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Gentle crusader

The late Robert R. Lavelle personified the Christian worldview

Issue: "Your right to vote," July 31, 2010

There are two ways, whenever my assignment in a column like this is to discuss some fairly complex topic, to frame the conversation. One approach is to hit the issue head-on in the abstract, doing my best to state what's only theoretical but still make it interesting. That's always my second choice.

My preference by far is to introduce you to a real person, or maybe a real organization, or a real anything-some flesh-and-blood entity that exemplifies the conceptual idea. Or, as WORLD's editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky has for years reminded our staff: Show, don't tell.

That's why, when I heard of the death on July 4 of Robert R. Lavelle of Pittsburgh, all I could think was: If ever there was a man who lived out this thing we abstractly call a "Christian world view," it was Robert Lavelle. He was, as he wrote me a few weeks ago, 94½.

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Bob Lavelle was a gentle crusader. The status quo was never good enough. But in his zeal for reform, it was never his habit to put other people down.

Even before the federal government launched Freddie Mac in 1968, Lavelle had a vision for increasing home ownership among fellow African-Americans in Pittsburgh's Hill District. His Lavelle Real Estate Company was already well-established. But a huge turning point came in 1957 when he approached a local bank on behalf of a couple needing a loan to buy a house he wanted to sell. "No, we can't approve that loan," a bank officer told him-in an almost routine rejection that Lavelle had heard often. "But would you be interested in buying our bank?"

Somehow, it all worked. Dwelling House Savings & Loan became a close partner to Lavelle Real Estate Co. Home ownership in the big neighborhood, which stood at just 12 percent when Dwelling House was launched, is now over 40 percent.

What worked in Pittsburgh was an altogether different model from the fiascos that have dominated the news in recent years. Instead of cleverly calibrated derivatives, Lavelle stressed personal acquaintance with his customers. Over its 52-year history, Dwelling House averaged getting 20 families each year into their own homes. Most of those 1,000 families knew what it was like to hear Bob Lavelle personally ring their doorbell to see how things were going.

Those who had fallen behind in their payments got a mandatory but sweet-spirited lesson in family budgeting-which more often than not was good enough to avoid an eviction notice. So unusual was this approach that on three occasions in the last 14 years, WORLD has featured the unique work of Bob Lavelle, his real estate business, and Dwelling House Savings & Loan.

It's true that saturating Lavelle's whole approach to business was his warm Christian testimony. Bank statements included appropriate scripture verses. Lavelle prayed with hard-pressed clients. The local Post-Gazette said in its report of Lavelle's death that "the Hill District financial institution was a Christian mission and his means of spreading the Gospel." But to understand Bob Lavelle-and to get the nuances of his worldview-you have to appreciate that his business was never just a means, and absolutely never a gimmick, to get people to listen. There was a wonderful integrity to the wholeness of his life.

That's also why, in spite of what some people might call a sad ending to this story of remarkable success, Lavelle refused to see it in such terms. By the fall of 2009, Dwelling House Savings & Loan was reporting a loan portfolio of some $20 million-and very unlike Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Dwelling House's borrowers were performing well. But so were some mischievous embezzlers, who electronically burrowed into the bank's bookkeeping system and stole as much as $4 million. The crime was more than the bank could sustain, and regulators insisted that Dwelling House close down.

"It's never what we do," Lavelle wrote me a few weeks ago. "It's never our good works that God looks at. It's his mercy that we get to do anything at all." Even helping others-which was Bob Lavelle's whole life-was a gift he realized he didn't deserve.

That's a worldview way too complex to be described in the abstract. It takes a real person, like Bob Lavelle, to help it even begin to make sense.

Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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