Churches in Communities: A Place to Stand

by Jim Gittings

Jim Gittings is a veteran church journalist who lived in Asia for a number of years, served as an editor of Ad, owned and published Seventh Angel, and is now based in Greenville, S. C. where he serves as communications director of ALM International.

This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis on February 2, 1987. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


Readers whose last contact with organized community action groups occurred in the 1960s and ‘70s may miss two important characteristics of the Industrial Areas Foundation-related new-style outfits. In the first place, IAF-related groups do not organize around issues; they organize around churches and other solid organizations for the benefit of people in the neighborhoods.

Walk west if purse-snatchers and crack-crazies permit, along Blake Street in Brooklyn’s Brownsville section. A few shattered buildings remain standing among the rubble-strewn lots; all else is a desolation.

Yet the outlook changes when one rounds a corner onto Mother Gaston Boulevard. First, small shops appear. They are not much to look at, hut they are obviously conducting a vigorous trade. Next come nests of public housing: These multistoried units have been up for two or three decades; the trees in their courtyards are grown to third-floor height, and somebody is keeping graffiti under considerable though not total control. And finally, abruptly, a stroller enters a neighborhood of new and attractive two-story row homes, more than eight hundred of them on this early November day, with an additional two hundred or so scheduled for completion by April 1.

The houses -- erected by something called the Nehemiah Project -- are the only low-income mass housing to be erected in New York City since Congress and Ronald Reagan’s administration pulled the plug more than five years ago on public housing funds. The brick two and three-bedroom dwellings cost $53,000 each to build, and are sold for $43,000 (a $10,000 second mortgage, interest-free, is payable to New York City upon resale). As completed, each house has been occupied immediately -- has had to be occupied immediately, given the ubiquity of thieves prepared to strip plumbing and fixtures from vacant structures -- by a family whose name has been drawn from a waiting list exceeding four thousand. Purchasers usually, though not always, are members of the black or Hispanic majority communities in the Brownsville area. They earn between $15,000 and $25,00) per household, and have managed to accumulate or borrow $5,000 for a down payment (the monthly mortgage payment averages $325 to $345). Departure of these people from public housing a accommodations or from "Section Vlll" apartments (the Nixon era version of federally subsidized housing) has freed up space there even poorer families.

Because the Nehemiah Project has succeeded in erecting homes quickly and at low cost, because its sponsors have put together a smoothly functioning web of available mortgage credit for would-be purchasers, and because the project is such an obvious success in terms of infusing a neighborhood with new life, a lot of people want to copy it.

Five days of wandering the Brownsville, Ocean Hill, and East New York sections of Brooklyn convince me, however, that the Nehemiah effort for so long as it is conceived of as a "project" or a "program" cannot be duplicated. The politicians miss the point entirely: The new homes and their proud owners, attractive as they are, constitute only an episode, a single achievement, in a still unfolding process by which a hitherto powerless people has entered into politics, into what Aristotle defined as "public discourse," and thereby has won the capacity, as George Todd points out, to become "the subject of its own story."

Against a background of decay and change, a Lutheran pastor, the Reverend John Heinemeier, convened a group of Catholic and Protestant clergy and laypersons on April 6, 1978, to discuss ways churches and their members could address area problems. The handful of people who attended listened to a description of the work being done by an organization in the adjacent Borough of Queens that was also centered upon the churches. Encouraged by what was learned, the East Brooklyn group agreed to meet again. By the third meeting, June 8, members of the group, now swollen to forty clergy and laypersons, were led in discussion by Edward T. Chambers, from the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).

The encounter between Chambers and the Brooklyn group was portentous for both interests. This is not the place to trace in depth the history of Industrial Areas Foundation -- its beginnings under "radical community organizer" Saul Alinsky in the Chicago of the 1940s, its entry into national prominence (and a certain notoriety) in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of its organizing role in The Woodlawn Organization (Chicago), the Kodak FIGHT controversy in Rochester, and similar community-industry and community-urban government struggles elsewhere. Chambers, once a Catholic seminarian who later spent two years in a Catholic interracial house in Harlem under Dorothy Day’s tutelage, was hired by Alinsky in 1957. He went on with Alinsky to lead in organization of Southwest Chicago (1959), take part in 1962 in the Woodlawn-University of Chicago struggle, organize the FIGHT forces in the Kodak wars (1965-67), and cofounded with Alinsky the IAF Training Institute in 1968. Chambers is, in fact, Alinksy’s heir, and he has continued since his teacher’s death to expand and adapt the Alinsky pratiqur’ by establishing eighteen IAF-affiliated community organizations in California, New York, Maryland, and Texas.

