Majora Carter: Don’t leave! We can make low-status neighborhoods better

Low-status neighborhoods need talent retention. Instead, what they get is talent extraction, says Majora Carter.

“You are led to believe you need to leave — you need to measure success by how far you get away from there,” said Carter, a real estate developer and consultant who does work in her hometown neighborhood of Hunts Point in the South Bronx.

Carter, whose own family has experienced some of the ill effects of gentrification and predatory practices, has dedicated her efforts to building up her neighborhood and others.

Her projects include a local park and a coffee shop. In 2001, she founded Sustainable South Bronx, which aims to “achieve environmental justice through economically sustainable projects informed by community needs.” She also co-founded the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance and has been involved in numerous environmental and green jobs initiatives.

Reclaiming Your Community

Carter wrote the book “Reclaiming Your Community: You Don’t Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One” — which was endorsed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Seth Godin — and gave a 2022 TED Talk on the same theme.

She is president of the Majora Carter Group, which offers consulting services in environmental assessment, compliance and planning. She has received many awards, including a 2005 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” that described her as “a relentless and charismatic urban strategist” and New York University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Humanitarian Service.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about her work in the South Bronx. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Talk a little bit about the neighborhoods you work in and write about. You use the term “low-status” rather than more typical descriptors, and you actually begin your book with a glossary. Why?

Majora Carter

Majora Carter: Most folks, when they use “poor” or “underprivileged” or “underresourced,” blah, blah, blah — it implies poverty is there. “Low-status” implies something much larger and deeper is at work. There’s a high status and there’s a lower status, and inequality is simply assumed.

It’s the places where the health outcomes are lower, where the educational attainment is lower. Yes, poverty exists more frequently in those areas as well, and there’s often a lack of hope in terms of the future of the community, both for people in the neighborhood and outside it.

And it can be anywhere. Urban, rural, suburban. It can be inner cities, Native American reservations, white towns where there was some industry and it’s long gone.

What we see happening all the time is that the bright kids, the ones who are academically or artistically or even athletically inclined, are led to believe that they need to grow up and get out of those neighborhoods. That’s really the underlying thing that just everybody gets. I don’t care where they’re from.

That’s why our approach to community development is a talent retention strategy, really.

F&L: Part of this mindset is what you call the perception of “poverty as a cultural attribute.” The community can’t change — it isn’t changeable — and therefore the only solution is leaving.

MC: It’s baked in, this idea that poverty is part of the culture. So that’s what you plan for, whether you’re an elected planner, whether you’re an elected official or part of the “nonprofit industrial complex.” That is what you’re planning for.

There are several industries essentially that profit off that, and that’s what we’re trying to work against.

F&L: You use the term “nonprofit industrial complex.” What’s your critique of investment done according to traditional means?

MC: It’s a structure that was designed to take care of needs. But if we understand that and then we look at the money that’s being spent and we don’t see that the amount of money we spend is actually reducing all those social ills, then you kind of have to wonder, “Is it working?”

I’m not saying that [the nonprofit sector] doesn’t play a great role. It does. I’m just saying let’s just ask that question. Stop doing the exact same things over and over and over again.

Huge amounts of government-subsidized affordable housing [are built] for the lowest income bands. You’re not building economic diversity in any of the housing.

Health conditions happen because of the environmental abuses in the same neighborhoods, and we don’t address any of the underlying things but are managing the health conditions that are here, whether they’re diabetes, obesity, heart conditions. Then we are surprised that those numbers stay the same?

We all seem to be surprised every single year. It’s mind-boggling to me. I know I’m not the only person who sees this.

We’re managing poverty. We have plenty of systems to manage people and their poverty. It’s an incredibly paternalistic system that definitely has its roots in white supremacy that says, “You really will never be better, so we’re going to help you — not that much, but just enough.”

We keep seeing that over and over again, and yes, it does bother me very much.

F&L: What have you done in your own neighborhood, and what were you trying to accomplish with your projects?

MC: Ultimately, what I try to do is to help folks in my community, and communities like it, to not believe the narrative that our communities are places that are meant to be escaped from. We actually do have the capacity to revitalize our community from the inside out.

