A partnership rooted in God’s love builds affordable housing in New York City

When the Rev. Angela M. Redman left her 20-year legal career to serve as executive director of the United Methodist City Society, she did not expect so much of her time to be focused on real estate management and development. But she spends a good part of each day doing just that.

Located in upper Manhattan, the United Methodist City Society is a 185-year-old agency that provides support to United Methodist churches in the greater New York City area. A group of Methodist women started the organization to provide meals, education and shelter to children in economically impoverished neighborhoods. The society went on to build churches and spread the faith. Today, it still holds titles to churches throughout the area.

One of them was the Trinity-Morrisania United Methodist Church in the Bronx. But where that church once stood is now the Trinity-Rev. William M. James Senior Apartments, with 153 affordable housing units for low-income seniors. James had led a revitalization of the church as pastor there in the 1940s and ’50s.

trinity apts ext.
The United Methodist City Society led the effort to redevelop a church site into affordable housing for seniors, including some who were formerly incarcerated.

A joint venture between the United Methodist City Society and the Bronx Pro Group — a real estate development and management company focused on affordable housing — the Trinity Apartments began accepting tenants in late 2021. But the project’s origin story goes back more than a decade, when the City Society’s then executive director, the Rev. Dr. William Shillady, first visited the church in 2008.

“When I first got to City Society, I visited all the churches we held title to,” Shillady said. A new apartment building had gone up across the street from Trinity-Morrisania, and the words emblazoned across the front door lintel caught his eye: “With God’s Love All Things Are Possible.”

That was Shillady’s introduction to the Bronx Pro Group. He contacted the developer and got a tour of the property.

In 2016, when the 12 remaining congregants of Trinity-Morrisania decided it was time to close the church, Shillady contacted the developer, beginning the transformation from a 150-year-old church in ill repair to a modern 12-story apartment building for low-income seniors. To be eligible, tenants must meet an age requirement and earn no more than 60% of the area’s median income.

Residents like Freddie Pagain take pride in decorating their homes.

The process was complicated, with intense negotiations between lawyers, Shillady recalled. Out of the eventual deal, City Society maintained a 25% share in the $88 million dollar development project, putting no money down, aside from the negotiating costs. Funded with tax-exempt bond financing, low-income housing tax credits and government subsidies, the project allows City Society to earn income — an estimated $50,000 to $75,000 annually — to fund additional mission work.

A developer with a mission

Since shifting its focus to affordable housing in 1998, the Bronx Pro Group has built more than 2,900 affordable units. Developing quality housing for low-income New Yorkers is integral to the mission of the firm, which was started by Peter Magistro, then a real estate developer and property manager, now retired. Aligning with his passion to cook for and feed the unhoused, according to his daughter, Samantha, he discovered he had a knack for affordable housing. After he completed his first such project in 2000, the company’s aspirational nod to Matthew 19:26 — “With God’s Love All Things Are Possible” — went over the door. It continues to grace many of the buildings that Bronx Pro develops and manages.

Samantha Magistro, now the company’s CEO, said this kind of work takes effort and faith. The project with City Society was no exception.

Although Bronx Pro had repurposed a vacant church before, this was the first time they were taking down a building with architecturally historic significance, and working with a partner who wanted to collaborate every step of the way.

All things being equal, from a business perspective, it’s better to have fewer hurdles,” Samantha Magistro said. “But business is not the only driving factor.”

For example, it was important to Shillady that the new building incorporate elements of the old church. Walking through the lobby and the public spaces, you can see reminders: in the wooden arches built into a ground floor common room, in the restored stained-glass windows above the mailboxes and the restored pews, where residents can relax on their way in or out of the building.

How can your mission create community that sustains your organization’s purpose?

“Bill [Shillady] wanted to keep the mission alive, and it gave a richness to the experience of developing this project,” Samantha Magistro said. “This work is hard, so you have to be fulfilled from it.”

The church may be gone, but the mission work of the United Methodist City Society is very much present.

“Affordable housing is mission, by bringing the marginalized into beloved community,” Shillady said.

In the case of the Trinity Apartments, not only are they providing sustainable housing to low-income seniors, but the property also dedicates more than a third of the apartments to supported housing, reserved for formerly incarcerated seniors.

Since his release from prison in 2019, 70-year-old Ruhullah Hizbullah had been shuttled among various New York City homeless shelters. He was in a shelter in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx when his name was picked in a housing lottery.

“They told me to pack my bags,” Hizbullah said, holding his dog, Duke, in his cozy studio apartment. “I signed the papers and got the keys the same day. Now I feel free.”