The utility of the Brownsville meeting for Chambers was this: He had recently removed the Industrial Areas Foundation from Chicago to its present headquarters location in Garden City on Long Island, and needed an extra client (in addition to the Queens group) in the New York area. The utility of Chambers for the Brownsville group was equally related to self-interest, "We didn’t know anything except that nothing was to be expected in solving our problems from anybody but ourselves," one who was present remembers," and Chambers was just the man to tell us how much it was going to cost."

What Ed Chambers told the East New York-Brownsville church people was that their community was "a bunch of rubble," and their problem was one that ‘I won’t touch unless you raise $200,000 to get started." He pointed the church men and women toward the upper echelons of their denominations as places to begin their funding drive, at the same time insisting that they also set up a dues-paving system for area congregations that would cost each, depending upon size, from $500 to $3,000 a year.

"I agreed to help them a little in raising the money,’’ Chambers reports, adding that "the United Church of Christ’s Board of Homeland Ministries took the first risk, putting up $45,000. I guess I’d better get that on the record since both the UCC and the Presbyterians did not respond when we needed really big money."

Growth and Action

The new organization -- called East Brooklyn Churches (EBC) -- raised its needed $200,000 of ‘‘front’ money from denominatons and from their own members (local contributions, mostly from congregations, totaled $13,000). But in many ways, know-how about money raising was the least of what the fledgling group drew from Ed Chambers, "The man kept us in touch with reality," Lutheran pastor Dave Benke remembers, "and with our anger. He insisted that our people, pastors included, should be training in organizing skills. He demanded that we research every project or issue to be addressed. And he made us practice ahead of time for every important meeting or action.’"

Despite Chambers’s constant reminders that the East Brooklyn pastors and church members look at their condition directly and soberly, the numbers grew at each meeting At first only seven congregations found it possible to come up with the necessary dues: Our Lady of Mercy, Our Lady of Presentation, St. John Cantius. Risen Christ Lutheran, St. James Holiness, Our Lady of Loretto, and East New York Christian Fellowship. Within ten months -- all this in 1979 -- six more joined. They were St. Peter’s Lutheran (the church of Pastor David Benke), St. Rita’s, St. Malachi, Our Lady of Lourdes, Christ Community Reformed Church, and the Church of the Divine Metaphysic. Some this little group managed to send thirteen people away for ten days of training at Industrial Areas Foundation Training Center, then in Baltimore.

By the beginning of 1980 the group was clearly on its way somewhere. In January of that year eighty-five people of the neighborhood completed a twelve-hour training session in communication, research into community needs, and delegation of responsibilities. Later in the year the group began its now close relationship with Bishop Francis Mugavero, Roman Catholic bishop of Brooklyn, and received his endorsement. It examined its membership, too, and proudly reported -- as the minutes note -- "We are Protestant and Catholic, clergy and laity, black, white, Hispanic, poor and middle-class, old and young, and all residents of the community."


Readers whose last contact with organized community action groups occurred in the 1960s and ‘70s may miss two important characteristics of the IAF-related new-style outfits. In the first place, IAF-related groups do not organize around issues; they organize around churches and other solid organizations for the benefit of people in the neighborhoods. Issues, by the new style, become occasions and opportunities for people to gain experience in empowering themselves; when an issue passes, or changes, the organization remains.

A second difference between such groups as EBC and predecessor organizations is to be found in the absolute, cold, crisp insistence of the new outfits upon competence as a first requirement to he met in the hiring of staff. Though the majority communities in the Brownsville area are black and Hispanic, EBC’s first paid organizer was a white man, Mike Gecan, who gained his experience with Industrial Areas Foundation. Gecan’s administrative hand was upon the new organization’s first steps, and its first actions. In 1981, however, Gecan and EBC took on board an associate, former United Farm Worker organizer Stephen Roberson, who is black. Roberson is today the most visible EBC staff person on a day-to-day basis, and has developed mature inner-city organizing skills of the highest order. He is, in particular, the originator of the network of house meetings across the area at which basic training and recruitment are done, and at which people are encouraged to accept and fulfill basic assignments on committees and in research. During these meetings, leaders emerge. Says Roberson, "You can only demonstrate that you are a leader here; you can’t just talk about it. And a leader is one whose efforts lead to residual benefits for others."