It started in my early work, when I was in the nonprofit sector for a number of years. I’ve always done project-based community development, because I’ve always felt the people needed to see and experience something different from what only screams poverty.

Again, the environment of our neighborhood literally often does say that. People know they need to leave their neighborhood in order to experience a nice park or a decent supermarket or a nice place to have a cocktail or a coffee with their friends.

What does it say about where you’re from? It says, “You don’t really need to be here if you have any sense of aspiration for yourself.” And most people do.

What I’ve tried to show is that we have wonderful things to offer people within our neighborhoods. The projects range from spearheading the development of the first waterfront park our neighborhood’s had in over 60 years. It was the only park — waterfront or not — that actually had grass and trees and the kind of places that made people feel, “Oh wait, this is a really special place to be.”

Then we did some work where we helped people have both a personal and a financial stake in the improvement of their environment. So we’ve created green-collar job training and placement systems.

F&L: Tell me about the cafe; that you’re sitting in right now while we’re talking on Zoom.

MC: In the early days, our work was more focused on consulting, but then it didn’t take us long to realize that it was really real estate development that we needed to be focused on.

We started in small multifamily [housing], and then we realized the other piece was lifestyle infrastructure. In part, we did that because it was nearly impossible for us to get the kind of financing that we needed to do larger projects. I didn’t really know much about real estate development, frankly, at the time.

But when we realized that what people were leaving the neighborhood to experience was places like cafes and coffee shops and things of that nature, we actually sort of used our own good credit. We made relationships with some of the local landowners that had businesses and got very, very reasonable rents on a couple of spaces in the commercial storefronts of their buildings.

We really wanted a cafe, because, again, we did an enormous amount of market research in the form of surveys and focus groups to understand what was it that made people feel good about being in their own neighborhood or not. Why were they leaving the neighborhood to experience something good?

So we got a lease, and we realized that most of the folks who wanted to build a cafe did not have the capacity to do it. We went to Starbucks, actually, and they were just like, “Nah. Your market is too emerging.”

That was really hard to hear, but then we ended up partnering with this awesome group called Birch Coffee, and we did a joint venture with them to open up our very first coffee shop. But it was also clear that we needed to be more about our own culture from the cafe’s perspective, and so that’s why we branched off into the Boogie Down Grind Café [in 2017] and rebranded ourselves.

It’s like an homage to hip-hop. Where I’m sitting right now, you take off the cushion and it becomes a stage, with a great big plate-glass window behind me so people can see it, for open mics or all sorts of wonderful things.

The day we were protested, we were hosting a workshop in this space for people who wanted low and 0% interest loans for either homeownership or for business development. It was kind of tragic and sad but ironic. But that’s what we did.

But those types of things — building out a space so that the community could come in and fill it and be seen in a cool place where people felt really good about how they looked — it was really fun, and we had a really nice time with it.

F&L: You mentioned a protest. You’ve gotten recognition for but also criticism of your work. Why do you think that is?

MC: Because Black girls from neighborhoods like this are not supposed to do this. I am acting way above my station, and I’m not supposed to do it.

We are just so duped into this idea that the only thing we can really be is just managed where we are, and that’s why [the detractors] behave that way.

I don’t know what they thought or what they think they’re getting out of it, but I no longer wish to continue to allow the idea that only a few companies around the country, in any city that you’re in, are the only ones. They’re almost always led by white men.

That’s why our communities are the way they are. I don’t feel that’s the only way our communities can develop — and why don’t we have that conversation?

But yeah, being a Black woman just paints another target on my head from everybody concerned.

F&L: I wanted to ask you just to clarify one thing. Several times you’ve said, “We did this. We did that.” When you refer to the “we,” are you referring to a development company?

MC: My company, yes. It’s interesting that I get that question. I really do think that it’s still hard for people to believe that I do this as a Black woman from a neighborhood like this. Of course I have a company. It’s small, but of course I have a company. I’m long on vision and short on balance sheet, but even functioning in that way, it’s still us, still doing the work of a developer.

F&L: What projects are you working on now?

MC: We’re redeveloping a commercial property, which is a former rail station. It’s a feasibility study to do an assemblage, which would be roughly 1,000 units of mixed-income housing, including homeownership, and about 400,000 to 500,000 square feet of manufacturing and commercial space.