How can your property be reimagined for mission-driven development?

Ruhullah Hizbullah, who shares a studio apartment with his dog, Duke, sits outside on the building’s 6th floor terrace.

The apartment was move-in ready: fully furnished, with linens and a kitchen stocked with pots and pans. Like the other tenants in the building, Hizbullah pays 30% of his monthly income in rent. State and city subsidies cover the remainder.

Another benefit for supported housing residents like Hizbullah are the wraparound services provided on-site by the Fortune Society, a New York-based nonprofit that has been helping people released from prison successfully reenter the community since 1967. Fortune Society rents office space in the building to support the organization’s broader mission in New York City. Among those working from the building are the case managers and staff who cater directly to the Trinity residents.

Providing a variety of services

“Each tenant has a case manager to talk with them individually to see what they want to work on,” said Carolyn Slade, who directs the senior housing program at the Trinity Apartments. Many of the resident have a history of homelessness and involvement in the criminal justice system.

“We try to help them integrate into the community,” she said. 

That could mean addressing mental health issues and substance use. Ongoing services include training in budget management so that residents know how to be financially responsible. And an important part of Fortune Society’s support is making sure residents are accessing the benefits to which they are entitled.

“We want to make sure they have the income and the means to take care of things, like rent,” Slade said. The aim is to prevent these residents from experiencing homelessness again.

Fortune has a nurse on-site to help manage mobility issues, high blood pressure, diabetes. A lack of access to primary care means many tenants have unaddressed health concerns.

Tenants receive support to connect with primary care physicians and assistance with transportation to their medical appointments. Fortune also works with an agency that helps tenants access home health care workers to assist with cleaning, food preparation or shopping if they need it.

But among the most important services Fortune Society provides — not just for the formerly incarcerated but for all the residents — is building a sense of community.

tenant meeting
Carolyn Slade, an on-site staff member of organizational partner the Fortune Society, leads a residents’ meeting.

That took time, said senior case manager Stalin Hunt, a Fortune Society employee for 20 years.

“When we first opened the building, the affordable housing tenants said, ‘I don’t want people like that here,’” Hunt said, referring to the other tenants’ concerns about the apartments reserved for the formerly incarcerated. “They were worried they would not feel safe or that their belongings would get stolen.”

But nothing like that happened, and the tensions began to subside.

The Fortune Society fosters community through events — such as a Valentine’s Day party and other holiday celebrations.

“You can really see people coming together as a community,” Hunt said. “People look out for each other.”

Resident William Muhamad Green, 63, said he also had spent a lot of time moving between the city’s homeless shelters after he was released from being incarcerated. He eventually became one of Trinity’s first residents and now experiences the type of community that builds friendships, like his with Hizbullah. He even takes turns caring for Duke.

When people challenge a concept or plan, how do you listen and form a response?

Resident William Muhamad Green, who used to be a boxer and train boxers, works out on the punching bag in Ruhullah’s apartment. The two have become friends as well as neighbors.

Fortune offers health, sports and cooking classes, as well as support groups. At a recent monthly tenants meeting, Fortune introduced a new member of the team, who would be coordinating other recreational activities, such as chess tournaments, bingo, nature walks and a talent show. 

And there are plenty of spaces throughout the building where people can meet — like the sixth-floor terrace that offers a view of the Bronx skyline. On an unusually warm day in February, Hizbullah sat outside as the pigeons circled the coop on the neighboring rooftop.

“I like a place where I can meditate and read,” he said. “To free my mind.”

It may not look like a sanctuary, but the atmosphere is peaceful. A contemplative spot to call home.

Beyond serving congregations

“As church congregations are shrinking — and in some situations severely — the upkeep of the buildings is becoming too expensive for the congregations to manage,” said Redman, the City Society executive director. It’s important to explore how properties can be used differently to further ministry and generate income streams, she said.

This is not the first time City Society has been involved in affordable housing. Even in the early 20th century, the organization owned a number of buildings that offered housing to immigrants arriving in New York.

A later example is Grace United Methodist Church in Manhattan, which suffered a catastrophic fire in 1983. When City Society made plans to rebuild the church, the development project also included a 10-story building for low-income housing.

City Society owns that building outright. And while they hire a company for day-to-day management, maintaining the property is not for the faint of heart. Redman recently rattled off some of the reasons she spends so much time dealing with the property.

