Evangelical ‘Relocators’ Use CCDA Model to Build Up Urban Communities

Mathew Loftus holds a meeting of New Song Community Church's mental health group in his house after Sunday service. (Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America)
Mathew Loftus holds a meeting of New Song Community Church’s mental health group in his house after Sunday service. (Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America)

At the corner of Laurens St. and Fulton Ave., a man watches Matthew Loftus walk by with his 21-month-old daughter, Naomi, strapped to his back. “She got big!” the man says.

Loftus, 27, says something friendly back, but he’s not sure who the man is. “My eyesight is actually really bad,” he says.

As he runs an errand in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, people notice Loftus before he notices them. On Presstman St., where Loftus rented before buying a home several blocks away, a young girl in a school uniform smiles and says, “I see you’re visiting the old neighborhood.” A group of men playing cards on the corner asks about the rabbits that Matthew and Maggie, his 25-year-old wife, were raising the last time they saw him. In front of a Monroe St. car wash, a man spies Naomi. “She still gorgeous!” he says. “Tell your wife I said hi.”

For his neighbors, Loftus is hard to miss, no matter their eyesight. He is white in a nearly all-black neighborhood. Like much of West Baltimore, Sandtown faces relentless poverty, addiction and violence. Six hours after Loftus’ afternoon stroll in late May, three men were shot just down the street from the car wash.

For a brief while, though, as Loftus walks through the neighborhood, it feels like a small town.

Matthew Loftus doesn’t fit into the typical narratives about changing American communities. On one hand, recent housing policy has encouraged integrated suburbs by helping low-income families access “communities of opportunity” with more jobs, less crime and better schools. When integration moves the other way — into poor urban neighborhoods — it often tips over into gentrification as upscale amenities arrive, taxes and rents rise, and longtime residents get priced out.

For people like Loftus, it’s not coffee shops or home values drawing them to places like Sandtown. It’s Jesus. Shortly after Loftus started medical school in Baltimore in 2007, he began worshipping at New Song Community Church, a racially diverse congregation in Sandtown. New Song is part of the same Presbyterian denomination as the church Loftus and his 14 siblings attended as children in Harford County, Maryland, 40 minutes outside the city.

New Song is also a member of the Christian Community Development Association. The CCDA’s model is similar to “asset-based community development,” which tries to build out from a community’s strengths rather than “fix” its deficiencies. But the CCDA asks more of its practitioners across the nation: that they have something personally at stake in the development. Leaders at New Song talked to Loftus about the core of the CCDA’s philosophy, the “three R’s”: relocation, redistribution and reconciliation.

The CCDA model emerged largely from the work of John Perkins, a black, 84-year-old civil-rights activist from rural Mississippi. Evangelism is at the heart of Perkins’ model. But what separates his approach is his insistence that outsiders who want to help a neighborhood actually move in. The idea is rooted in “incarnational ministry”: the idea that God became flesh and shared in human suffering. Jesus, CCDA supporters like to say, did not commute back and forth from heaven.

Perkins rejects “impersonal and bureaucratic” solutions to poverty, which he believes make residents dependent on outside institutions that don’t understand the roots of their problems. The CCDA helps its member organizations build relationships within the community that bridge racial and economic divides, hoping development will grow outward from that foundation. The CCDA now works with nearly 1,000 organizations around the nation. Close to 3,000 people attend CCDA’s annual conference.

Miami University anthropologist James Bielo studies the reurbanization of evangelicals and says he’s seeing more of the younger ones leave the suburbs for the city. “It’s sort of a hot thing,” Bielo says. Mark Mulder, a sociologist at evangelical Calvin College in Michigan, says some evangelicals subscribe to what he calls the “miracle motif” — the belief that racial justice depends on more people becoming Christian — and others say that’s not enough, believing systemic changes must also be made in society. “Perkins and the CCDA,” Mulder says, “get traction in speaking to both communities.”

Sandtown’s first relocators were the Tibbelses, a white family of four who moved in 28 years ago, and Mark Gornik, a pastor friend who joined them. “We were black on black,” says Clyde Harris, an African-American nonprofit founder who grew up in Sandtown and had started Newborn Holiness Church before the Tibbelses arrived. “No way white folks would come in here to live with their babies!”

Suspicious neighbors wondered if the new arrivals were part of a cult. The neighbors sent Harris to check them out.

Harris embraced the newcomers, who introduced the neighborhood to Perkins’ model. Ever since, the New Song church and ministries, which Allan Tibbels — the father of the family — and Gornik helped launch, have worked hand in hand with Harris’ Newborn Holistic Ministries to do community work in Sandtown.

Tibbels’ suggested method for engaging potential relocators was to try as hard as possible to dissuade them, and if they still wanted to move in, encourage them. Matthew Loftus consulted with church elders for most of 2009. At the end of the year, he married Maggie and they moved to Presstman St.

Relocators often arrive with more education than their new neighbors, more wealth, more connections — you name it. (The median household income in Sandtown was just $22,237 in 2009, when Loftus moved in). The CCDA’s “redistribution” principle means making those resources available to empower neighbors.

One of Loftus’ redistribution efforts has been a program connecting residents with underutilized mental-health services. In poor, violent neighborhoods like Sandtown, there is often a more pronounced need for these services, yet there is a stigma associated with mental illness. Loftus’ program helps neighbors navigate the mental-health-care system and follows up with clients about their appointments.

Having grown up with ample resources and his leadership potential consistently recognized, Loftus says, there is an ever-present temptation to feel like a savior in a neighborhood like Sandtown: “As a white person, my innate desire to fix, control, be in charge — all those sorts of things start to come out very, very quickly.”

The CCDA model is conscious of the white-savior trap and encourages “indigenous leadership.” Loftus, now a family physician, is training Sandtown residents to lead small group discussions on issues like stress and grief. The idea is that they will in turn train more people, allowing Loftus to bow out and leave the reins with those who have the most at stake.

Early on in the CCDA movement, Sandtown relocators started a Habitat for Humanity chapter that has since built more than 300 houses, as well as a school. Both are now run by lifelong Sandtown residents.

“Every ministry that’s come through church has always been with the goal of empowering the community to take over,” says 43-year-old New Song elder Antoine Bennett. “You never see a solo director of programs that doesn’t have a co-director or assistant director, someone from the neighborhood serving in a leadership capacity with decision-making power.”

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SOURCE: Aljazeera America
Lawrence Lanahan

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