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Union Presbyterian Seminary webinar explores programs that work to house people

One PC(USA) pastor: ‘Once it’s tasted, it tastes good and it’s joyful!’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Last week’s webinar hosted by the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation at Union Presbyterian Seminary looked at real-world examples of how faith communities are working to house some of the unhoused people in their community.

A recording of “The Injustice of the Unhoused: Faith-Based Initiatives that Work” can be viewed here. The Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler Jr., who directs the CSJR and is Associate Professor of Bible at the seminary, hosted the panel, which included:

“There are layers of people we don’t catch in a point-in-time report [which counts a community’s homeless population],” Wherry said. For faith-based communities to help develop affordable housing, “the space is exceedingly complicated. You need to understand the landscape of your own community.”

Wherry said Mayfield leaders actually interviewed prospective developers of affordable housing until “we found one enamored with the vision that God gave us.”

“Just like good preaching,” he said, “all affordable housing is contextually conditioned. Put together a good group of people,” he advised. “It also pays to pray a lot and the Lord will send you good friends.” Among those for Wherry is Henderson, who leads a congregation that has embarked in several affordable housing projects.

The Rev. Dr. Bob Henderson

“The source of any success we have enjoyed is we have surrounded ourselves with people who are smarter than us,” Henderson said. Covenant Presbyterian Church uses seven guiding principles when embarking on affordable housing projects:

  • “We want it always to support a bold vision,” he said.
  • “We want to have our resources affect the most people.”
  • Children are prioritized.
  • “We want to target a corridor so we can get energy and momentum to create safety and community rather than have a patchwork all over the city.”
  • “We want to foster congregational engagement so it creates relationships.”
  • “We want to leverage our resources.”
  • “We want to hit a certain Area Median Income,” which in Covenant’s case is for those making 80% or less.

Almost every project that Covenant has worked on “has involved collaboration,” Henderson noted. The first was the purchase of a small condominium complex in the neighborhood. Another involved construction of 185 apartment units in what became a $31.8 million project with multiple funding sources, including tax credits. The congregation has also partnered with Habitat for Humanity, helping to purchase a 30-acre tract of land and sending crews over to help build.

“What I’ve learned is these deals work when there’s someone who’s a catalyzer,” he said. “Many times, we have sent out a [request for proposals] that says, ‘We want to do something. Here’s the money we have. Bring us your best idea.’ We serve as catalyzer and then collaborate with others.”

The Rev. Finny Mathew

Asked by Sadler what Scripture or Reformed theology has helped spark their enthusiasm for providing affordable housing, Mathew said it’s “looking at the Book of Acts and seeing what our responsibility as a church is. The body of Christ made sure it met the needs of the community.”

“This is an opportunity for everyone who is on this call. You wouldn’t be here unless you truly care. Trust that God is going to open up the door,” Mathew said. “We are all here to assist in any way we can. We have plenty of scars we can show you, but we’re not going to stop because the love of Christ is pulling us to do this.”

“In our context, I saw a lot of financial resources. A lot of our congregation is well-suited, financially,” Henderson said. “I find people want to make a difference. They want to do something with their resources and their talent. I feel like I am doing them the favor of helping them live into who God created them to be by inviting them into this world of ‘blessed to be a blessing’ and abundance and sharing. Once people catch that vision of living for something larger than themselves, it is magnetic and inviting and life-giving.”

“It’s really God’s design on human life,” Henderson said. “Once it’s tasted, it tastes good — and it’s joyful!”

He said he’s also driven by a verse from the prophet Isaiah: “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!”

The Rev. Dr. Peter Wherry

“There’s just a lot of that going on in our society, and we’re participating in it,” Henderson said. “It’s hard to live anywhere near your workplace here [in Charlotte]. There’s an isolation and a sadness to that and a poverty to community about that. I think we need to hurry up and think about how we deal with that.”

Wherry praised Henderson and Covenant “for really living into this [ministry]” and added, “When a vision is presented cogently and urgently, then one does not have to beg. I used to say, ‘God wants this done.’ I believe that, and you can invite people into a vision that’s real and that people can see. They will come. Invite people into the vision. That’s the most compelling thing.”

Sadler asked Segal to comment on the racial aspect of the half-million or so Americans living without housing on any given night.

Joel Segal

“A majority are African American, disproportionately,” Segal said. “I ran shelters for many years, and I saw it myself. This is institutionalized racism, and it’s something none of us should accept.” As one heads west, “you will see more Hispanic and more Native Americans” who are without homes, he said. “It’s disproportionately people of color.”

Segal said he believes a national summit should be held “where people can learn from those already doing the work who have successful models. I think this is really about information sharing. There has to be sharing of knowledge so people can replicate it around their communities.”

The Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler Jr.

“We have money for everything else except for our own people,” Mathew said. “Working together works. With more of this kind of conversation, it’ll make that a reality.”

Asked to name something faith communities can do right away, Henderson offered up a four-part idea: “Cast the vision, cultivate it in your congregation, commit to it as a body and celebrate it when you accomplish it.”

Or, as Wherry put it: “Study the issue deeply enough to understand it, cultivate it with concentric circles in the congregation, then cast that vision in a compelling way so people give to the vision and not to a crisis.”

“We can’t house everyone in a church-owned space,” Sadler said. “But this is a significant work that you’re doing to help many people who find themselves in desperate need. Praise God for you all!”

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