Against a background of these events and actions, in which more than fifty congregations are now involved and in which hundreds of people have gained experience in dealing with elected and appointed authorities, the story of the Nehemiah Project can he understood As Saul Alinsky said: "The relevant skill in modern urban life is that of knowing how to hold public officials accountable" -- and that, as we shall see, is what EBC and the Nehemiah Project have been all about.

Finding the Money

Through August, September, and October of 1981 the work of planning went on. Mike Gecan, Chambers, I. D. Robbins, and the EBC pastors came up with a scheme: The churches would raise $7.5 million; then approaches could he made to government. The pastors got busy. The Missouri Synod Lutherans, an unexpected source, expressed interest and later made a $1 million commitment to the undertaking that the Rev. Johnny Ray Younghlood, of St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church, had baptized the "Nehemiah Project" (after the Old Testament story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem).

Mike, meantime, ran a training session for priests who were to make an all-important collective approach to Bishop Mugavero. Nine of the priests, led by Father John Powis of Our Lady’ of Presentation, made the trip together with representative lay persons. They told the bishop of their plans to build two- and three-bedroom houses; he immediately offered $250,000. A woman exulted: "That’s an excellent beginning," and they went away. Soon the bishop got hack to them:

"I think I can get a million." Again the response: "That’s great. Now why not go to the Orders for more?" Eventually, the Roman Catholics of Brooklyn would produce $2.5 million for Nehemiah, and the Episcopalians of Long Island Diocese would come up with $1 million more.

Bishop Mugavero gave more than money to East Brooklyn Churches; he became the members’ companion-in-arms, the coconspirator of them all. It was Mugavero who, as spokesperson. led the first EBC visit to Ed Koch, mayor of New York. In the square outside City Hall, Pastor Fleinemeier led the group in prayer, and then they filed in to His Honor’s office. Mugavero began the conversation with a mistake: "We have raised $12 million to build homes; now we’d like $12 million from you" (actually the bishop had commitments of only $7.5 million). Koch, in a familiar gesture. spread his hands: We haven’t got it, Bishop; our funds are all committed." Then, as though making a great sacrifice. "we’ll give you land though.’ This gesture, of course, was expected; the City had title to vast stretches of vacant land in the Fast Brooklyn area, and no idea in the what to do with it.

Again the Bishop returned to the subject of money He was the moment not only the representative of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, but in some measure of one million New York voters of Italian origin. He said, "Ed, this is so important. There’s got to be some way for you to find that money. If necessary, why don’t you steal it for us?"

KOCH (Laughing to his aides): The bishop is telling me to steal it!

MUGAVERO: If necessary, I’ll give you absolution.

For three weeks there was no response from Koch. Then the glad news came from the mayor. At a press conference EBC announced its intention to build five thousand single-family row houses, and there were two bishops, one Lutheran treasurer, and a top representative of the mayor of the City of New York to lend credence to the promise.

The Nehemiah home-owning process became more complicated than the above, of course. The City of New York provides land and a $10,000 no-interest loan. Mortgages come via the New York State Mortgage Agency. Removal of landfill for excavations is done at city expense, and soft costs, already described, run about a third of normal. For the Nehemiah plan a single sewer hookup serves multiple homes: The cost savings have run more than $3,000 per house.

Despite these arrangements, not everything has run smoothly for Nehemiah Homes. Delays in demolition have held up construction; owners of isolated lots have sometimes delayed acquisition of property, thus destroying the block-long construction possibilities that earn for Nehemiah’s builders their maximum construction savings. Still, construction has proceeded faster by far than the average for housing built in New York. The rejuvenated Mother Gaston neighborhood keeps people expectant of further success. And Nehemiah did not forget to say thank you to Mayor Koch and to (now) Governor Cuomo, too. The two men were hailed by ten thousand EBC members at a huge rally last year.

