Yes in God’s Back Yard wants to build homes for those most in need of them

When asked how he came to be involved with housing issues, the Rev. Harvey Vaughn III has a simple answer: pancakes.

The senior pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in San Diego spent many childhood Saturdays going to work with his father, who was a pastor himself and a supervisor with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in St. Louis. Vaughn knew that if he tagged along with his father on the weekends, the two would stop for pancakes.

“I didn’t realize that I was actually really being indoctrinated in working with people to make sure that they had quality housing,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn went on to work for a housing program at a St. Louis nonprofit before eventually heading to San Diego, where he now leads the city’s oldest Black church and its more than 600 congregants.

Vaughn is senior pastor of the city’s oldest Black church.

When Vaughn heard a public radio report about homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in San Diego, he felt called to find a way for his church to get involved.

He shared his dream with Robbie Robinson, a member of his congregation who told him about a new project in the works called Yes in God’s Back Yard, or YIGBY. The group hoped to build affordable housing units on church property around San Diego County.

The name is a reimagining of the old affordable housing debate between the “Not in my backyard” or NIMBY crowd and the “Yes in my backyard” or YIMBY contingents.

“One of the problems that they have in San Diego, especially, is getting affordable housing in neighborhoods because a lot of people don’t want you to build affordable housing,” Vaughn said.

He believed that his church could be part of the solution.

What popular phrases like “Not in my backyard” does the gospel turn upside down?

Vaughn rides a golf cart
Vaughn drives a golf cart to greet people in the Logan Heights neighborhood, where Bethel AME is located.

A way to catch up

For Monica Ball, who has spearheaded the YIGBY program from the initial idea scrawled on napkins to its current form, building affordable housing on property owned by religious institutions or places of worship was a potential answer to an unrelenting problem.

For years, she worked to help people living on the street, and she saw organizations that had clients ready to move into homes but couldn’t find places for them to live.

“That’s like a teacher saying to a student, ‘You should be graduating, but we ran out of diplomas,’ ” Ball said.

In a conversation with a county official, Ball learned that places of worship owned well over 1,000 parcels of land in the area.

“That was a little bit mind blowing,” she said.

A 2020 study from the University of California, Berkeley found 38,800 acres of land in California used for religious purposes that could potentially be developed to include affordable housing. That amount of land, the study says, is roughly the size of the city of Stockton, which has a total area of 61.7 square miles.

Man waves from golf cart
Bethel AME has committed to building affordable housing on church property.

“I have very strong feelings that the faith community is responsible for vulnerable populations. That is absolutely true for every world religion,” said Ball, who attends a Presbyterian church.

“My faith community friends, all they can think to do is go downtown with backpacks, blankets and bologna sandwiches, and we’re sitting on acres of land. It doesn’t take a genius to put together what needs to be done here.”

In San Diego, the study found, faith communities owned 4,675 acres with development potential. Even if only 10% of that land were developed for affordable housing, at 20 units per acre, more than 9,300 units would be added to San Diego’s market, Ball noted.

“We’re almost there to cover who we’ve got in our own system documented as unsheltered and temporarily sheltered,” Ball said.

If enough religious institutions decided to participate in the effort, Ball said, the current need could be met.

“It’s like getting behind on your homework,” Ball said. “You’ve got to commit to catch up. But once you catch up, it’s way easier to keep up. That’s the reality that the community and America need to face.”

Who has fresh eyes to see both the needs in a community and the strengths of a congregation?

The Berkeley study also found that religious organizations face barriers to building affordable housing on their properties. Those barriers include local building regulations, limited financing options and a lack of expertise in housing and real estate.

That, Ball said, is where YIGBY comes in. The program hopes to offer options to streamline the process and guide houses of worship through the decisions they need to make.

Traditional affordable housing development takes about six years to complete and generally uses tax credit financing, according to Tom Theisen, former president of the regional task force on homelessness and member of the YIGBY advisory committee.

The costs per unit can easily reach $600,000, Theisen said.

Such projects are not self-sustaining and require complex financing because the amount of rent money received from housing vouchers will not cover that cost.

Ball said that by “activating” land already owned by faith communities, this model can be flipped and allow for innovative approaches that shorten the time frame and lower costs.

The YIGBY team’s goal is to develop self-sustaining projects that cost about $200,000 per unit so that rent will cover loan repayments.

But first YIGBY needed a proof of concept project. That’s where Vaughn and Bethel AME church stepped in about three years ago.

Activating the land

Ball and Vaughn agree that construction on the pilot project would be done by now if not for the pandemic.

