This is the conclusion of a 10-part blog series exploring some of the vision and values of River City Community Church. We will occupy our new home some time in the spring of 2014, and we are in the final stages of our capital campaign process. One of the questions we receive most frequently is in regard to how our space will be used for the neighborhood development side of our ministry. The church usage is easier to project - it will be a wonderful home for the many activities that fill our typical week of ministry - community groups, worship practice, Christian education classes, and Sunday worship, to name a few. As important as it is to have a future home for these purposes, we have also been clear that the identity of this space is wrapped deeply around its ability to function as a life giving community center for the surrounding neighborhood as well.
Whenever we are asked about this we give a 2-part answer.
First, we emphasize that we are not in a rush to answer that question. Though we understand the desire and need to have a clear plan and methodology, it would be a fool's errand for us to go too far down that road at this juncture. The whole point of neighborhood development is to build a table of fellowship where voices from across the spectrum unite around the pursuit of justice and shalom (see this post for more on that). I have no doubt that we will populate this space with all kind of meaningful programming, and I suspect it will happen rather quickly. But it is imperative that the designed programming is not coming from us to the neighborhood residents - it must be a joint effort (one of my favorite activities is taking parents from our neighborhood school on tours of the unfinished space - they are overflowing with ideas for how this space can become a meaningful force for good in the life of the neighborhood, which gets to the point of the first part of the answer).
Second, and only after we've established the first point, we acknowledge that we do have some fairly established ideas at a conceptual level. These have been formed by a diverse choir of voices over the first decade of the life of River City, and serve as a philosophical guide for thinking about what fits within the vision and values of our community. They are fairly broad, which allows for a lot of creativity as we engage these concepts in the future. But they are also defined enough to give us some clarity of how to move forward with a sense of collective self.
There are four conceptual, philosophical ideas that I will introduce in this post, but first let me add one more disclaimer. As I've shared these with folks at River City, I find there is a common question that I get: "Are we actually doing any of these right now?" The easiest way I know how to answer that question is to point to a tip I got from Dr. Timothy Keller when I was starting River City.
He told me that when you are starting a church you have to live in a balance between future vision and present capacity. He urged me to develop a good sense of the long term blueprint of the church, much like the blueprint of a house. I am paraphrasing his words, but it was really close to this: "You may have a room in the blueprint that remains unfurnished for years, because you don't yet have the capacity to fill it up. But you still need to have it in the blueprint, so that everyone know its there. And eventually the time will come where you will have the capacity to furnish the room."
I see the following four principles as the beginnings of the "blueprint" of our neighborhood development strategy. In small ways we are doing all of them already, but that's not really the point of this exercise. The bigger point is to give a sense of how we imagine our space functioning within the broader movement of neighborhood development in our neck of the woods.
With all of those qualifiers in place, here are the 4 principles:
1.) Engage children and parents within a defined geographic area in a multifaceted strategy to meet several goals: spiritual, physical, emotional and mental health for every child; enrollment in and graduation from college by every child; good jobs for parents so that families are economically self-sufficient.
There is a fundamental brilliance to the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” By concentrating our efforts on a defined geographic area, we can develop an integrated solution to interconnected, poverty-based challenges. Working comprehensively within West Humboldt Park helps us to achieve three goals: It reaches children in numbers significant enough to affect the culture of a community; it transforms the physical and social environments that impact the children’s development; and it creates programs at a scale large enough to meet the local need.
2.) Develop a long term relationship with an anchor grammar school in the defined geographic area
"Poverty prevention is more dependent on education than on any other [single] factor." – Sar A. Levitan, (Research Professor and Director of the George Washington University Center for Social Policy Studies)
While there are numerous facets to a holistic, life-giving neighborhood development strategy, there are as few as critical as access to quality education. If a neighborhood does 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.
One of the important elements to our neighborhood development strategy is our relationship with Cameron Elementary School. Cameron serves a diverse body of students ethnically (55% Latino/a American; 45% African-American), and a group of families facing intense poverty (99% of the students are on free or reduced lunch vouchers). The leadership of the school has a clear vision for changing the odds for these students (see http://tinyurl.com/9e3hy4 for a great article on their strategy), and has enthusiastically entered into a long-term partnership with River City. The RC Community Center is less than 500 feet from Cameron, opening the door to an exciting plethora of collaborative strategies in the future.
3.) Develop a multicultural “web of support” that nurtures and develops children from cradle to college
One of the most important lessons we have learned about addressing the roots of generational poverty is that it can’t be piecemealed. While it is tempting to program for just one set of needs or age groups, it is important to remember that the set of challenges still remain larger and more complex than that particular program or age.
Instead, we must be prepared to nurture a child through a web of support that develops them from pre-birth all the way to successful entry to adulthood (what we refer to as cradle-to-college). We must develop excellent, accessible programs and link them to one another so that they provide uninterrupted support for children’s healthy growth, starting with pre-natal programs for parents and finishing when young people graduate from college. This allows for the continuous, holistic support for the children, youth, and families of our defined geographic area.
An important addition to this strategy is River City’s unique focus on building a multicultural community. This not only allows us to value the cultural identity of our children, families, and community, but also takes the impact of the web of support to a new level. There is a lot of research being done on what is called “network theory” – the ability of networks to create social capital and opportunity. This is central to the transformational capacity of our web of support, and can be summarized well by this excerpt from Dr. Michael Emerson’s book People of the Dream:
“It is difficult to quantify the impact that… multiracial congregations have on reducing racial inequality, but one issue seems apparent. Given their extensive interracial social ties… multiracial congregations are building considerable bridging capital, that is, resources that accrue from cross-racial social ties. This bridging capital can be used for gaining access to better schools, higher education, health care, neighborhoods, jobs, and access to many other forms of information and action. Without resources gained from these cross-race ties, such access would likely be curtailed.”
4.) Surround this web of support with additional programs that support families and the larger community.
While the web of support will be central to River City’s vision, the successful actualization of this will require a broad and committed coalition of invested stakeholders that extends far beyond our church community. The web of support will require collaboration with invested residents, institutions, and neighborhood stakeholders to create the environment necessary for children’s healthy development. It is dependent on an invested group of loving adults spanning the entire age spectrum.
River City has been building collaborative relationships with both individuals and organizations within the neighborhood for years now, and has a broad and diverse set of partners. Together we will work to develop children in a sustained way, starting as early in their lives as possible. Together we will work to create a critical mass of adults around them who understand what it takes to help children succeed.