I was only sixteen when I would fill up my car with friends and lead a parade of other cars down to Myrtle and Twelfth street in Detroit. Usually, thirty-five or so of us teenagers from Thurston High School Christian Club would go to Ness Memorial Children’s Mission every Wednesday and Thursday night. We would put on a weekly program for the hundred or so inner-city children. It was there that I first saw the needs of a distraught neighborhood. Going with the Director, Mr. Van, to pick up children and take them home, I would find people living in poverty, overcrowded and often without their daily needs met. After high school, I moved into the mission to work with Mr. Van while attending Wayne State University. Besides the two weekly evening Bible Clubs, we worked with feeding, clothing, housing and trying to meet the needs of the children that lived in the community. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation and deeply touched by the love, concern, and sacrifice of Mr. Van.
I was enrolled in Monteith College, a division of Wayne State, which had a strong social science department. It just so happened that one of my teachers was deeply involved in a brand new social concept called “Urban Renewal”. As a result in 1969, I became involved in Detroit’s “Cass Corridor” Urban Renewal project. It was there that I first worked on community development. I began to see that poverty, economics, housing, education, zoning, politics were all part of a system. I learned that if we were going to really make changes, we would have to get to the systemic roots of the problems.
It would take years for me to fully understand the influence that those early days had on me. It was not until I worked for World Relief that I started to understand more about the needs of a community and was introduced to community and economic development on a worldwide level. It was so exciting to see how creative programs could make such a difference. I became so excited that I wanted to share the theory of community and economic development with local churches. I believed if we could harness the manpower and resources of the congregations scattered within a thirty to forty mile radius of poor neighborhoods, we could make a dramatic difference! It would take seven more years but God prepared my heart through many wonderful ministry experiences. During my ministry at Central Baptist Children’s Services, Breakthrough Urban Ministries and Adventures In Missions, I saw many wonderful programs and ministries make great differences in the lives of so many. It was finally in Gainesville, Georgia that God led me to start Walking the Talk Ministry and The Lay Ministry Institute in order to motivate and mobilize adults to help with the overwhelming needs of the poor neighborhoods in this country.
I had just left as Vice President of Adventures In Missions with a passion to get adults and local churches interested in short-term mission projects in the inner-cities of the United States. As I was sitting one morning on my garden bench, I was reading the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. Jerusalem lay in rubble, utterly destroyed. The Jews were dispersed throughout the world and yet one man, Nehemiah, with a strong belief in God, dared to make a difference. Nehemiah is not as familiar as the other Old and New Testament characters. There are no great miracles recorded, like the parting of the Red Sea; yet the supernatural working of God through the life of Nehemiah and the people he influenced, produced great results. It was through Nehemiah that God rebuilt the city of Jerusalem. God called Nehemiah, a humble cupbearer of the King Artaxerxes, to respond to the needs of Jerusalem. Nehemiah obeyed God and restored the ruined city, snatching it from the brink of oblivion.
As I read the account of Nehemiah I saw a picture of community renewal and development. There’s a chapter where the author names the different gates that were being rebuilt. As he named the dung gate, water gate, sheep gate, it suddenly hit me that the gates had obvious utilitarian functions. I quickly read the names of all the gates and started to study what they represented. I soon realized that, as Nehemiah rebuilt the gates he was actually involved in community development! He would end up making a tremendous difference in the life of that once destroyed community. As God calls us to respond to the needs around us, we can use these same principles to help rebuild communities. I knew then that I had my message. I wanted people to see that God used Nehemiah to make a difference in a distraught neighborhood and that He can use us too!
What is Community Development?
For many, the term “community development” is a new concept. You may be wondering, “What is community development? What is a community development corporation? What do they do?” Carol Wayman, in the NCCED (National Congress For Community Economic Development) 2001 Practitioner’s Guide, wrote a very insightful CDC (Community Development Corporation) Industry Profile.
Community development corporations (CDCs) are non-profit community-based organizations that strategically redevelop economically depressed areas by developing affordable housing, sponsoring community economic development projects, providing vital social services and participating in community organizing efforts. CDCs undertake a range of activities including housing counseling, developing business incubators and tutoring at-risk youth. CDCs are business-oriented and entrepreneurial. They work to improve the lives of people in low-income and minority communities afflicted by disinvestment – undertaking development projects that the traditional for-profit sector shuns. Working to mitigate the risks that are often associated with engaging in developments in distressed areas, CDCs draw private investment into troubled areas. Over the past thirty years, CDCs have emerged as one of the most successful community revitalization models in the country.1
As I read Ms. Wayman’s description of a Community Development Corporation, I have to ask myself, “Where is the Church? Why aren’t we doing these things?” Isn’t there a resounding familiarity between the action she describes and what we read from Isaiah 58 and James 3?
While Community Development offers good sounding solutions, there is a need for much more than architectural designs, empowerment zones, and well-planned communities. Without spiritual and moral foundations, all the best-planned communities in the world will be, as Jesus suggested, “built on sand.” We dare not abdicate our responsibility for the community to the government or secular agencies. We, as the Church, have at our disposal the power of Almighty God; the manpower and the vast resources of the Church and its people. If we step out in faith and obedience, we can make a radical difference. The question is, “Will we?”
I believe as Christians we should be involved in community renewal. If God so loved the world, shouldn’t we? That is why I advocate for Evangelical Community Development. As evangelical Christians, part of the good news that we bring to people is love, mercy, and justice.
Evangelical Community Development
Why do I call it Evangelical? Because I believe in the two strong tenets that I see in Evangelical Christianity. One tenet is about man’s need for salvation and the other is the belief in the resurrection of Christ. Our belief that lasting change comes from believing the Gospel is crucial to the way we work with people. It is through a personal relationship with God and the following of His word that the power of God is unleashed in a person’s life. But without the resurrection, where is the power? Paul the Apostle writes to the Church in Ephesus in Ephesians 1: 18-19:
I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know… his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of His mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at the right hand in the heavenly realms.
It is the power of God that not only gives us the strength to do the work that He has called us to but it is the source of power for change. His power can change the lives of the people to whom we minister, change the community in which they live and change the world’s patterns of injustice that so often prevail. What separates us from other social agencies? Should it not be the power of the resurrection? We need to cry out to God to use His almighty power, the same power He used to raise Jesus from the dead, to use His power to resurrect broken lives and the communities in which they live.
This is the evangelical message that needs to be the foundation for community development. For too long we have given social aspects of community development the preeminence. Housing, economic development, social work are all vital parts of community development, but I believe that God wants Himself, His power and His principles to be at the core of community renewal. Without spiritual renewal that Christ and the Bible brings, any community development is incomplete.