The spread of COVID-19 shuttered the city planning offices that needed to approve Bethel AME’s construction plans. And then, because of pandemic-related supply chain shortages, the cost of building supplies increased, meaning that the project needed to rework its design in order to stay sustainable.

But the wait hasn’t been all bad. Building regulations for Logan Heights, the predominantly Latino neighborhood where the church is located, now allow an increased number of units in the new plan.

“The delay is actually working out to our advantage,” Vaughn said. “We didn’t see it like that at the time — man plans, God laughs, of course.”

Construction of housing units for military veterans is planned on church-owned land.

Even without a virus wreaking havoc across the globe, affordable housing construction isn’t easy, Vaughn said.

“If you’re going to do this, if you’re a pastor, you better make sure that this is what the Lord has for you to do,” he said. “That’s the first thing that I would say. Building is not easy. Keeping people motivated and on board with you is not easy.”

“If you’re going to pursue this, from a clergy perspective, I would say spend some time in prayer and make sure that it’s the Lord leading you and not your ego to do the building. It’s not going to be easy, and if it’s not God-ordained, you’re going to give up when it gets hard.”

It’s also important to get buy-in from the congregation and collectively determine what population the faith community wants to serve.

“They need to find within their fellowship a champion or two or three,” said the Rev. Rolland Slade, senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, California, and a member of the regional task force on homelessness and the YIGBY advisory committee.

“There needs to be someone else other than just them as a leader who has a similar vision or can see developing their property as a benefit to both the congregation and to the community.”

Vaughn said that his congregation quickly got on board after he presented the idea and that the conversation soon turned to the possibility of housing veterans. Because it’s home to both Navy and Marine bases, San Diego has a large military population, active and retired.

“Our congregation has a lot of veterans,” Vaughn said. “So, of course, it was a natural, very organic discussion.”

What challenge can laypeople see that they are motivated to address? Who can work together on a major challenge?

praise team
This Sunday service, including music by the Praise Team, was streamed online due to COVID-19.

His project team began conducting site tours and, after seeing modular construction, decided to pursue that approach. Modular construction uses segments built off-site so that a building can be pieced together more quickly than traditional construction allows.

They raised funds to offset construction costs enough to make the project self-sustaining.

But, because the pandemic increased the costs of modular construction, they had to resubmit building plans using the more traditional method.

Ball still hopes to make modular construction a mainstay of YIGBY development, but, at the moment, the program’s main goal is to get the pilot completed. Construction could begin as soon as in the next few months and is scheduled to wrap up in 2023.

For Vaughn, being able to offer quality homes to people who need them will be worth the effort it is taking to get his YIGBY project into the ground.

“That can change the trajectory of a person’s life,” he said.

What ideas do people in your community have that need support in order to launch an experiment? What needs a “proof of concept” in your community?

Layers of trust

For faith leaders interested in starting housing projects, Slade and Vaughn both recommended finding experts to guide their congregations rather than trying to learn everything on their own.

“You don’t have to go into it knowing all about it,” Slade said.

Trusting outsiders can be difficult, however, given some faith communities’ experiences with predatory developers.

Ball said she learned that lesson early on when someone lectured her on what pastors, particularly Black pastors, would and would not be willing to risk regarding their land.

“Justifiably, the faith community is leery about developers,” she said. “There are commercial brokers out there who prey on the church’s naive nature about its own land and what it can do with it and its value.”

She hopes that YIGBY will be able to suggest trustworthy developers and other experts after the first projects succeed and they have buy-in from more churches.

For churches that want to help with housing insecurity but prefer a different model, there are other options, Slade said. Meridian Baptist plans to build emergency cabins on its property that offer shelter 90 days at a time as a way to transition people to more permanent homes.

With all divisions and polarization in our communities, how do you cultivate trust in experts, expertise and institutions?

two people hugging
Before taking on a project like building affordable housing, Vaughn said pastors must feel certain it is what they are called to do.

First, churches need to build trust when working with vulnerable populations, he said.

Before the pandemic, Meridian hosted weekly dinners for community members living on the streets, and Slade spent time sitting and talking with people who attended.

He recalled one man who came for about three months and never wanted to talk with him, but Slade kept sitting with the man.

“He looked at me one Wednesday night and said, ‘Pastor, I’m tired. I want to get off the street,’ ” Slade recalled. “I said, ‘How can I help you?’ ”

The man asked Slade to sign a document that said he had been homeless so that he could go to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help.

