30 For 30 – 30 Years, 30 Lessons

In 1985, the Chicago Tribune wrote a series of articles that were later turned into a book in 1986, entitled:  American Millstone: An Examination of the Nation’s Permanent Underclass.  This is what Amazon had to say about the book in an editorial review from the Library Journal:

This collection of 29 Tribune articles presents the current state of the underclass (poverty-trapped, primarily black ghetto dwellers) through background, statistics, and interviews, mostly in regard to Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Relentlessly bleak, the book portrayed crime, family breakdown, unemployment, welfare, and the failure of education but ended with a challenging editorial for reform.

I remember the reaction to the articles as if it were yesterday.  Community leaders were outraged at a November 1985 meeting at Blessed Sacrament church attended by over 200 residents.  The Tribune took great liberties with the personal stories of people that I knew and painted a picture of hopelessness and nihilism.  Whenever the Tribune or any other mainstream media describes North Lawndale they always lead with the riots after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 and always paint a bleak picture of the neighborhood that ultimately ends the same. Millions of dollars have been poured into neighborhoods like this and what good has it done?  Their description is an incomplete narrative.  Their description still fuels the anger that helped us overcome obstacles and accomplish more than we imagined during the past 30 years.

Clearly, we have a different view.  Our view of the neighborhood, it’s people and it’s institutions and social networks have been informed by the principles of Christian Community Development.  What is Christian Community Development?  I have taken a description from the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) website which says:

Many of our communities have been neglected and left to deteriorate for decades. Sadly, the church of Jesus Christ has at best sat back and watched this happen. In many areas, it has even contributed to the problem. A new generation of Christians are faced with a question about how they will respond to the troubles of the poor and under-resourced communities today. The desperate conditions that face the poor call for a revolution in the church’s approach to the problem. Through years of experience among the poor, many have come to see that these desperate problems cannot be solved without strong commitment and risky actions on the part of ordinary Christians with heroic faith.

There have been many attempts by “outsiders” to alleviate the problems, but most have fallen short of lasting change. Rather, the most creative long-term solutions to the problems of the poor are coming from grassroots and church-based efforts. The solutions are coming from people who see themselves as the replacements, the agents, for Jesus here on earth, in their own neighborhoods and communities.

This philosophy is known as Christian Community Development which is not a concept that was developed in a classroom, nor formulated by people foreign to the poor community. These are Biblical, practical principles evolved from years of living and working among the poor. CCDA pioneer, John Perkins, first developed this philosophy while working among the poor in Mississippi.  In 1989 Dr. Perkins called together a group of Christian leaders from across America who were bonded by one significant commitment: expressing the love of Jesus in America’s poor communities. Not at arm’s length, but at the grassroots level. An association was formed, and CCDA held its first annual conference in Chicago in 1989.

Over the last forty years, practitioners of Christian Community Development have distilled the philosophy into 8 Key Components. The first three are based on John Perkins’ original “three R’s” of community development: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. Other components were later added by Christians discovering ways to rebuild poor neighborhoods.

Relocation means that leaders need to move into the communities that the Tribune would describe as a wasteland and live with other leaders that are committed to solving the problems.  Perhaps you have a tie to the community historically either through family members or church or school, and you feel a gnawing at your spirit and decide it is time to move back and help rebuild.  My wife and I felt that gnawing.  We were introduced to CCDA principles as we worked in a summer program at Lawndale Community Church in 1986 before we were married.  Our pastor and one of the founders of CCDA, Wayne Gordon, challenged my wife and I to leave our comfortable community in suburban Chicago and put our hands to the plow by moving.  We knew that we could not confront the challenges facing our neighborhood by coming down one day a week to tutor or do some other well meaning civic activity. Our strength combined with the strength of our neighbors combined with a God who is on the side of justice would be what we needed to rebuild.

The second “r” is reconciliation and its’ origin is in the fact that God desires to reconcile us to Himself and across boundaries of race, class, gender and any other barrier that would divide us.  Collectively, we can accomplish more.  This does not mean that we don’t recognize systemic injustices that keep us separated from or even at odds with one another, but we commit to working together toward the common good.

The last “r” is redistribution.  With this principle, we recognize that God is just and He does not desire anyone to be poor and without the means to take care of themselves and their family.  Gandhi said that poverty is the worst form of violence.  Ponder that.  I believe the solution to many economic struggles here and abroad are economic systems that work for the rich and the poor.  Living wage jobs, affordable health care, affordable housing, quality education, affordable child care, fair lending, and insurance are all problems that we have worked on as a collective and more work needs to be done to scale up our impact.

CCD principles have informed our work over the past 30 years to the tune of over $100 million dollars in development projects.  There is more work to do, but CCD has provided the framework and the theology to experiment and produce tangible results.  We still have a long way to go, but we are not where we were 30 years ago.

By Gods Grace,

Richard Townsell

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