[ Update ]

Faith Based Organizing Initiative - Churches Building their Community

by Cathy Klump
East St. Louis Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center (NTAC)

In January of 1999, the Neighborhood Technical Assistance Center was asked by the Enterprise Community to assist faith based organizations with their community development plans. This represents an expansion of the NTAC's services beyond neighborhood associations and local non-profit organizations. The NTAC is excited about this new initiative and very pleased that we are now able to respond to the requests for technical assistance from church-based organizations that are just beginning to venture into community development. This article provides a brief history of the African American church's role in community development and then describes this exciting local initiative that is open to all church-based organizations in Alorton, Brooklyn, Centreville, East St. Louis and Washington Park.

The Church as a Leader in Community Development

Historically, African-American communities have utilized the Church as their primary vehicle for spiritual, social and economic empowerment. The prominence of the church throughout the Civil Rights Movement is well known. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the African American church from its previous role, largely focused only on spiritual needs, into the forefront of the struggle for equal opportunity. The success of this church-based model for social change was unprecedented. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 contained historic changes in voting rights, public accommodations and fair housing opportunities for African Americans.

In the 1970s and 1980s the focus shifted, somewhat, from social change to community development. A rising number of African American church communities began to take an active role in revitalizing their neighborhoods. In Harlem, New York the Abyssnian Baptist Church Local Development Corporation has built affordable housing for residents of this historic area. In East New York, the Reverend Johnny Youngblood led the effort to build the Neamiah Homes, the only new affordable housing built in over twenty years. In Altanta, Detroit and other African American communities, church-based organizations are at the forefront of beautifying their neighborhoods, reducing crime, building housing and spurring economic development. These organizations work for the benefit of their local parishioners, neighbors and communities. The success of these efforts, in combination with neighborhood associations, has continued the history of successful church based initiatives for change in the African American community.

In East St. Louis and surrounding communities, the national model of church-based social change has not been duplication in its entirety. In the 1950s and 1960s, African American churches were, indeed, at the forefront of the local Civil Rights Movement. Just as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. achieved successes at the national level, local clergy led African American's in successfully fighting for justice at the regional level. In the 1960s and 1970s some churches built housing, established homeless shelters and began the process of community revitalization. However, the economic decline in the area that negatively impacted nearly every institution began to also take its toll on local churches. With the extreme loss in population, tax revenues and municipal services many African American churches that had been engaged in community development were forced to cut back during hard economic ties.

Today, a number of churches have weathered this storm and are currently active in community development and economic revitalization. The NTAC receives a number of requests for assistance on a regular basis from church-based institutions throughout the region. Like neighborhood associations and local non-profit groups, church-based leaders in community development struggle with the same need for technical assistance and capacity-building. The services these groups request range from grantwriting, non-profit management training, volunteer recruitment to computer access.

The Enterprise Community and the NTAC Partner to Assist Churches

To answer the need being voiced by church-based organizations, the Enterprise Community launched the Faith Based Organizing Initiative and asked that the NTAC take on the task of assisting church-based organizations become more involved in the community. This initiative began with an aggressive outreach campaign to all 150 churches located in the Enterprise Community to spread the word about the assistance available to them through the NTAC. The NTAC also conducted a major educational effort to increase the awareness among church leaders who are interested in getting involved in community development.

On July 24th, the NTAC hosted the "Faith Based Organizing 501c3 Workshop" in which over 60 representatives from local churches came together to learn about the initiative. The workshop had an exciting line-up of presenters which included Percy Harris, Program Coordinator of the Enterprise Community, who spoke on the breadth of resources available locally and nationally and the models of effective faith-based community development throughout the country. Cathy Klump of the NTAC discussed the history of the NTAC and the services available to churches. LaTonya Webb also of the NTAC and Cindi Geerdes of the University of Illinois Law Clinic presented the pros and cons of 501c3 tax exempt status, the legal requirement and the importance of maintaining good standing with the Federal and State government. Ms. Ohala Ward of the Carver Community Center presented the process North End Missionary Baptist Church is taking in reaching out to the community and the trials and tribulations of this kind of work. James Jones of ESL CAN talked on the importance of collaboration between religious organizations and neighborhood associations and the significance of building partnerships to reach community goals. The NTAC also recruited Lisa Houssen of Inter-Faith Ministry Network in Houston to discuss the importance of faith based community development, the importance of collaboration and the benefits available to all organizations through her national ministry network. Craig Miller of the NTAC concluded the workshop with a presentation entitled "Physical Development through the Church".

Each participant received a full packet of information on tax-exempt status, funding sources for church-based organizations and examples from across the country. From this group of participants, 16 church-based organizations have come forward to pursue 501c3 tax exempt status for organizations that will engage in community development activities. Each of these organizations participated in an assessment to determine their capacity to engage in community development activities. The process for obtaining 501c3 status is long and complex and requires a high level of dedication that has been demonstrated by these 16 organizations. The Enterprise Community is generously funding the application fees for these organizations to receive 501c3 status and the University of Illinois Law Clinic is providing the critical legal review free of charge. LaTonya Webb, Community Planner for the NTAC, has been instrumental in providing technical assistance to all churches that request our services.

The sixteen churches that have stepped forward to become active participants in the revitalization of this community should be applauded for their dedication and hard work. The NTAC has had the pleasure of learning all about the community development plans of these organizations and we look forward to continuing these critical partnerships. Some of the plans that these churches have identified include:

The NTAC is encouraging church-based organizations to collaborate with neighborhood associations and non-profit groups that are currently succeeding at community development. We ultimately would like to see partnerships between churches, neighborhood associations and the municipal government. These partnerships will maximize on the gifts of each individual organization and will capitalize on the amount of resources that can be assembled to implement key community development projects. With this in mind, the NTAC is planning a series of training sessions that will bring all of these groups together to learn more about community development and non-profit management.

Any church-based organization that is interested in NTAC's Faith Based Organizing Initiative should contact 618-271-9605 or stop by our office at 348R Collinsville Road, East St. Louis, IL 62201.

Last modified: 22 November 1999, Deanna Koenigs