That’s my dream. Literally, I want to be able to co-lead that project, and then I’ll retire. I will show that it can be done by someone who looks like me, and then I’ll walk. That is my prayer. Because I’m just too old. I’m going to be 60 in a few years, and I’m done. I’m not going to lie.

F&L: Even on Zoom, you do not look like someone who’s talking about retirement.

MC: Oh no, I am. I swear I’ve aged a lot over these past few years. I’m grateful. I know I’m blessed that I have the ability to do what I do. I’m still here, despite being smacked around as much as I’ve been. I can still smile and laugh about most of it — it makes me super, super happy — so that’s great.

F&L: If a congregation wants to do this kind of work, what would you recommend? I know you’ve worked with the Parish Collective organization.

MC: I was at the last Parish Collective [event]. I had actually been talking to a lot of them about, “What are the roles churches can play in development?”

If they do have property, how are they using it to support folks? More economically diverse communities are actually safer economically, socially. Spiritually as well.

But also really paying attention to predatory speculation. How do we support the homeowners that are already in those communities to keep them from falling victim to predators? I think churches can play a huge role in that, and so some of us are actually starting to have those conversations around it, which is great.

F&L: Do you come from a faith background?

MC: No, no. I am a Christian, definitely a follower. [But] I didn’t become a Christian until years later. I do feel like this is my ministry. And my ability to love my neighbor — I feel like this is my contribution. This is how I can give, and I love it.

Some modes of innovation focus more on helping existing institutions survive changes in the world rather than changing the world into a more equitable place.

Such innovation, argues Kimberly R. Daniel, isn’t Christian innovation.

“Christian innovation is a type of innovation that advances life,” Daniel says. “It results in healing of the world.”

Daniel and her co-author, Stephen Lewis, have written a resource titled “A Way out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation” with this in mind.

In the book, they offer steps, lessons and examples from the many Christian social entrepreneurs they have met and trained over the past five years to show a mode of Christian innovation that does bring change.

A Way Out of No Way

Lewis is the president of the Forum for Theological Exploration, and Daniel is the senior director of communications at FTE and co-founder of an Atlanta-based startup accelerator.

Daniel spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the resource and how readers can use it to identify what next steps might be for their ideas for Christian innovation. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: How did this book come about, and what inspired you to publish it?

Kimberly R. Daniel: Back in 2017, we began to host some small gatherings, which were really sparked by some questions that Stephen and I had. Questions like, “What do Christians from diverse communities think about Christian innovation?” or, “How have they been innovating?” or even, “What innovation have we and our ancestors experienced in our communities before this term was even coined?”

So at FTE, the Forum for Theological Exploration, where both of us are leaders, we hosted these small gatherings of entrepreneurs and asked them those questions — entrepreneurs, pastors, community leaders who were and still are designing and imagining new ways to help their particular communities, versed in their specific contexts.

By launching this five-city listening tour and launching a startup accelerator for early-stage, underrepresented entrepreneurs in 2017, we connected with more than 200 folks — innovators and leaders working at the intersections of faith, church community and business. In this, we learned that not all innovation done by Christians can legitimately claim to be Christian innovation.

Stephen and I both come from the Black community, which has lived on the underside of imperial progress and is well acquainted with frugal innovation, which we commonly call “making a way out of no way” — hence the title of the book.

So from these questions that we had to the small gatherings that we had to the accelerator program and our own lived experiences, we were inspired to write “A Way out of No Way,” because we don’t need any more innovation that gives economic opportunities that benefit just an elite minority.

We want this book to be pretty much a blueprint and a guide to practicing the type of innovation that addresses individual and systemic inequalities that fit the plight of everyday people, not the elite few.

F&L: In your view, what disqualifies something from actually being Christian innovation?

KRD: There are innovative and entrepreneurial endeavors that have nothing to do with the lived experience and the plight of people who are disenfranchised, who are socially vulnerable, who have minimal resources. These types of innovation just didn’t meet what we see as coming from being rooted in Jesus’ teachings and sticking to “the least of these.”

