What the Ferguson unrest told the black churches is that they have got to do more to rebuild their neighborhoods, said Rev. Anthony Witherspoon, of Washington Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church.
“The Ferguson issue said to us that as individuals we don’t have the strength we need, but as a collective we can,” he said.
The nonprofit Better Family Life, Inc., is nearing its goal of getting commitments from 100 churches to go from the “pulpits to the porches” as a collective to turn around their struggling neighborhoods through its Neighborhood Alliance Project.
“The hour of us just allowing our neighborhoods to decay has passed,” said James Clark, vice president of community outreach for Better Family Life (BFL). “We need direct and consistent neighborhood engagement, and the clergy offers the best opportunity for sustainable change.”
Since 2007, the organization’s Neighborhood Alliance Project has reached out to households that struggle with poverty and its many dimensions – lack of jobs, inadequate housing, drug addiction, and poor food and health services. The project’s outreach has shown marketable results and neighborhood improvement, Clark said, but the organization lacks the resources necessary to make a wider impact. That’s where the churches come in.
“At this point in St. Louis history, we have to lean on the churches to restore our neighborhoods to a livable condition,” Clark said. “Through this effort, we are working to restore the church to a leadership role in our neighborhoods.”
Historically the black churches have always been the foundation for the black community, Witherspoon said. The churches were highly visible in issues of civil rights and voter rights during the 1960s. But over time, the church moved away from political and civic matters. It’s partially because socioeconomic conditions improved, he said, and many churches moved out to the suburbs.
“There was a splintering and scattering,” Witherspoon said. “Now we are taking our communities back. We are teaming together.”
The Neighborhood Alliance approach is based around three key pillars; outreach specialists, case managers and the resource council.
Outreach specialists, who will be pastors and church volunteers, must know the neighborhood. The BFL community outreach department will provide training for these volunteers and show them how to refer families to assistance providers.
Case managers will provide one-on-one family support. Their responsibility is to interact with the resource council and other organizations in order to find appropriate assistance.
The resource council is a group of service providers who meet monthly. During council meetings, a combination of services is defined for each case presented. BFL’s resource council network includes more than 80 service providers.
To be part of the program, Clark is asking that churches commit to one year of outreach and neighborhood engagement every Saturday. They are asked to touch 30 households each Saturday in their immediate neighborhoods, within a five-to-seven block radius of each church location.
“Most of our more challenged neighborhoods have eight to 10 churches within rock-throwing distance from each other,” he said. “Just imagine the impact that these churches could have on that immediate neighborhood if they agreed to do outreach every Saturday for more than a year.”
At this crucial point in history, Clark said the black churches are the region’s greatest hope.
“The future of the African-American community is directly tied to the church doing neighborhood outreach,” Clark said. “Nothing can turn this thing around like they can.