Thoughts on Neighborhood Development…

“This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.  Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29.4-7)

What is shalom?  There is no single English word that comes anywhere close to carrying as much dimension as this single Hebrew word does.  Shalom is the word that describes what the world looked like without sin, and what it would look like if all the world accurately reflected the design of God.  It is a picture of holistic and comprehensive peace.  It represents the world at One – with God, with each other, and with creation.  It represents harmony –economic peace, social peace, racial peace, environmentally, gender, and family peace.  It is a flourishing in every dimension of society.

In Jeremiah 29.7 God tells the people to seek the shalom of the neighborhood they were carried into.  How do you know if a neighborhood is experiencing shalom? Shalom manifests itself in different forms, such as great schools, affordable housing, safe streets to play on, grocery stores to shop at where healthy food is available and affordable, good jobs that are available, concern for the environment, etc. The signs of loss of shalom include poverty, crime, bad schools, unsafe streets, racial tension, and even war.

“From an economic standpoint, the number one indicator of shalom is the elimination of poverty.” (Bob Linthicum, Building a People of Power)

For River City Community Church, we believe that we are called to grow in worship, to grow in reconciliation, and to seek the shalom of our neighborhood.  Some of the practical outworkings of this pursuit of shalom [neighborhood development]:

The Intersection of Race & Poverty – Marian Wright Edelman, one of the Civil Rights pioneers of our day, makes an important yet simple observation about seeking shalom in our present day society.  The most vulnerable group in our country is children, and the most dangerous place for children to live in the United States is at the intersection of race and poverty.  Our vision is to be a life giving church at that dangerous intersection within our neighborhood of Humboldt Park.  We long for the shalom of our entire city and entire neighborhood, but are particularly mindful of the children living at the intersection of race & poverty.

Defined Impact Zone – If we are going to be able to walk along side the parents and help protect the children living at this dangerous intersection, then we need to have a defined impact zone.  There needs to be a small enough area of the neighborhood that we can get to know the families well and they can get to know us well.  We have defined this impact zone as within walking distance of Cameron Elementary School (1234 N Monticello – just off the intersection Division & Central Park).  We do not expect that to mean that all or even most of the River City body needs to live within those boundaries.  The importance of definition is more for the sake of knowing whom the families and children are and positioning ourselves to be responsive and loving to that zone as time goes on.

Anchor grammar school – There are numerous facets to a holistic, life-giving neighborhood development strategy.  But if you do not have a local grammar school functioning at an adequate level (at the very minimum) everything else becomes destabilized.  Research shows that if a child is not reading at a grade level by 3rd grade, that child is not likely to ever catch up.  Therefore a mutual partnership with an anchor grammar school becomes critical.  This has been one of the significant developments over the life of River City as we have grown into our neighborhood development strategy.  We have interacted with most of the grammar schools in Humboldt Park evaluating their ability to educate children and inviting the school to evaluate us for potential partnership.  Cameron Elementary has become a great fit with River City for a number of reasons: 1.) Location 2.) Racial makeup (55% Latino/a American; 45% African-American), 3.) Economic makeup (99% of the students are on free or reduced lunch vouchers), and 4.) School vision (see for a great article on Cameron).

A multiethnic village – There is a famous and enduring proverb that most people have heard: “It takes a village to raise a child.” I like this proverb because it carries a couple of important assumptions.  It is assuming that children are important, which is a consistent Biblical motif.  It also is assuming that parents have to be good parents, but that even good parents are not enough. There needs to be a broader network of loving adults that come around the parents as they come around the child.  This is really important when there are two parents at home and plenty of resources.  This takes on a level of critical nature when you start pulling some of those advantages away.  Pull away one parent.  Decrease money or education or access to opportunity and it feels impossible.  It probably is.  Every parent needs the village to help raise their child to flourish.

This is the last bullet point mentioned, because it is probably the most practical way to hold onto our neighborhood development strategy – our philosophy for seeking the shalom of our neighborhood.  One of the significant reasons our neighborhood experiences poverty is tied to a generational racist history.  Race played a part in getting things to where they are, and race will play a part in God restoring shalom.

One of the easiest ways to curb racism in children – whichever side of the privilege line they are raised – is to expose them to a loving community (“village”) of multiethnic adults from early on.  It is exceedingly difficult to harbor prejudices and racist tendencies when you have experienced love from all different kinds of people consistently along your journey.  Add to that the variety of skills, networks, opportunities, and perspective that we learn from each other in the village, and you have a strong foundation for shalom.

Matthew 5.9: “Blessed are the shalom-makers, for they will be called children of God.”

Robert Linthicum says it is intriguing to note Jesus’ careful choice of words in this beatitude.  He does not say, “Blessed are the peace-keepers.”  The role was being performed by the Jewish religious community of his day.  They were “keeping” the ancient Israelite vision of the shalom community through their torah, traditions, and teachings.

What Jesus called the church to be about, however, was to be peace-makers – a profoundly different role.  A shalom-maker would be someone intentionally and proactively working to bring the vision of the shalom community to reality in our world today.  Jesus was calling the church to actively work to “make” shalom not simply maintain a remembrance of it.