Urban Churches and City Renewal

May 16, 1994|By MARK R. GORNIK

If there is a key to rebuilding our inner cities, it is found not in top-down initiatives but in neighborhood-based church congregations from which change percolates up. From storefront to tall steeple, the urban church has been the one institution which has kept faith with the inner city. Today, the church is the city's best-kept secret for innovative, effective and sustainable solutions to our most pressing urban challenges.

Rooted in a tradition that cares deeply about love and justice, an increasing number of congregations in Baltimore and across the country have rolled up their sleeves and gotten involved on the streets of their communities. Growing out of the soil of neighborhood-based relationships, urban congregations are working block by block to restitch the urban fabric.

Through creative models of community ministry that recognize that sermons aren't enough, blending dynamic worship with the nuts and bolts of community development and organizing, congregations are providing grass-roots leadership, strengthening families, tending to broken lives, surmounting the barriers of race, class and geography, and bringing people together around a vision of what is possible. In so doing, the church is humbly discovering its own identity.

Using the tools of vision, long-term commitment, tough love, patience and prayer, congregations are making big differences, usually with very small amounts of money. They have helped to create local businesses, job-placement programs, decent and affordable housing, day-care centers, after-school programs, preventive and primary-care health centers, and AIDS hospices. Such efforts necessarily begin small; but given room to mature, they lead to deeply grounded change in communities of need.

Former President Jimmy Carter argues that every congregation can make a big difference if it tries to tackle the few blocks around its place of worship. Even a small congregation can make sure that in its own immediate area no family goes without food, every child is immunized and everyone has the opportunity for a decent and affordable place to live.

Unfortunately, not every church is doing what it can. For too many of us, our faith is not firmly linked to service. But the %J evidence is widespread that the urban church remains the most unheralded leader in taking bold steps to address our nation's greatest challenges.

Many of the most successful neighborhood-rebirth stories have a community-changing congregation at the center. St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East Brooklyn, the subject of ''Upon This Rock'' by Samuel Freedman, is one example. In Newark, New Jersey, the faith-based New Community Corporation, employing more than 1,200 people, has transformed the city's face. Habitat for Humanity, with 1,000 affiliates across the nation, has become one of America's largest homebuilders. The recently formed National Association of Christian Community Developers, an association of congregation-based initiatives commited to neighborhood development, has member organizations in over 100 cities.

In Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester and Penn North communities, the largely church-based Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development (BUILD) worked to see Nehemiah housing developed. On the east side, Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore (CURE) has helped develop a pioneering preventive-care health program, ''Heart, Body and Soul.''

In Sandtown, the inter-racial congregation that I'm a part of, New Song Community Church, focuses on the social, spiritual and economic fabric of a 10-block area. Our efforts include Sandtown Habitat for Humanity (in partnership with other congregations, foundations, corporations, the City of Baltimore, and the Enterprise Foundation), a pre-school and after-school educational enrichment program, a primary health-care center and, most recently, a job-placement program.

As government increases its attention to inner-city troubles through empowerment zones, enterprise zones, community reinvestment policies, health-care reform and other initiatives, it is critical that policy makers engage the religious community in meaningful dialogue and participation. No one group alone can solve our urban problems. But by acting in collaboration with others, including the corporate community and public structures, the difference the entire inter-faith community can make together holds great promise.

Public and private efforts to address urban poverty and create hopeful communities must recognize the need for a spirituality of neighborhood rebirth. Community development efforts that lack a soul and leave out compassion and justice will be partial at best.

The Rev. Mark R. Gornik is the founding pastor of New Song Community Church in Sandtown-Winchester.

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