Who? What?

Sooner or later it occurs to every observer of the Nehemiah Project and of the East Brooklyn Churches to ask two questions:

Who really runs things?

What do the churches get out of it?

The answer to the leadership question fits the presumptions of neither old-style liberals nor radicals. In plain: The churches run both the Nehemiah Project and EBC, and specifically the pastors of churches run things, together with three or four persons from each congregation who meet with pastoral approval. EBC has no president, for example, because it is a cooperative of congregations, an organization of organizations. EBC does possess, however. an informal executive committee -- a clergy caucus of member pastors and women religious.

Only one predisposed to either spiritualize or denigrate the reality of relational patterns within a congregation will be surprised at the continuing role of the clergy in direction of the Nehemiah Project and of EBC. In an area bereft of banks, civic clubs, industry, and professionals, the churches were the only organizations apart from the rackets -- that remained alive amid the wreckage of community. Pastors of these churches of course became managers and stewards of whatever cohesive, unifying forces remained (apart from the racketeers’ brass knuckles and the policeman’s stun-gun), and therefore they of course held the key to whatever latent legitimate popular power remained in the burgeoning slum.

Equally important, and again with the exception of the rackets, churches have been the only place in the area, in recent years, where marginal wage-earners and even unemployed persons could nevertheless watch capital accumulation occur and discover, in the end, that sums accumulated would be held at least partly for their collective disposal. Even in Brownsville of this decade, the money placed in the collection plate in a large parish on Sunday can he substantial even when it comes from the pockets of the poor. The point is not entirely lost in a small congregation either: Almost every church can allocate at least some money for causes that honest residents cannot afford, by reason of poverty, to fund themselves. Such money, used as EBC has employed it, became leverage for more money from denominations themselves. And that money, in turn, became leverage for city and state money. The process is indeed one of power: a power that is nonetheless real for the fact that it develops from small gifts that proceed from the simple piety of the working or hope-to-he-working poor.

The churches get another thing from EBC and its Nehemiah Project: a viable, functioning community in which to grow. Recently Pastor Johnny Ray Youngblood and his St. Paul Community Baptist Church gave EBC an interest-free $100,000 loan. St, Paul’s can afford the gesture: Younghlood preaches to three thousand and more persons every Sunday, in part because new people have found new homes nearby.

Eleven of twelve Roman Catholic parishes that approached Brooklyn Bishop Mugavero for help in getting Nehemiah started were aid-receiving churches. The priests of these churches promised their bishop that they would get their churches off subsidy if he would help them with Nehemiah. All but one of the parishes has already succeeded in fulfilling the vow, in part because of the new Optimism

of the area in which they exist, in part because members of black Baptist congregations agreed through EBC to come to Catholic churches to teach stewardship. These "tithe training sessions," as Baptists call them, are astonishing encounters that, in one observer’s words, "get as theological as hell."

Even Benke’s little Lutheran church has flourished. "In absolute terms we have increased our membership by only 50," the pastor says, "but deaths in our congregation, and the continued flight of some families, made it necessary to get 250 new members to increase by that number. We really have 250 people here that we didn’t have before. What’s more, our little church of white, black, and Hispanic people is famous all across the Missouri Synod as "our Brooklyn church." That feels good to the members, and it feels good to me."

But the biggest advantage that has come to the churches as a result of their work with East Brooklyn Churches and the Nehemiah Project is the growth in the self-consciousness of strength in pastors and people. I. D. Robbins expressed it best of all. Said he, "This church organization is powerful. It can put four thousand people on the streets to confront a problem, and ten thousand to deal with a mayor. The group has related itself closely to powerful city and national figures -- to people like Bishop Mugavero and Governor Cuomo, for example. While doing these things members of EBC have related to each other in a way that is incredible. You can say about them that, far from being balked by political factors, they have made over political conditions to fit the needs of the community. They sense this, are proud of themselves, and hence are happy -- and unquarrelsome."

Riding home, I think about one thing I was told: "In almost three years at Nehemiah, there has not been one single default on a mortgage."

That points up the other thing that churches and their pastors get from involvement in the Nehemiah Project: a sense of deep respect for the hard-pressed people, earners of extremely modest wages, whom they seek to serve.