Slade’s willingness to sit with the man even when it was uncomfortably silent is what he believes made the difference in building trust over time.

Likewise, YIGBY backers hope one day soon that patience and trust will help build houses.

Questions to consider

What popular phrases like “Not in my backyard” does the gospel turn upside down?

Who has fresh eyes to see both the needs in a community and the strengths of a congregation?

What challenge can laypeople see that they are motivated to address? Who can work together on a major challenge?

What ideas do people in your community have that need support in order to launch an experiment? What needs a “proof of concept” in your community?

With all divisions and polarization in our communities, how do you cultivate trust in experts, expertise and institutions?

As the late morning service begins at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in San Diego’s North Park, the congregation’s songs reach through the floor to the commercial kitchen in the building’s basement.

There, a group of women in colorful head wraps and vibrant prints cooks quietly, the silence occasionally broken by conversations in Arabic, Swahili and English.

women at a baking rack
Women from Mama Africa Catering prepare snacks to be served with tea after a church service.

Near the kitchen’s main door, Sarah John flattens balls of dough with a rolling pin and passes them to her daughter, who fries them in a skillet to make chapati.

On the other side, Nadia Agory teaches Suzanna Simon to cut another mass of dough into small pieces. Agory then lays each piece in a deep fryer to make mandazi, which the women will put out with tea for churchgoers after the service ends.

Standing by the industrial sink, Mariam Abdelrahman cores zucchini that will later be filled with meat and rice as mahshi.

The women are part of Mama Africa Catering, the most recent endeavor launched by RefugeeNet, a nonprofit that grew out of St. Luke’s to support and empower refugee communities in San Diego.

What welcoming smells and creative labor can you envision wafting out of your church basement or campus?

women preparing food
Mariam Abdelrahman,right, prepares mahshi, cutting vegetables open so they can be stuffed with meat, rice and spices.

“It’s not about writing a check. It’s not about an arm’s length transaction of time or talent or treasure,” said the Rev. Colin Mathewson, co-rector at St. Luke’s. “It’s about sharing your lives.”

Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their countries because of fear of persecution and are generally identified through international screening processes. The United States resettles refugees from around the world each year after they’ve been screened in countries closer to home.

Refugee arrivals to the U.S. are expected to increase in the coming year, because the Biden administration has raised the maximum number that our country will admit. In addition, recently evacuated Afghans will soon be moving from military bases to cities across the country.

San Diego refugee resettlement agencies have been busy hiring staff to meet the coming demand for their services. Along with them, community groups that work to fill gaps in support for new arrivals are also busy planning.

“We don’t want any of these folks falling through the cracks,” said Mejgan Afshan, a prominent voice in San Diego’s Afghan community and co-founder of Borderlands for Equity. “We want people to be able to live and thrive like we have.”

volunteers help people select food
Volunteers for RefugeeNet help people pick out free food at St. Luke’s.

The work of RefugeeNet is particularly poignant for those involved, because the congregation at St. Luke’s is largely made up of former refugees from African countries who were themselves helped by the organization in its early days. They now feel that they are giving back to their community and sharing their blessings by passing that help along to newer arrivals.

“Seeing people of faith in the community, especially in the community of the Episcopal Church, helping those vulnerable people, it reminds me what the Bible says about welcoming those who are strangers into our houses, into our neighborhood,” said Michael Mawien, a former refugee from Sudan who is now bookkeeper for RefugeeNet.

“That actually strengthened my faith, to see God is working through those people, through Americans who are really putting all of their resources into helping this organization grow and helping this vulnerable population of people who are just arrived to the United States.”

The shift in the church’s demographics is not lost on Matthewson.

The Rev. Colin Mathewson is co-rector at St. Luke’s.

“To be white leaders of a majority-Black church that are part of a culture that is very different from mine has led to a series of misunderstandings and mistakes large and small, and we have been met time and again with such graciousness and generosity and hospitality that it’s really sort of ruined me from wanting to be anywhere else,” Mathewson said. “I suspect I won’t even comprehend the ways in which I’ve been transformed until I find myself in a new context.”

‘We will fill this church’

The histories of St. Luke’s and RefugeeNet are closely intertwined.

In the early 1990s, the church was shrinking. Its congregation, made up at the time of mostly white San Diegans, was aging.

The Rev. David Montzingo, who now works as canon for clergy formation for the Diocese of Western Anglicans, became rector of St. Luke’s in 1991. At a retreat in early 1994, church leaders, noticing that the neighborhoods surrounding their church were becoming increasingly culturally diverse with residents from around the world, decided to adopt a motto inspired by Methodist movement founder John Wesley: “The world is our parish.”

volunteers unload a truck
Volunteers for RefugeeNet, partnered with the local food bank, unload groceries for the weekly distribution to those in need.