There are a lot of people who are seen as Christian innovators, but a lot of times, they primarily exist to either help their institutions navigate the cultural shifts or to change their institutions to be relevant and responsive to changes in society. So in these cases, innovation is a practice for Christians for the primary benefit of the institutions, their traditions and their programing.

While there is definitely importance in this type of innovation, given all the challenges that people and religious institutions have faced, especially over the past several years, this is insufficient to be understood as Christian innovation.

I think it’s a misconception that if Christian leaders effectively navigate their institutions through these difficult challenges and keep their institutions and people intact or they successfully transfer the institutions, that they’re deemed innovative. Yes, they may be deemed innovative, but when we’re talking about Christian innovation in particular, in our book we advocate for what’s rooted in Jesus’ teachings about God’s preferential starting place — to benefit the disenfranchised, socially vulnerable, underresourced and undervalued.

F&L: What are some models you’ve found that are truly Christian innovation?

KRD: If we’re talking about people who are doing innovation rooted in addressing these particular communities, that might be someone like Kit Evans-Ford, who went through the accelerator program in 2017 that Stephen and I co-founded.

She developed and launched and has a thriving business that she calls her ministry that is rooted in addressing women who are survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Her business ties into her own story and into her ancestors’ stories and is helping create a healing community for these women who have often been overlooked and who have just been trying to survive.

She is giving them a place and a space to thrive, giving them an opportunity to create some economic value by employing these women, giving them free services to help them heal as they move through their journeys. So whether that’s spiritual reflection or therapy or a chiropractor or coming together and having some studies with one another, she is providing this community center, and she’s providing a place to employ these women.

That’s one example. There are six steps in the book about how to do Christian innovation, and she’s tied to the last step, which we name “Do it,” when you’re actually implementing your solution. That’s the very last step. She has gone through all the steps, and she is doing the work for the benefit of a particular community.

lotion bottles
Bottles of lotion from Kit Evans-Ford’s business, Argrow’s House of Healing and Hope.

Or another example might be LivFul, which was co-founded by Hogan Bassey, who is a Nigerian-born man who was experimenting with a solution to a problem that his particular community faced, which was malaria.

He had been infected with malaria four or more times by the time he was 10 years old, and so he started testing out an insect repellent that soon became the seed for LivFul, which initially offered this award-winning insect repellent to heal his community and also provide them with an opportunity to have access to it, because repellents were [not readily accessible] to them at the time.

He provided easy access to this insect repellent so that he could save lives and hopefully help people flourish. LivFul offers a lot more now, but that’s just a little highlight.

F&L: What do you hope readers would learn from the book?

KRD: We hope that through this book people are able to have concrete steps they can take and practices they can engage in to help them identify their next most faithful step in exploring innovation.

We want them to understand what Christian innovation truly is, and what we are advocating for, which again, like I’ve already said, is rooted in Jesus’ teachings, addressing those who are disenfranchised, undervalued, vulnerable in our families, in our communities and in our society.

That is very important, and we hope that the book serves as a blueprint for innovators, for people who may be innovators, people who are leaders, educators, and for communities, to create a more just world by developing solutions to stubborn social problems.

This book is really for people who are innovators — innovators who are within the church context or other forms of faith communities, people who are drawn toward social entrepreneurship and driven by their faith to make a positive impact on communities.

This book is for educators who are teaching the innovators who will come into our communities. This book is for communities in and of itself. We want people to be clear about the ways that they can faithfully do innovation that meets the needs and provides healing and opportunities for flourishing and empowers everyday people.

F&L: How should a reader use the six steps that you outline in the book to identify Christian innovation?

KRD: In every chapter, it begins with an overview of that particular step. I think someone who is already working on some type of innovative ministry or has an entrepreneurial venture that they’re trying to develop would get clear about whether that’s the step they’re at and the one they should focus on.

I think what is a benefit to this particular book is that in each step, you can go to the end with these interactive exercises that will give you some concrete and tangible practices and questions that you can consider that will help you refine what it is that you’re doing to make sure that you’re actually meeting the needs of people within your community. I would say to start there.

