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An unsung ministry quietly changes lives

Self-Development of People celebrates 50 years of helping others be the best they can be

By Rich Copley | Presbyterians Today

Zenaba Bello (left), a refugee from Central African Republic, shows SDOP staff member Clara Nunez some of the baked goods at Just Bakery in Atlanta. Rich Copley

Last November, when they gathered in a park near downtown Detroit, folks from the Dexter-Linwood Cordon neighborhood could see spring. They could see a butterfly garden, kids getting lost in a black-eyed Susan maze, people relaxing in a gazebo and gathering fresh vegetables in a garden. They could see a new season filled with hope for a Detroit block that had seen better days.

Once lined with more than 20 houses, the block now has only two habitable houses. Some were lost to decline and neglect, others to violence such as fire bombing. But with support from the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP), this community is working to create revival.

“If it doesn’t happen, what’s going to happen to the neighborhood?” asked neighborhood resident Ron Matten. Matten belongs to the community group Demographic Inspirations, which is working to turn the block into a multifaceted community gathering area. The project is supported in part by a grant from SDOP, a ministry that supports community-generated and -led projects.

“There’s a lot of people who have been here for years,” Matten said. “We’re trying to create that aesthetic view, so they can say the neighborhood’s getting better.”

Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, another member of the project team, acknowledged that there are a lot of “vacant spaces in our communities.”

“How do you develop it into something beautiful? How do you develop it into something that is environmentally sustainable, that will give back and impact not just the space but the people?” she asked. “This [park] is visionary. This is pointing toward the future of the community.”

Improving lives for 50 years

As SDOP looks to the future, it is also celebrating its past. This year, SDOP is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The ministry was conceived in the late 1960s and early ’70s as the church’s unique response to poverty and racism in the United States and around the world.

From the beginning of the ministry, the term “self-development” was key. In 1970 the 182nd General Assembly of the then-United Presbyterian Church called for creation of a program to assist “deprived, impoverished or handicapped people, anywhere in the world, in their development,” according to the book “From Dream to Reality: A Contextual History of Twenty Years of the Presbyterian Self-Development Program” by James A. Gittings.

Gittings’ book, which was published in 1993, details the formation of SDOP, along with trials and triumphs during its first 20 years. Since its inception, SDOP has been supported by the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering, and each year a Sunday during Lent is designated Self-Development of People Sunday. This year, that is March 15, and the ministry is creating a special edition of its annual SDOP Sunday resource, which details many of the programs SDOP supports. The resource also includes worship materials related to combating poverty and racism.

“One of the powerful things about Self-Development of People that is really noteworthy is that it has been a ministry that teaches the church about the intersectional issues of poverty,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of SDOP. “And we do that because our teachers are the community. Our teachers are the projects that we fund and the connections we make in the community. And that’s something that’s incredibly, powerfully relevant about this … that we hear from the communities.”

Helping communities organize

As it enters its sixth decade, the program remains close to its original concept: SDOP invites people in communities impacted by poverty to apply for grants, telling SDOP how they will use the funds to improve the community and what the expected benefit of the project will be to the community. SDOP does not fund organizations. Rather, it wants people in communities to organize, though an organization often will act as the fiduciary agent of the grants, which can be as high as $25,000.

That approach was a new concept for participants in an SDOP grant-writing workshop in Atlanta in September, many of whom seemed to expect a more typical model of organizations receiving funds and then setting up programs for a community.

“I have not heard of anyone funding like this before,” said Tonisha Corporal, program manager for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. “A lot of the time people tell you they think they know what’s best for you.” That’s not the case with SDOP, she said. “They want the people being served to control the project.”

The workshop was conducted by members of the SDOP national committee, which meets throughout the year to discuss potential grantees and to explore issues in the areas where the committee meets.

“God’s children should not be unable to be what God intended because of poverty,” Pat Osoinach, a member of SDOP’s national committee, said. “One of the interesting things about [SDOP] is that people develop themselves, and we aid that.”

The national committee is drawn from across the country, with racial, ethnic, gender and geographic diversity in mind. The latter is important as site visits by committee members or local Presbyterian representatives are part of the SDOP application process.

Funding projects

Congregations can work with SDOP through referring people to the group and working with projects it funds. In Lansing, Michigan, for example, First Presbyterian Church provides office space to Advocacy, Reentry, Resources, and Outreach, a group that helps people who have served prison sentences reintegrate into their communities. The program has had three projects funded by SDOP, including one that enabled clients to learn skills needed in construction jobs.

“SDOP has the ability to support groups of people who are trying to better their lives in one way or another, and as an individual congregation, we don’t have funding to be able to provide for those kinds of things,” said Sallie Campbell, director of congregational life and community outreach for First Presbyterian. “So SDOP is a place that we can network with and connect people to, for them to be able to pursue their own objectives and their own goals, without the church necessarily being involved in those goals, but making that introduction and connecting local people to SDOP so that they can advocate for their own peace and justice issues.”

Lansing is just 1½ hours northwest of Detroit, and that region is a microcosm of the work that SDOP has done. It is also home to an active local SDOP committee.

Local SDOP committees are based in synods and presbyteries and make grants at the local level.

“It’s important for groups to be validated and given resources that will help them to improve their lives,” said Kayla Perrin, a member of the Detroit SDOP committee. “It’s a way to make sure the ones that are in the most need are the ones getting the help.”

Detroit is home to a group that got a big boost from an early SDOP grant.

We the People of Detroit initially launched as a short-term effort to help provide water to people during a city water crisis. It has since grown into a well-established water advocacy organization, and directors say an early SDOP grant was key to establishing the organization.

“If not for SDOP, we don’t know where we would have been in terms of the work that was so critical to the citizens here,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO of We the People.

SDOP’s work has crossed borders too, with significant projects in Africa, Central and South America and other regions.

As 2020 unfolds, SDOP plans to commemorate its 50-year legacy with an anniversary celebration Sept. 18–20 in Rochester, New York, where the ministry was launched.

To Phyllis Edwards, a national committee member from Detroit, SDOP will continue to play a vital role in the next half century as society is transformed by factors such as automation and climate change.

“Organizations like SDOP — as an outlet for people to decide how they can build their wealth in an ever-changing world —are a necessity,” she said.

Johnson sees the ministry in line with the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 invitation goals of addressing structural racism and systemic poverty.

“The 50th year is about celebration, but it’s also about education,” Johnson said. “And it’s about connecting with our SDOP folks who’ve been involved in this ministry for a long time, but also creating awareness for the church for a new generation to take hold and understand the great and continuous work that has yet to be done.”

Rich Copley is a communications strategist in the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Support Self-Development of People and help transform the lives of people through gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.


Learn more

Visit pcusa.org/sdop to find out more about the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, including:

  • How to get involved in SDOP
  • Grant criteria and how to apply
  • SDOP Sunday (March 15) and the Sunday resource
  • Videos about SDOP work
  • 50th anniversary celebration plans

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