“I think that was very important, because that predisposed us to what happened next,” Montzingo said.

Months later, Montzingo got a phone call from St. James Episcopal Church, located in a coastal San Diego neighborhood known for its wealthy residents and spectacular views of the ocean. A young man named Simon, recently arrived as a refugee from Sudan, had shown up for services at the church.

“He lives closer to you,” Montzingo recalled his colleague telling him.

When Simon met with Montzingo, he told the rector about the long civil war in his country and that more refugees would be coming soon. Many were members of the Anglican Church in Sudan.

“He said, ‘I have a very large family, and many of them will come here, and we will fill this church,’” Montzingo recalled.

Simon’s almost prophetic statement has become legend at St. Luke’s, for that is indeed what happened.

“It was almost as if God’s spirit spoke to me,” Montzingo said.

When was the last time you examined the boundaries of belonging for your church? At this moment, will your congregation choose to see newly arrived Afghan and Haitian refugees as family who belong?

refreshments after church
Churchgoers at St. Luke’s drink tea and eat snacks prepared by the women from Mama Africa Catering.

As the church organized to support Sudanese arrivals, leaders began picking up refugees from the San Diego airport to welcome them. The network solidified around a goal of filling the gaps in support provided by resettlement agencies, who receive money from the federal government to help newcomers in their first few months.

In cities like San Diego with a high cost of living, that aid is often not enough to make ends meet even in those first months, and many refugee families continue to struggle long after the help goes away to get fully on their feet.

“[The network] made our life more welcoming, and it took the anxiety away from us,” recalled Katherine Bom, a former refugee from South Sudan and the current executive director of the organization. “It was easier for us to call someone at RefugeeNet who spoke our language and was able to help us.”

Equally important to Montzingo was to provide spiritual support, something that resettlement agencies could not do.

“Refugees have a lot of psychological, emotional and spiritual wounds. These are people who lost their country,” Montzingo said. “They came with a huge sense of loss and that God had turned his back on them.”

For many former refugees, the assistance they received at St. Luke’s was seen as a blessing from God that helped them through those traumas.

Joseph Jok, who now serves on the board of RefugeeNet, still remembers the first pieces of furniture the organization gave to him when he came to San Diego decades ago with his wife and baby — a sofa bed, love seat and table.

“What happened to us through the war, being traumatized — and now you came to this place and you find a community of faith that can support you,” Jok said. “It was a few things they provided, but they were so meaningful.”

Driven by community

To support the newcomers, St. Luke’s set up a refugee office staffed with former refugees.

They provided case management, working with families to understand their needs and offering individualized support.

Those who worked in the office in the 1990s recalled long days and late nights — accompanying refugee families to the grocery store, teaching them how to use ovens, translating for them at doctor visits. It was a round-the-clock operation, especially when a woman went into labor and needed language support at the hospital.

As the network’s reach expanded from Sudanese refugees to a more diverse group of arrivals, the office hired staff from those communities, including Karen refugees from Burma and, more recently, Congolese refugees.

And with more former refugees added to its leadership, the organization’s focus has evolved from supporting through food, furniture and other basic necessities to providing the skills that refugee families will need to survive and thrive on their own.

How might sacrificial time and care with refugees who have suffered great trauma help ease their anxiety and ours in this time of the ongoing pandemic? 

Volunteers help each other with their face masks
Volunteers for RefugeeNet help with a food and clothing distribution.

RefugeeNet currently has two case managers — executive director Bom, who helps Arabic-speaking refugees, and Joseph Ekyoci, a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who offers support in Swahili.

They help refugees navigate the process of getting ID cards at the Department of Motor Vehicles. They help with resumes and job applications.

Both case managers are also part of the St. Luke’s congregation. Ekyoci grew up as a Catholic but decided to attend St. Luke’s because he could relate to the people there.

“Community, that’s what drives me,” Ekyoci said.

That sense of community and camaraderie is palpable at St. Luke’s and in the work of RefugeeNet.

“The community is left to look after refugees,” Bom said. “The refugees who are served through our program are the ones that refer the new people to us. It’s word-of-mouth.”

Prior to the pandemic, much of their work focused on home visits. While the spread of COVID-19 stalled their ability to provide in-person support, it also amplified the need.

