCs. These loans could be paid back over time, with or without interest, once the development projects begin to cash flow. The renewable fund could remain intact for years and could even grow through interest payments, additional efforts to add more funds and future capital projects.

Even a small amount of that beginning balance could be leveraged many times over by creative CDC developers. Here at Central Dallas Ministries we will break ground within the next two months on a housing and economic development project in a previously blighted area of East Dallas. The project includes 237 units of housing and almost 50,000 square feet of retail.

So far, we have less than $200,000 of our own funding in the project that will be valued at over $25 million when completed. It is amazing what can be leveraged with a relatively small amount of up-front funding.

Most of the target churches in view here have lots of professionals who are being under-utilized who could help with the creation and administration of such a funding vehicle. Talk about the church making a difference!

2) Develop a theology of justice that understands community development, poverty and economic oppression from a biblical perspective.

Frankly, many of the larger, more affluent churches I visit appear to have no inkling of what scripture has to say about the poor, poverty, economic disadvantage and the role of community in addressing the issues surrounding these realities. Oh, there may be an occasional reference to "helping the poor," but no systematic understanding of just how fundamental these concerns are from a biblical perspective. Churches that do go deeper are often accused of being "liberal," "political" and suspect in some way.

Revisiting the words of Moses, the songs of Israel, the teachings of the prophets, the clear challenge of Jesus and the example of the early church would be an extremely productive endeavor. A congregation could devote an entire year to the process and not exhaust the relevant textual materials.

Communities of faith operating from strong theological foundations change things. Churches devoted to understanding the Bible will find ways to engage the problems and oppressive realities of the city.

More to come. . .


Jeremy Gregg said...

Earlier today, I went to mass at our neighborhood church, and was amazed at the number of advertisements in the church bulletin. Realtors, mortgage brokers, doctors, lawyers . . . even The Park-It Market (liquor store) had an ad in there. But not one non-profit organization.

It seems to me that it would be very easy for churches to provide at least a few "free spots" to organizations that serve their community. Chances are, many of their members benefit from the services of these groups, and many others might be interested in supporting them! I realize that church budgets can be tight, so ad space is precious, but this would be an easy way to remind church-goers that they should support God's people throughout the community.

owldog said...

I agree, and love your ideas for churches to help, be like Jesus, keep them coming. I read the "Steve Blow" column in the Dallas Morning News yesterday and almost thought you wrote it. I am so excited an 18 year old from a private school is getting involved and meeting the "homeless" people in Dallas. I liked Steve idea of instead of think of them as homeless think of them as her friends.

Jeremy Gregg said...

Thanks for posting that, owldog! That's a wonderful story. I hope that Alysa's friends and families learn from her example, and go out to meet and befriend our homeless neighbors. Looks like we're one step closer to a stronger, more connected and more compassionate community!