The Critical Role of Churches in Community Transformation



“Faith without works is dead,” so says St. James in the New Testament Scriptures. Faith implies belief and trust in a higher power who loves us unconditionally. It implies as well that if we truly feel the depth of this incomprehensible love that we cannot help but overflow with joy in knowing that we are so loved, needing then to give expression out of that Divine love to our loved ones, within our schools and workplaces, with our neighbors and with the poor and destitute on our streets.

North Lawndale on Chicago’s west side has over 150 churches within its borders. Many of these are storefront churches, mostly Sunday worship and Wednesday Bible study centers. There are only a handful of churches whose doors are open throughout the week. In the meantime, less than 40 percent of residents in the community claim any church home where they regularly or semi-regularly worship.

“So what,” you might say. “What difference does it make that this is the current state of affairs?”

Historically, African Americans have been deeply rooted in faith. During the days of slavery, they found ways to congregate and give praise and thanksgiving, feeling the mutual support and camaraderie that fortified their resolve and resilience to overcome the horrors of slavery, the subsequent Jim Crow laws, and other racial atrocities inflicted on the black community even to this day. Black churches have been centers of social life, sanctuaries from the travails of daily life living and working in a racist society These anchors in faith and community to help them get through.

Many people still have faith, still claim faith, and some live consciously out of that faith. Yet a growing distrust of religion and churches has caused many people to separate from organized religion and regular connection to the church. And, sadly, there have been good reasons for this distrust and separation. Added to this is the growing threat of radical secularism, materialism, and individualism that has torn open the moral center of our families, communities, and country.

So what role does church have in the positive transformation of North Lawndale? I would claim that we have a unique and essential role if North Lawndale is to be restored to a safe, physically, emotionally, and spiritually health community.

What makes us unique? First of all, we are rooted in a 2000+ year tradition (3,000 if you count our Jewish roots), in a faith tradition that has endured persecutions, martyrdoms, and near extinction and yet still survives, although in some places on mere life support. Secondly, we are rooted in family. We see family as the core institution and building blocks of our society. And we have the greatest opportunity and access to impact families in our community, whether they be our regular congregants, or they are the families we serve through our outreach efforts beyond the church.

Everyone talks about the deterioration of the family, especially in the black community. Again, the fault lies in many places, particularly by forces of trauma inflicted by racist policies around education, criminal justice, and housing. Yes, there is a personal responsibility that some have not honored, but I do not know any parent who in their heart does not want the best for their child. The sad reality is that many parents do not know what a good education, decent housing and healthy eating and living look like. Many do not know what unconditional love, sacrifice, forgiveness, and compassion feel like.

So who best to help families with this? I believe it is our churches, our faith communities, the places where we gather as church families to extend hospitality, share stories, reflect on our lives, pray for each other, extend forgiveness, break open the word of God, break bread and fortify each other for the week ahead. Is this not what families at their best do every day?

So how as churches can we support, love, educate, affirm and empower our parents and our families to reject the violence of verbal and physical abuse, to reject the temptation to punish our children rather than find ways to respectfully discipline them, and to help them learn ways to increase communication and cooperation in the home?

It will take a conscious effort and commitment in faith to take this on. And I don’t think any of us can do this on our own. As churches in the community we need each other. We need to find ways to collaborate, to share successes and challenges, to increase our potential for impact, to perhaps even imagine a plan for addressing the violence in our community with a collective focus on parent and family engagement.

We need to look, in faith, beyond self-preservation and instead choose the path, in faith, toward cooperation in the work of family engagement and empowerment. Unless we do, the violence will continue to flow out of our homes onto the streets, ultimately destroying our community and opening the doors for displacement and gentrification.

Written by Fr. Larry Dowling

Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Samuel A. Love’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License



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