CHICAGO and INDIANAPOLIS-On a recent Sunday morning members of the Lawndale Community Church in Chicago were lined up at a microphone to share the burdens and blessings of life: a child struggling with addiction, an anniversary, a dangerous illness, a long-awaited college graduation, and a loved one facing the streets after jail. "Lift up this one in prayer," a pastor repeats: "Let's lift him up."
Twice each Sunday morning, spirited music begins and people stream into a gymnasium that doubles as an auditorium. Banners proclaim, "Loving God, Loving People." Blue-cushioned metal chairs fan out in sections around a small square platform. It's an oasis of temporary harmony within a tough place-and Pastor Wayne "Coach" Gordon has lived there for more than three decades.
Gordon felt called as a young man to work with the African-American community, so he moved into Lawndale in 1975 with his wife, Anne. They stayed despite repeated apartment break-ins in the early years. He coached high-school football. The teens on his team didn't go to church. When he asked them about it, they said they didn't have anything to wear and didn't think they'd be welcome. So Gordon started a Bible study for them right there by the weight racks. It grew into a service and kept growing.
One reminder of those early days is the nametag Gordon wears at church. It reads "Coach," the name he's kept all these years from his initial work here as a high-school football coach and teacher. Thirty-six years later the church has grown to about 1,000 members and spawned ministries along Ogden Avenue. Across the street is the Lawndale Christian Health Clinic. A new clinic building will soon open down the street. Started by the church, the clinic is an independent charitable organization with a governing board made up largely of church members. With satellite locations, it served 190,000 last year.
Over the years, the Lawndale Community Development Corporation has refurbished 300 residences, including the 20-plus unit Renaissance Building, which the city signed over for a dollar. Young artists brighten rough spots that people walk by each day. Even the boards over a window can become a canvas for a painting. A back room a few doors from the church office is now a 27-computer technology lab, available for public use.
Gordon doesn't see himself as the CEO of a big operation: He's a relationship builder, he says, and the one that God brought here first. Seated in his office, he talks easily while displaying some of the energy that played a part in building the extensive work. He repeatedly jumps to his feet to grab a brochure, a book, or a news clipping, or to point to the North Lawndale map on his wall.
Among his enthusiasms is a new affordable housing apartment building that just opened a few blocks away where Martin Luther King Jr. once lived. The 1968 riots battered North Lawndale, and it never came back economically. Then drugs became a problem. "You saw discouragement, a sense of hopelessness," said Willette Grant, a lifelong Lawndale resident who serves as hospitality coordinator for the church.
With poverty rates around 45 percent according to the 2000 census, the church focuses on building young people into future community leaders. Some projects-the Lawndale Christian Legal Center that provides neighborhood youth with competent legal representation, the Firehouse Community Arts Center in a reclaimed fire station, and the "House" Hip Hop Service-meet particular needs of the young.
Gordon thinks the best way to help poor neighborhoods is to live in one, interact with neighbors, and see needs that might not be apparent to those who parachute in from outside. For example, residents 15 years ago knew that North Lawndale didn't have a single restaurant where a family could sit down and eat together. The church partnered with established Chicago pizza chain Lou Malnati's to bring Chicago deep-dish pizza to the community. The brick restaurant-"a full-service restaurant with soul"-is several doors down from the church offices, in a church-owned building. This Malnati's eatery turned its first profit last year.
Gordon also has been a leading force in building the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) into an organization with a national conference that last month brought to Indianapolis 3,000 people, including students from 20 colleges. CCDA includes many others who are leading forces in their own communities. Here are just a few:
Frank Alexander is pastor of Oasis of Hope Baptist Church in Indianapolis, which helps the poor through "comprehensive community involvement." For teens, a youth work orientation program helps them to learn "what it means to get up and go to work." The teens learn to discern their interests and talents, and then work for four weeks with local businesses. For the elderly, a church-created nonprofit development corporation has constructed two senior citizens buildings of 35 apartments each, and 185 units of mixed-income housing. Throughout, Alexander notes that when Jesus spoke about poverty He emphasized spiritual poverty.
LeRoy Barber was a church leader in Atlanta but felt that the lives of members often fell far short of biblical teaching. He and his wife, Donna, became the first administrators of Atlanta Youth Academies, established in 1997 to offer low-income families a Christ-centered education. He is president of Mission Year, which attaches an 18- to 29-year-old to a church for one year in a program of community and neighborhood service. The program has been going for 15 years, with 75 people participating each year in six major cities.
While Crissy Brooks was living in Venezuela, working with a program that started and built new schools, she found herself thinking about pockets of poverty in her home community, Costa Mesa, Calif. Inspired by CCDA, Brooks and others started the Mika Community Development Corporation in 2004. It emphasizes mentoring and after-school efforts through a community center and a youth action team. Mika also sponsors a healthy marriage initiative, organizes home visits to listen to residents and pray-all building friendships and trust.
Noel Castellanos grew up on the Texas border, became a youth worker in San Francisco and San Jose, and started a church in Chicago's Little Village, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. He notes that suburban churches are realizing that "the poor are coming to us," and are often helping blighted neighborhoods by bringing volunteers, financial support, and services from lawyers and doctors. Castellanos is now CEO of CCDA and a member of President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Matthew Watts looks at prison population growth rates, like the high rate in his state of West Virginia, and sees a mission field that churches miss: not those already incarcerated but those rapidly on the way. Educated as an engineer, Watts now works to improve West Virginia neighborhoods through youth programs, job training, re-entry programs, and housing improvements. He notes that children who fall behind in reading are much more likely to end up facing a judge: "I'm trying to get churches to realize we've got to be involved early."
When the phone rings at Lawndale Community Church's Hope House, 25-year-old Adonnis Johnson answers. A moment later he is offering reassurance. He's been to jail too, he tells the caller. He came to Hope House with a bag and a willingness to change.
Johnson is cheerful. He's been out of jail for nearly a year and at Hope House Men's Recovery Home for 60 days. He has a small wooden cross on a leather cord around his neck, a Bible close by, and a Gospel hip hop music disc in his CD player.
"Hope House teaches you to be a better man," he says. Under the leadership of "Pastor Joe" Atkins, the program's director, most of the bunks are full. At any one time he's helping 20 or so men with troubled pasts get a new start through the six- to nine-month program.
The men wake up at 5 a.m. Five days a week they have Bible study and prayer. Each week, they help convert the gym across the street from the church offices into a worship space for a day. Some work at the neighborhood pizzeria, Malnati's.
George Clopton, 54, finished at Hope House in 2009. He now works full time doing maintenance on the restored housing in the neighborhood, but he also shares his story with Hope House newcomers. "I'm a living witness that change can take place in one's life," he says.
He tells newcomers that a few years ago, he was struggling with drugs and alcohol. Then he rode his bike past Hope House and wondered whether there was something there for him: He ended up coming back to ask. "I wanted out of that lifestyle I was in," he said. "I began to build a relationship with the Lord through the Bible program."