But in looking at the steps just broadly, it’s pretty clear that when you “Get curious,” you’re really starting with a question. You’re wondering why things are the way they are in order to develop a solution, whether it’s a ministry or a business venture. You’re getting curious about the problem, the need, the desire that you see within a particular community.

Then you’re moving from that and you “Make meaning” of what is coming up — what came up in your curiosity and what that might mean for these insights. Then you need to “Be open” to what emerges from God, what emerges from your community in order to further build out your ministry.

Then you just need to try it, experiment with it, develop something. Even if it’s not perfect, “Try this” to see if it even works, and then show that you can “Prove it” works, from hearing from the community. Ask and see if it’s actually making an impact in the way that you hope it does.

Once you prove it, just “Do it.” Looking at the highlights of each step, I think, will give people a sense of where they might need to focus, and then leveraging the interactive exercises that we have at the very end following Stephen’s theological reflections can be very helpful.

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?

Donna Budway wasn’t certain her daughter was ready to spend her first night away from home. Emma Budway is 22 and has autism. As the young woman prepared for bed after moving into her new apartment, Donna lay down next to her.

Emma can speak, but does so unreliably, preferring to communicate by spelling on an iPad or a laminated sheet. But she was abundantly clear on that evening in early December when she turned to her mother and declared her long-awaited independence.

“No sharing,” she said, insisting that her mother sleep in the family’s Arlington, Virginia, home, about 2 miles away.

Donna Budway sits with her daughter Emma in Emma’s apartment at Gilliam Place.

“We haven’t looked back since,” said Donna, whose daughter is among the first residents at Gilliam Place, an affordable housing complex born of one congregation’s quest to discern their calling in a community with changing needs. 

“This is just a wonderful source of good in our community,” Donna said.

The 173 apartments reserved for low-income families, seniors and those with disabilities are the result of a yearslong — and at times contentious — discernment process by Arlington Presbyterian Church. The complex, built where the church once stood, is named for Ronda A. Gilliam (1906-1970) who served the church and presbytery as an elder and was a neighborhood conservationist. Gilliam founded the congregation’s community clothing ministry, which still distributes thousands of items each year.

Arlington Presbyterian’s stone sanctuary had occupied a lot near a busy intersection west of the Pentagon for more than 80 years. Like many churches, the congregation had seen its numbers dwindle, and its aging infrastructure had become an increasing burden. But what happened next wasn’t driven by finances, said Susan Etherton, a ruling elder and member for nearly 40 years. Arlington Presbyterian could have sold its property — worth more than $10 million just a few years ago — and built a new sanctuary elsewhere, she said.

“We weren’t looking to save ourselves,” said Etherton, who was deeply involved in the church’s effort to discover the community’s needs and discern how best to meet them.

“It had to be grounded in that spiritual sense of, How is God calling us to be? What can we do, not for people really, but with people? How can we be in relationship with the community by doing something bold and courageous?”

How might your programs and outreach change if they were done with people rather than for people?

To that end, church members wandered the streets of Arlington, gathering stories at bus stops, dog parks, farmers markets and coffee shops. They heard repeated concerns about the loss of community and the high cost of housing — how servers, teachers, cashiers and first responders could no longer afford to live where they worked.

The congregation decided to join forces with the nonprofit Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, which shepherded the church through difficult conversations with its neighbors — and plenty of its own members — as well as negotiations with the local presbytery and the county. The organization then bought the land and constructed a six-story building where the church once stood, with five floors of affordable housing above retail space on the first floor.

Nina Janopaul, APAH’s president and CEO, estimates that more than 400 people have made Gilliam Place their home since it opened in August 2019. Hundreds more remain on a waiting list.

The exterior of Gilliam Place.

Have you ever wandered the streets of your community with the only purpose being to listen and learn?

It’s hard to overstate the need for dedicated affordable housing, Janopaul said. Between 2000 and 2017, Arlington lost nearly 85% of its market-rate affordable housing units, largely because of increasing rent prices.

Nationwide, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there is a shortage of 7.4 million affordable housing units for households living at or below 50% of an area’s median income. In the Washington, D.C., region, that was about $121,000 for a family of four last year.