“We have five vacant apartments. That lowers the income stream. We have seven or eight tenants behind in rent. That lowers the income stream,” Redman said. “We meet with a management team and have a real estate committee. This is a significant part of what I do as executive director.”

A view of the Bronx from the 6th floor garden terrace of the Trinity Apartments.

There are definite advantages, she pointed out, to the partnership model that City Society has with the Bronx Pro Group. They maintain partial ownership in the property but don’t have to deal with all of those daily concerns.

But full ownership or a joint venture like the Trinity Apartments are just two possible models for churches. Since retiring in July 2022, after the official ribbon cutting at the Trinity Apartments, Shillady has invested his time in helping cash-strapped faith communities explore various ways to generate income.

“I’m really passionate about affordable housing and using church property for mission-driven development,” said Shillady, who now consults with congregations about how they can repurpose their properties. He also serves on the board of a New York City-based nonprofit called Bricks and Mortals, which helps faith-based communities utilize their properties in creative, sustainable ways.

One of the purposes of this member-based organization in bringing together religious leaders, lawyers, developers and brokers is to document the strategies religious institutions may use to sustain themselves and continue to provide essential services to New York City and surrounding areas.

There are a number of ways the thousands of religious properties in New York City can use their space to maximize mission. Among them are selling air rights to a developer or renting community space for theater or dance classes or educational groups, Shillady said.

“A church can sell its property and make a lot of money and walk away, whereas a church can negotiate a development where they could have new space in a mixed-used building to do missional work,” he said. “That congregation gets a new facility, partial ownership, income stream and usually some funds up front. It is not walking away but finding a way to be missional.”

Who are the community partners who should be at the table in developing strategies for sustainability?  

Questions to consider

  • How can your mission create community that sustains your organization’s purpose?
  • How can your property be reimagined for mission-driven development?
  • When people challenge a concept or plan, how do you listen and form a response?
  • Who are the community partners who should be at the table in developing strategies for sustainability?  

In December 2019, when the Rev. Dr. Wanda Lundy was settling in as the new pastor of Siloam Hope First Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, she made a discovery that changed her ministry.

Then a newcomer to the community, Lundy was participating in Elizabeth’s Four Centuries in a Weekend — an annual tour that celebrates the historic city. As the oldest English-speaking church in New Jersey, Siloam Hope First Presbyterian is a regular stop for this annual event.

The history of the white congregants of the church is well known, but hundreds of stories remain untold.

It was that day, Lundy says, that she was first introduced to the ancestors.

One of the volunteers on duty gestured toward the church’s cemetery, which dates to the late 17th century, and mentioned that there were 313 freed and enslaved Africans buried within its borders in unmarked graves.

What does it mean to be surrounded by this specific company of unnamed enslaved saints?

Lundy had known that the church was steeped in history. Dating back to 1664, First Presbyterian (as it was known for centuries), with its Old First Cemetery, is the final resting place for soldiers of the Revolutionary War and other American patriots.

And the academy built on its premises educated founding fathers, among them Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Yet the story of the freed and enslaved Africans who worshipped in the church’s balcony — and now lie in unmarked graves — is virtually untold.

“It was the way she said it, so nonchalantly,” Lundy said. “There’s a great deal written about the history of the European church members, but here you have people whose stories have not been told.

“From that point on, I said, ‘That’s why I’m here.’ I believe the ancestors called me here because they want to be remembered.”

The discovery inspired Lundy to start the 313 Project — a mission to honor the freed and enslaved Africans who rest in the Old First Cemetery. The project is also helping members of her congregation, as well as the broader Black community, build a stronger sense of identity.

“Community is at the heart of the gospel. And the core to community is identity,” Lundy said. “For people of color, one’s story has not always been affirmed and told in the larger community.”

The 313 Project: Looking back to claim the future

Before coming to Siloam Hope First Presbyterian, Lundy had not served as a pastor in decades. An accomplished educator, Lundy is an assistant professor at New York Theological Seminary, where she teaches world Christianity and directs the mentoring program. But she felt the need to get back in the pulpit.

“Any person in theological education will affirm that the church has changed, which means that theological education must change to address that,” Lundy said. “For me [returning to the pulpit] was bringing theory and practice back together in the 21st century.”

Lundy also had another reason for stepping back into the pulpit: to help unite three merging congregations. A year before her arrival, First Presbyterian Church had merged with two previously merged Presbyterian congregations — Siloam and Hope Memorial.

