During the Christmas season, popular 1940s-era movies get a lot of play on cable TV, with heartwarming stories of churches helping their people and communities in times of need.
Think of Bing Crosby in “Bells of St. Mary’s” or “Going My Way.”
The church helped people with schools, counsel and faith. And the priests and ministers knew who needed help and what kind of help they needed.
While popular culture might depict such scenes as quaint old memories of days gone by, today, many faith communities would beg to differ. In fact, some congregations are actively taking charge and getting deep in to the business of community development and urban renewal.
A webinar presented Dec. 16 was titled “Faith-based development: Neighborhood anchors as community builders.” Sponsored by the American Planning Association and its Black Community Division, its premise was that just as hospitals and universities anchor communities, so can churches.
Moderator Carlton Eley, an environmental protection specialist with the U.S. EPA's Office of Environmental Justice, called it being “stewards of the built environment.”
It often starts as an effort to revitalize the neighborhood that surrounds the church.
Over 40 years as pastor of Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens, N.Y., “we have been able to do much for the community,” said the Rev. Dr. Floyd Flake. Under Flake's leadership, the church has become a major real estate developer, founding a 750-student private school, 300 senior citizen housing units, a senior citizen center that “turned out to be a beacon,” and transportation services, among other projects. “The community has been able to sustain itself in a better way than when I first came here,” Flake said. "The assets have been used to continue to create new opportunity."
“We dared to believe we could make a difference," he added. "We felt that the more we did for the community the better the community would be.”
Part of the effort was to make housing more available for first-time home buyers. “The majority of people who bought homes from us are still living in those homes," Flake said. "People have a comfort level where they are living.”
Flake was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, which helped foster a relationship with federal agencies and other elected officials. Once he became familiar with federal and city officials and they got to know him, he could “bring them out to see what the community looked like. Connecting with high level government officials can be good if you try to work with them and not try to override them,” he said.
York College located in the neighborhood, and Jamaica Hospital leases land from the church.
“We have found ways to bring income into the community,” Flake said. “It just takes a mind set to do it, to make it happen, whether with the government or if we have to do it on the ground ourselves.”
The congregation was small in the beginning, and some residents resisted his ideas. “I came here very young. I basically felt this is what God’s plan had sent me there for,” he said. “I was going to do what I thought was best for the community.”
Flake said the actions taken by his congregation would work anywhere.
The Rev. Dr. Deforest Soaries Jr., senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, N.J., used the Greater Allen Cathedral neighborhood as a model.
One of his core principles is that “the only way to produce success is to study success. The people in the neighborhood needed to see someone who had done what we were trying to convince them to do,” Soaries said.
So he chartered a bus and 35 community leaders went to Queens to see what the Allen Cathedral community had done.
His goal was to “leverage the spiritual, financial and human resources of our congregation to bring about revitalization” in Somerset, Soaries said.
“We were the only ones who saw this as a neighborhood. Rival gangs were using the church parking lot as a battle ground every weekend,” he said. “Our mission was to rebuild the neighborhood one family at a time.”
The neighborhood was ethnically diverse, had abandoned buildings, old housing stock and deserted industrial space, crime and prolific drug activity.
“We saw the challenges. We saw the opportunity for the church to leverage its resources to bring about a change,” Soaries said.
They created a community development corporation.
“The church leadership made a formal commitment to improve the neighborhood surrounding the church. We made a real commitment to protect the neighborhood from gentrification,” which would make housing unaffordable, he said. They worked hard to make sure the revitalization didn't displace people in the neighborhood.
“We wanted to identify and build on existing assets: The natural neighborhood leaders who had been here all their lives who were credible and believed the neighborhood could be better,” Soaries said.
It was a people-driven, grassroots effort. They held public hearings and did surveys door-to-door.
They started with what Soaries called “low-hanging fruit.” They lobbied for installation of a traffic light at a deadly intersection. They bought and cleared a wooded area to reduce drug activity. They shut down an illegally run strip club.
“People need hope. People need symbols of success,” he said. “You have to do human development before you do brick and mortar development, otherwise you create a scenario for displacement.”
The result has been 124 condominiums, a new high school, affordable senior citizen housing, improved transportation linkages for jobs and a faith-based hospital.
The church’s work in the community attracts more people to join the congregation.
“When churches are actively involved in the community, it makes the church look more attractive to people looking for a church,” Soaries said.
Sometimes preservation is as critical as construction.
The Rev. Andrew Wilkes, associate pastor of social justice and young adults at Greater Allen Cathedral, said the faith community acting together can express the needs of the people to the public sector.
After Super Storm Sandy and the Great Recession, foreclosure prevention became a critical goal.
Southeast Queens, where the Greater Allen Cathedral is located, was one of the two hardest hit areas for foreclosures following the recession, he said. Foreclosure prevention was crucial to getting legal aid and renegotiating mortgages. Forty faith-based groups joined together to help.
Faith-based leaders help “not only through building projects, but through community organizing to ensure the public sector meets critical needs. When you have parishioners looking for a trusted institution, the faith community helps uplift the community,” Wilkes said.
The American Red Cross, with others, provided immediate disaster relief after the hurricane. But the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, Presbyterian Disaster Awareness and Catholic Charities were also there in the beginning and during the recovery.
They knew who needed medicine, money for a hotel room, who needed help to keep the kids in school and people at work. They provided a sense of normalcy.
“Faith communities when they aggregate together can do transformative work,” Wilkes said.
Leaders and congregations of all faiths provided emotional and spiritual care for traumatized families, along with social workers and counselors.
“When disaster happens, families are often completely disoriented. They needed to find their sense of bearings and help them find a sense of what their next steps were,” he said. People often turned to their faith community.
And the faith communities argued for equitable spending of Housing and Urban Development community block grant funds for development and training. People in the area, who felt the impact and needed the jobs, should be given a chance.
“This is what equitable development looks like in a post-disaster context,” Wilkes said, brought about by faith communities organizing and working together.
The faith community can act as conveners, bringing together the trusted local leaders and environmental justice advocates.
When there is violent crime, thoughts of environmental justice might not be top priority.
Unless it’s a Flint, Michigan, water crisis, compared to gunshots, environmental concerns can seem secondary.
“When it comes to trying to alleviate the problems within a community, we often find a lot of issues co-mingled,” Eley said. “It’s not about trying to focus on one or the other but instead realizing you have to encourage a holistic strategy. You have to be prepared to work on all of it, although you might need to set certain priorities on how you proceed," he said.