But faith communities, many of them longtime property owners, are uniquely positioned to address the crisis and expand their missions, said Janopaul, who also serves on the board of trustees for Virginia Diocesan Homes, a nonprofit affiliated with the Episcopal church that explores ways to provide affordable housing to seniors.

“Rather than getting caught up in ‘How can we salvage a building?’ it could be a really sweet opportunity to think big,” she said.

The entire process for Arlington Presbyterian, according to members, was an exercise in allowing God to reveal their purpose. They now rent space on the first floor of Gilliam Place, but that wasn’t a foregone conclusion. After selling the property to APAH, they gave away hymnals, pews and even the church organ, moved into a temporary worship space, and contemplated whether the congregation should continue to exist.

Susan Etherton (center) attends worship at Arlington Presbyterian. 

“It’s almost like they became curious about death, the curiosity of how to die well, not where do we go after — because honestly we have no idea,” said the Rev. Ashley Goff, who became the pastor at Arlington Presbyterian in July 2018.

What risks might your organization be willing to take for the sake of your neighbors?

Goff, who was previously the minister for spiritual formation at Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., said she was attracted to Arlington Presbyterian by the church’s steady commitment to doing something radical.

“They risked it all for the sake of their neighbors. They took a building, blessed it, broke it and shared it, poured it out. What they did, for me, was very sacramental.”

‘What does this community need us to be?’

In 2008, Arlington Presbyterian celebrated its centennial, ushering in a period of deep reflection, said Jon Etherton, Susan’s husband. While membership had reached about 1,000 in the mid-1950s, that had steadily dropped; by 2008, a typical Sunday saw fewer than 200 worshippers, many of whom were wondering, “What’s next?”

In fall 2009, the church’s governing board — its session — held a retreat to brainstorm possibilities. Selling or leasing its land was among the suggestions the group planned to float at the congregation’s annual meeting. But rough winter weather delayed that meeting by weeks, and by the time it actually happened in late February 2010, members were anxious about the bits and pieces of information that had already dribbled out.

Over the next two and a half years, the church increased its efforts to engage members in the decision-making process, organizing meetings in members’ homes and churchwide retreats where people were invited to share their memories of the congregation and help plot its future.

The resulting consensus, though far from unanimous, was that Arlington Presbyterian should act as if it were a new church in the community, asking itself, “Why are we here? What does this community need us to be?”

With guidance from a coach who specialized in helping congregations become more missional, a vision team from Arlington Presbyterian ventured into the community in pairs to hear the stories of their neighbors. Many of the people they spoke with had grown up in Arlington and still worked there but could no longer afford to live in the community. The team shared its experiences with others in the church.

Music minister Abby Madden leads the congregation in song.

“The response [of the congregation] was, ‘Wow.’ It was compelling,” said Susan Etherton. “We had tears. Hearts were broken open for these people. This was our ‘why.’”

For whom are the hearts of your organization breaking?

Initially, the congregation voted to support a plan to preserve the church building while leasing rights above it for an affordable housing development built by APAH. The National Capital Presbytery, which holds the region’s church land in trust, rejected that proposal in early 2014.

“When the presbytery received it, all they could see was the risk,” Susan Etherton said.

The church was urged to consider instead selling the property outright , a simpler process by far but an emotionally difficult one for many in the congregation, who had married, baptized their children or marked the passing of loved ones within its walls.

“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Jon Etherton said. “A lot of Sundays, I dreaded coming to church.”

The Rev. Karen Chamis, former director of congregational development and mission for the National Capital Presbytery, said she heard from plenty of members who were upset about the sale. But she was struck by the time and effort the congregation had devoted to uncovering the community’s greatest needs — and by its commitment to serving them, even if it meant losing members.

“Their focus was not on preserving themselves, preserving the status quo. Instead, they tried to discover what God was calling them to do in the Arlington area, and that was persuasive,” said Chamis, who now serves with a presbytery in New York.

Congregants join hands during a worship service.

APAH’s Janopaul understood the kind of pressure the church was under, from within and without. In other projects, she had seen firsthand the “natural tension between a church and a neighborhood”; citizens feel entitled to tell a church what it can and can’t do with its property, she said.

