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Engaging Your Church in the Local Community Takes Courage, Time

In the 1990s, Atlanta developer and philanthropist Tom Cousins brought together business, government and community leaders to transform the poverty- and crime-plagued East Lake neighborhood through a “holistic approach to community redevelopment.” That effort became Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that works to revitalize troubled neighborhoods across the nation. As the organization moves into new neighborhoods, it recruits local community organizers. However, it is important to the organization that the local organizers who join their project are prepared to cause “disruptive change” in their communities. Many are not, says Carol R. Naughton, the group’s senior vice president. “Even though they want change, they’re just not willing to take the heat” that comes with challenging the fundamental infrastructure and culture that have been preventing previous efforts to improve people’s lives.

In an interview with Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School, Naughton said there are three preconditions to community redevelopment success:

1. prominent, successful civic, business and faith leaders who are both very interested and very willing to use their relationships and resources to explore the possibilities of creating their type of community redevelopment program

2. the potential in a community to replace or rebuild new high-quality mixed-income housing, because “low-income families do better when they live in mixed-income neighborhoods, and we know that mixed-income neighborhoods attract additional private and public investment” and,

3. the potential to “create a superior cradle-to-college educational pipeline,” which “often means a charter or contract school as the anchor for your K-12 pipeline.”

Success also requires being in for the long haul. “Families don’t break out of the cycle of poverty during a three-year grant cycle,” she said. “This is long-term work” that requires a coordinated, thoughtful approach to investing in the long-horizon wellbeing of the community, its residents and its infrastructure.

For additional perspective, see our resource, “Empowering Local Communities” for more on what it takes to promote community reconciliation and development. Also see our resource article, “Best Resources for Community Engagement” for additional guidance on how to engage your church with your neighbors and surrounding secular community.

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