Siloam Presbyterian, which had always been a Black congregation, traced its origins to First Presbyterian. The older church, which originally relegated Black congregants to its balcony, had built Siloam a few blocks away in the mid-19th century as a segregated church for African Americans. Now, over 170 years later, the Siloam congregation had come back to the church that founded it.

While two of the three congregations were either white or integrated, the current congregation — which has about 60 members — is predominantly Black.

The 313 Project and its push to honor the hundreds of forgotten souls in the Old First Cemetery has helped unify the three distinct congregations.

Its current goal is to build a monument to the dead — one that symbolizes where they came from, what they contributed to this country, and how their very survival paved the way for future African Americans. Ultimately, Lundy hopes to learn the names of all the deceased and create a database that may help identify their living descendants.

How do the practices of truth telling and reckoning with our institutional histories lead to present-day and future healing?

“I see it as a full circle, coming back to the original church,” said Wanda Sizemore-McRae, the congregation’s clerk of session and a member of Siloam Presbyterian before the congregations merged. Sizemore-McRae said the existence of the graves was common knowledge but she had been surprised at how many there are.

Three congregations now are combined in what originally was First Presbyterian.

“A lot of merged churches have a hard time coming together,” she said, “but the 313 Project has been a bonding experience. For all of us.”

Congregant Bessie Allen, who grew up attending Hope Memorial, said she also wants to honor the 313.

“We want the monument to be a daily reminder that during the Revolutionary War — during the time this church was built — we were here. We were part of it. We want people to know about that history,” she said.

As for the planned monument, Allen said, “God is going to make a way for all this to happen. They [the ancestors] have waited long enough.”

The past informs the future

For Lundy, this project is not only about telling the stories of those who have been silenced for so long; it’s also about building relationships among the living and moving the conversation forward.

“It’s one thing to recognize our past as history. But it’s another to understand that history is not just our past but our future,” said Lundy, invoking the symbolism of the Sankofa bird that will stand atop the monument.

Translated from the Twi language of Ghana, “Sankofa” means “go back and get it.” The symbolic representation shows the bird’s feet facing forward and its head turned back.

“You can’t understand your present until you understand your history,” Lundy said.

Lundy recognizes that her church may be in a unique situation. While some predominantly white congregations have begun reckoning with their racist past, in this congregation the story is more complicated. Indeed, some of the souls in the graves may turn out to be the direct ancestors of people in the pews.

“This church was a beacon of white supremacy. The founders never would have imagined us where we are today,” said Linda Caldwell Epps, a historian, consultant and retired president of the New Jersey Historical Society.

What projects of historical reckoning are happening in and around your community? How could you take part in them? 

“I’m glad to see that some institutions are trying to come to terms with what has happened in the past instead of just continuing to ignore it,” she said, citing as examples ongoing research projects at Princeton and Rutgers that are examining the universities’ connection to slavery. “The great force of history is that we carry it within us.”

Epps is among the wide range of partners Lundy has convened to help bring to light this unwritten history. Included among them are faculty from local universities, members of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, a history teacher from South Carolina, Lundy’s theological students — even the local police chief. The list keeps growing.

‘How much did their lives matter?’

Even though she grew up in Elizabeth, Epps was surprised by the news of the unmarked graves.

She first learned of them in 2012, when First Presbyterian’s previous minister asked her to conduct some preliminary research. Looking through church and historical records, the historian discovered other surprises as well — such as the extent to which slavery played a role in Elizabeth.

“That there were slave traders who lived in the city is something that was new to me,” Epps said. “Through working with this 313 Project, we are discovering what 17th, 18th and 19th century was like in the city [for people of African descent].”

What is the role of the church in community efforts to uncover the truth of racism and honor the victims of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and other forms of systemic racism?

Cherekana Feliciano, who has done extensive research about African American cemeteries in New Jersey, underscores the importance of initiatives like the 313.

“I think people don’t typically connect New Jersey with slavery,” said Feliciano, the vice president of the New Jersey Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. “These kinds of projects talk to that.”

Epps said she thinks the 313 Project fits in with the current anti-racism movements, including Black Lives Matter.

“How much did their lives matter for those who they were working for? Obviously, they didn’t matter so much that these people weren’t put into mass graves,” she said. “It’s time for us to wake up. This country would not be what it is today had it not been for the enslavement of Africans.”

An unexpected source of support

Lundy now has a spreadsheet of more than 150 people with whom she’s built relationships to help bring the 313 memorial to fruition. She likes to say it’s not her building these relationships but the ancestors guiding her. The ancestors, it seems, have also led her to some unexpected champions, including the local police chief.