At Arlington Presbyterian, APAH encouraged project supporters to counter opposition at public meetings. To further temper concerns, the agency embarked on a public education campaign, explaining the extreme need for affordable housing, offering tours of their other properties and introducing community members to those projects’ residents to “de-escalate the otherness of the equation,” Janopaul said.

The National Capital Presbytery ultimately approved selling the site to APAH for $8.5 million, about 80% of its market value. Since then, the presbytery has established a network to support church-backed affordable housing projects, endorsing one in Washington, D.C., and another in Alexandria. A third proposal from a congregation in Fairfax, Virginia, is in the pipeline.

On June 5, 2016, the Arlington Presbyterian congregation held its last service in its longtime home before moving to temporary space nearby. At that point, there was no guarantee that they would continue to operate as a congregation, Susan Etherton said.

“We really had to stop and say, ‘Are we done? Was this what we were called to do, and it’s done? Or is there more for us here in South Arlington?’” she said.

‘We are who we say we are’

Once again in search of clarity, the congregation took to the streets in pairs. Strolling through their old neighborhood, they noticed a lack of green space. As it turned out, APAH didn’t need all the land it had purchased from the church and was planning to sell a grassy plot at the northeast corner of the property to a single-family home developer.

At Arlington Presbyterian’s request, APAH delayed the sale to see whether the church could generate enough support within the congregation to buy back the land for the full listed price, $700,000, which APAH needed to finish Gilliam Place.

Using proceeds from the original sale, the congregation reclaimed the land, setting up colorful Adirondack chairs beneath a shade tree, hanging bird feeders, building raised garden beds and stringing up a banner with an invitation to passersby: “Sit. Pause. Rest.”

A park occupies part of the property that once belonged to Arlington Presbyterian Church.

How might your organization use its property to offer pause and rest to the community?

Susan Etherton describes the effort as tithing back to the neighborhood that had nourished them for so long. At least monthly, church members began gathering in the tranquil green space to worship.

Securing the land only days before it was scheduled to be sold to a developer felt like a “God moment,” Etherton said, one of many over the years that seemed to point the congregation toward its mission. To continue to care for that land, the congregation decided it needed to move home.

When the Gilliam Place construction was complete, Arlington Presbyterian leased 3,500 square feet on the complex’s ground floor and — more than three years after leaving the property — returned for its first service there on November 17, 2019.

The Rev. Ashley Goff leads a worship service.

On a recent Sunday, about 25 worshippers gathered for a morning service. Seated around the sunny room, they shook tambourines, shaker eggs and maracas as they joined in singing hymns. The space is open and inviting, with a bank of windows down one side, gender-neutral bathrooms, and a wall covered in navy blue Braille wallpaper stamped with words like kindness, compassion, love and courage.

Not everything is brand-new. Two communion cups that sit on a table with the Christ candle were fashioned by a local artist from copper piping and a lightning rod salvaged from the old structure. The copper cross that once graced the church’s spire, felled by the wrecking ball, now leans in a corner, battered, tarnished and green with age, but still striking.

The cross from the original building rests in a corner at the new Arlington Presbyterian space.

Several church members are becoming active on the Gilliam Place intake team, which assesses the needs of new tenants and helps fill the gaps, Jon Etherton said. And there are still plenty of people in South Arlington who could use assistance.

“We can’t sit here and just rest. We’ve got to move forward,” he said. “This is what believers do. This is what people of faith do.”

Chamis said she folds the tale of Arlington Presbyterian into just about every sermon she preaches. Not every congregation can provide affordable housing, she said. But each can be intentional about becoming the hands and feet of Christ in its own community.

“The values of that church never changed. They just communicated them in a new way: ‘We are who we were. But more importantly, we are who we say we are.’”

Connie Madden sings with Manfred Elkana Soughe and Abby Madden (seated at the piano) as a worship service concludes.


Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • How might your programs and outreach change if they were done with people rather than for people?
  • Have you ever wandered the streets of your community with the only purpose being to listen and learn?
  • What risks might your organization be willing to take for the sake of your neighbors?
  • Members of Arlington Presbyterian Church reacted to the impact the lack of affordable housing was having on their neighbors. When you consider the needs in your community, for whom are the hearts of your organization breaking?
  • How might your organization use its property to offer pause and rest to the community?