Cover Story

A wonderful life

Like the mythical George Bailey, Robert Lavelle has used a savings and loan to help more people than he can possibly know

Issue: "Lavelle's wonderful life," Dec. 25, 2004

George Bailey: "Just remember this, Mr. Potter: that this rabble you're talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?"
That line from the most familiar Christmas film of all, It's a Wonderful Life, shows what a fictional institution, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, was all about. But in the Hill District of Pittsburgh a real institution, Dwelling House Savings and Loan, has for almost half a century helped about 20 families each year get a mortgage. During that time home ownership rates in the largely African-American area have risen from about 10 percent to more than 45 percent.
Dwelling House's key executive and then inspiring force throughout that period, Robert R. Lavelle, now 89 years old, has helped minority families to become part of an ownership society in a measurable way. Harder to quantify is the difference he has made by teaching biblical principles along the way. Like George Bailey, he cannot know of all the lives he has benefited, because he stays busy getting ready to help the next person who comes through the door.
In helping renters to become owners, Dwelling House has tackled a key social problem that a Pew Foundation study recently noted: African-Americans and Hispanics tend to get hit harder in recessions because of a lack of assets, including homes. The Pew study from U.S. Census data put white household average net worth at $88,651, Hispanic households at $7,932, and black households at $5,988.
Clarence: "One man's life touches so many others, when he's not there it leaves an awfully big hole."
Mr. Lavelle began running Dwelling House in an unusual way in 1957. He went to the organization to ask for a loan for a customer for his Lavelle Real Estate Company. The Dwelling House managers did not have enough assets to lend him the money, but they offered to turn the business over to him to see if he could make something of it in a declining area.

He says he wanted to help people in need in those early years, but as a humanist trying to do good works. He had all the outward appearances of being a Christian and had grown up in a Christian home, the son of a Church of God evangelist. His father had died when he was young, and his praying Christian mother would gently remind him of a need for something more than good works.
"It was the effort to attain goodness on my own strength that led me to become a Christian," he recalled. "I had quit doing all the things you were supposed to quit doing. I had quit smoking. I had quit drinking. I didn't have to quit running around with other women; I always had only one wife. I guess I was one of those good Pharisees. I did good things, yet I didn't have peace, and I wasn't happy. I couldn't quite identify it, but it seemed like I wasn't getting credit for the things I felt I should be getting credit for."
In the early 1960s he turned back to the faith of his mother and father, not long after his mother's death. "After my mother died I realized that I had never asked Christ to come into my life, because I felt I could do it myself. I had two businesses and a lovely wife and two children and I was successful in business. Yet I wasn't happy so I decided to surrender my life to Christ to seek the abundant life."
Part of the abundant life was a business/ministry opportunity to help low-income families. In contrast to the usual nonprofit legal status of faith-based social services, Dwelling House provides traditional social services through a profitable business. Though the business has suffered occasional robberies, he resists advice to put up bars on windows or have armed guards. He wants young people in the neighborhood to be able to see a normal business at work, rather than an armed fortress.

Mr. Lavelle has offered the kind of long-term personal presence required for success in helping needy families move from a culture of rental property to the responsibility of ownership of a home. Government-supported housing programs tend to emphasize rental subsidies. Even the government programs geared to ownership have a hard time sustaining the kind of impact Mr. Lavelle has had because government funding tends to run its course in two- to four-year cycles.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Life with Lyme

    For long-term Lyme patients, treatment is a matter of…