Many former refugees lost their jobs in San Diego’s normally bustling hospitality and tourism sectors when the world shut down. Bom and Ekyoci scrambled to help parents find work and apply for unemployment and rental assistance.

They also reinvigorated RefugeeNet’s weekly food distribution program as the number of struggling families rose.

The longer term

Early in the organization’s history, case managers noticed that many of the families’ children were struggling in school.

Some had incomplete, interrupted education or no formal education at all. For many, language barriers were an issue.

The organization decided to offer tutoring as part of its support services.

Just prior to the pandemic, RefugeeNet tutored about 100 children, Bom said. Since then, the organization has supported about 30 kids, with hopes to grow back to the earlier number.

This summer, RefugeeNet partnered with the local recreation department to provide the children with swimming lessons.

For Montzingo, helping children was especially important, because they generally adapted more easily to their new home than their parents did. That meant they had a greater potential to improve their families’ economic situations.

What resettlement agency is near you? How might your congregation help fill in gaps through simple acts of service accompanied by powerful human encounters?

church service
Children enter the sanctuary of St. Luke’s.

Eventually, RefugeeNet tried to pivot entirely to helping refugee children reach higher education, but that change was not fully implemented before the pandemic hit, when the organization had to shift again.

“I think that was an attempt at responding to what just no longer felt good enough, to just keep meeting basic needs without thinking about the longer term,” Mathewson said of the move toward working on education exclusively.

Jok said it was the involvement of former refugees like him that really pushed RefugeeNet to figure out how to support on a deeper level.

“For many organizations who have good intentions of helping people, sometimes they may miss an element from somebody who is from the same culture who can provide insight,” Jok said. “That’s where I fit in.”

The tutoring program is one of the components he is proudest of, he said.

In recent years, many of the program’s earliest pupils have graduated from college.

“It’s neat to see that happen,” Mathewson said. “Also, it will be interesting to see how that starts to impact families.”

Mama Africa

The idea for a catering business that operates out of St. Luke’s commercial kitchen came from a group of women at the church, where hospitality, an important part of Sudanese culture, was already a key component.

Mama Africa catering
Mariam Abdelrahman, Suzana Simon and Siama Agory prepare mahshi.

Mama Africa Catering debuted in February, when RefugeeNet hosted its annual gala virtually because of the pandemic. The group made and delivered roughly 85 meals for gala attendees.

Since then, the catering group has sold dinners every Sunday for pickup or delivery in addition to catering special events for the church and providing its post-service snacks.

The Sunday menu changes each week and incorporates meals from several African countries.

Siama Agory makes baklava.

Mama Africa offers commercial kitchen training and entrepreneurial skills in addition to the paychecks it provides to the women who work to supplement income from their other jobs.

John, a South Sudanese woman who has been in San Diego for about two years after spending time in a refugee camp in Kenya, said the money she makes working for the catering group supplements her income as a caregiver. She would sometimes be unable to buy food without the additional money, she said.

volunteers help people select food
Sarah John (right) helps Linda Ramirez (left) pick out free canned food that is distributed by RefugeeNet.

The group of Sudanese and Congolese women preparing the food are led by Siama Agory, a former refugee from South Sudan who was laid off during the pandemic from her job as a server working night shifts in a local casino.

Bom said she was proud to have been able to offer Agory a new job and to see how her fellow church member has grown into the role.

“I’m really blessed to have that opportunity,” Agory said. “It’s not easy to find.”

Agory sees her work with Mama Africa as an extension of her faith and as a way to pay forward the help that she has received over the years from RefugeeNet.

“RefugeeNet was a helping hand for me and my family, and now it’s time to give a helping hand to the newcomers,” Agory said. “I wish I could do more.”

What memories does this story evoke for you or your family? Have you been part of something similar, either welcoming or being welcomed and assisted to live a safer, more fully human life?

Questions to consider

  • Imagine the delicious aromas of St. Luke’s coffee hour! What welcoming smells and creative labor can you envision wafting out of your church basement or campus?
  • When was the last time you examined the boundaries of belonging for your church? At this moment, will your congregation choose to see newly arrived Afghan and Haitian refugees as family who belong?
  • How might sacrificial time and care with refugees who have suffered great trauma help ease their anxiety and ours in this time of the ongoing pandemic?
  • What resettlement agency is near you? How might your congregation help fill in gaps through simple acts of service accompanied by powerful human encounters?
  • What memories does this story evoke for you or your family? Have you been part of something similar, either welcoming or being welcomed and assisted to live a safer, more fully human life?