Since Chief Giacomo Sacca, a lifelong native of Elizabeth, first learned of the mass graves during a routine visit to the church in February 2020, he has become one of the 313’s greatest champions.

“I had a walking post in front of that cemetery as a patrolman. I’d never known there was an unmarked mass grave there. When the reverend told me, it hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. “This is a wrong that we can correct. We can pay them the respect they deserve as human beings, and as national historic figures.”

Since then, Sacca has helped find a local artist to design the memorial with inputs from the community, put out bids to monument companies to collect estimates, and presented the project to the Elizabeth Policemen’s Benevolent Association, which donated $3,000 from its fall fundraiser toward the monument.

Sacca has also proposed additional fundraising opportunities, such as the sale of inscribed brick pavers for a pathway through the cemetery, to be built with volunteer labor from the police force. The brick paver fundraiser went live in November.

All of this, of course, has been happening against the backdrop of the pandemic, which forced the church to close its doors and conduct services online, and the firestorm of racial injustice that has triggered protests against police killings of African Americans.

In May, the Sunday after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, Lundy invited Sacca to address the church. During the Zoom meeting, a woman whose grown son has autism said she feared for her son’s life. A nonverbal Black male in his 20s, he walks around town with a hoodie on. And his go-to move when he gets nervous? He shoves his hands in his pockets.

Sacca worked with her and other parents to develop the Safe Interaction Program, which was launched this fall. Besides direct training for individuals with special needs — and educational resources for their caregivers — the program offers personalized identification cards, available on the police website, to help facilitate safe encounters with first responders.

“The idea is, when a cop makes a vehicle or pedestrian stop, before they have to say anything to the individual, the cop knows what they’re dealing with,” Sacca said.

Sacca is quick to point out that they never would have developed the program had it not been for the Zoom meeting to which Lundy invited him.

Lundy, again, deflects the credit: “The ancestors are trying to teach us. They are trying to help us.” That is why she is so committed to telling their stories. “As long as I have breath,” she said, “their names are going to be called.”

How do projects lthat reckon with racist histories connect to the liturgical practices of confession, absolution and reconciliation?

At the moment, Lundy has 117 names, to be precise, of the 313. At a recent online All Saints’ Day service honoring the dead, members of the congregation read those names aloud, from the youngest (Malvina Manning, age 3 months) to the oldest (Betsey Hoagland, 103).

“What matters is that we know that they are there,” Epps said during the service. She referenced Psalm 102: “The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee” (Psalm 102:28 KJV).

Those buried in the cemetery’s graves include some who are indentified by name and some who are not.

‘No one is forgotten’

There is one member of the congregation who may be able to add some names to the monument. Leonard Jackson, a native of Elizabeth, has a list of names he inherited from his mother, Margaret, who descended from the original Siloam Presbyterian members.

A few years before she passed away in 2014, Margaret Jackson entrusted the 13-page printout to her son.

“She told me, ‘I want you to keep this. On the list, you can see where I have marked where you have relatives in that cemetery,’” Jackson said. “But she never told me what to do with it.”

Scanning through the pages, Jackson read off the names of his known ancestors. “Post. That was my mother’s second cousin. Here’s another: William Best. [He] would have been [one of] my mother’s first cousins.”

Then Jackson got to the nameless entries. There are 316, and most of them do not have full names — or any names, for that matter. Among them: Baby boy, Child of Mr. Daniel, Black woman of Major Hartveld, Child of Miss Lawrence. Colored.

“The way they just threw them in this dirt — it’s just terrible,” Jackson said. “How can you put someone in the ground when you don’t have their first or last name?”

Will they ever know all the names? Or even the exact number? As information flows in from other sources, the estimated number of souls there grows closer to 370. And, according to Lundy, there may be more bodies buried under the church parking lot.

“Even though we can’t call each and every one of them by name or know just exactly how many they are, we know that they served, they defended, they loved,” Epps said. “By their labor, their love, their songs, they created for us a new world.

“We cannot possibly know all of their names,” she said. “But no one is forgotten in our tribute.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • What does it mean to be surrounded by this specific company of unnamed enslaved saints?
  • What projects of historical reckoning are happening in and around your community? How could you take part in them? 
  • How do the practices of truth telling and reckoning with our institutional histories lead to present-day and future healing?
  • What is the role of the church in community efforts to uncover the truth of racism and honor the victims of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration and other forms of systemic racism?
  • How do projects like the 313 Project and other communitywide reckonings with racist histories connect to the liturgical practices of confession, absolution and reconciliation?