Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is an approach to community transformationin which those who work for community change do so by working with local leaders rather than delivering services to them or for them. I first learned about this approach while leading a city movement in Muncie, IN in the early 1990’s. Simply defined, ABCD is a way to find and mobilize resources a community already has. This approach is central to transforming communities and became an important part of my DMin at Bakke Graduate University in Transformational Leadership in the Global City. At the end of this post is a 4 minute video of Rev. Andy Sytsma explaining ABCD principles.
Asset Based Community Development is always rooted in a local community and draws on the assets within the community. In this way local knowledge, understanding, gifting and calling is strengthened, so that people are empowered and the community is strengthened. Below is the story of how ABCD principles are being applied through the Old Town Spring Heights Task Force in Spring, TX.
Rev. Andy Sytsma is the pastor of New Life Christian Reformed Church in Spring, TX, a city of 53,000 about 30 miles north of Houston. The older part of Spring grew up along the railroad that still runs through town. The newer portions of this fast growing small city are much more upscale than the older portions of town. Old Town Spring is composed of storefront merchants and a residential community across the tracks that only recently was named, Old Town Spring Heights. This is a community of roughly 600 residents and eighty homes surrounded on three sides by a sub-division. Old Town Spring Heights was established in 1885. The first church was formed in 1902. In the Peaceful Rest Cemetery, former slaves are buried. For many years, it was known by most of the residents of Spring as the community “across the tracks.”
Old Town Spring Heights is:
- Mostly senior citizens raising children, whose parents are not present for a variety of reasons.
- Economically challenged.
- 80% African American with the rest being Hispanic and Anglo
- Composed of hard working shop owners, business persons, ranchers, and farmers.
The ABCD effort began when Rev. Sytsma’s predecessor in 2006, Rev. John Medendorp, began prayer walking in Old Town Spring. He decided to cross the tracks to Old Town Spring Heights and quickly became aware of the crack houses, gangs and other issues faced by this community.
One day, while prayer walking, Pastor John connected with Pastor Frank Callaway of True Vine Missionary Baptist Church, a practical-minded former business person. Both sensed the prompting of the Holy Spirit to do something. Together they believed that they could make a difference.
This led to the formation of the Old Town Spring Heights Task Force in 2006 that included the leadership of five churches (2 Methodist, 2 Baptist, and 1 Christian Reformed Church). Today there are seven churches involved in the Task Force, an example of Christian unity in action.
They began their collaboration with activities like prayer walks, days in the park, a monthly worship service on the 3rd Sunday of each month. Church pastors now swap pulpits and the churches have built a sense of unity in mission. On the first Sunday of each month there is an assembly of the residents of the community in which the question is asked, “What do you want to do together?”
The nature of this meeting is like a Home Owners’ Association. Out of these sessions, so far, Old Town Spring Heights has engaged in several community initiatives…
10 benefits from Asset Based Community Development.
- A community garden initiative is now growing fresh fruits and vegetables.
- A New Identity for the Community: the naming of the community as Old Town Spring Heights. The group put up a sign and the identity of the community helped residents begin to dream about what could be.
- Street Lights: The residents asked for street lights and the churches worked with Xcel Energy to put street lights in the community. They held a service called “Jesus is the Light of the World.” At the end of the service, they lit the street lights for the first time.
- Honoring the Past: Peaceful Rest Cemetery had become overgrown through lack of maintenance. The churches got the cemetery designated as a historical landmark. The people of the community now have become stewards of this important and sacred place.
- Seniors Activities: At the local community center, activities for the seniors of the community were begun.
- Police/Community Relations Improved: Criminal and drug issues were addressed by inviting the County Sheriff’s office to have a regular presence in the community. Old Spring Antioch Baptist Church hosted a meeting with local police officers and community residents to improve communications between the community and police.
- Health Initiative: The churches are offering a free health clinic in the community.
- Community Clean up: Heavy trash pick up days.
- Learning Center: A learning center for kids, youth, and adults grew from community initiative.
- Infrastructure: The sewage and water system has been inadequate, so that rains often brought flooding. Engineers from churches are addressing this with county and city authorities to solve the problems.
Last week, David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times (June 30, 2015) titled, The Next Culture War. In his column, Brooks advocated for the kind of work that Christian leaders are quietly engaged with in cities all over America.
Brooks’ focus was on the decline in Christianity in the United States, the smaller share of Evangelicals in the U.S. electorate, and the recent Supreme Court decision supporting gay marriage. He took the opportunity to advocate a significant shift for social conservatives to make from the front lines of the current culture wars to offering collaborative service, social and spiritual capital in their cities and communities.
As Americans, Christians are often conflicted when deeply held moral and ethical positions are overridden by elections and/or court decisions. However, being an American and being a Christian represent two very different identities. Recent decisions on public policies should help Christians understand their cultural context and live counter-culturally.
Brooks wrote, “Consider putting aside, in the current climate, the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution.” The culture war makes people, who should be known for profound love and a commitment to equality and justice, appear to be neither loving nor just.
He writes, “Social conservatives could be the people who help reweave the sinews of society. They already subscribe to a faith built on selfless love. They can serve as examples of commmitment. They are equipped with a vocabulary to distinguish right from wrong, what dignifies and what demeans. They already, but in private, tithe to the poor and nurture the lonely.” He could substitute “Evangelical Christians” for his use of the term “social conservatives.” However, it’s good that he does not, because many of us find our place on the political spectrum to be somewhere between conservatives and liberals, who have become so polemic that sensible public policy seems to get lost in the rhetoric.
Here’s where Christian leaders’ work in cities and David Brooks’ viewpoint dovetail. It’s when he writes, “The defining face of social conservativism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spritutal poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.” I would add, Those are the people who seek the peace and prosperity of their city and offer hope.
When we take an approach that is innovative and collaborative that focuses on “what people care about” in cities and communities, Christians will enter the public square and find they become valued partners. I’ve written a short e-book about how this is already taking place in a number of cities and to offer a method that will give many thousands of people an opportunity to engage in helping every city to become a good city; to move toward city transformation in ways that help repair the fabric of our communities and, as David Brooks writes, “…to serve as messengers of love, dignity, commitment, communion and grace.”
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Alexis Christensen and Ryn Farmer both received their Masters in Social Work from Baylor University in 2012. That year they both went to work for the Waco Community Development Corporation as Community Organizers. Ryn works in the neighborhoods of East Waco and Alexis works in North Waco.
A key quality that makes each of them effective in their asset based community development approach is that they are good listeners. Alexis says, “I have the privilege of hearing the visions and dreams of community members for their neighborhoods and work with them to translate those dreams into reality.”
Each of them are helping connect church volunteers to schools in the neighborhoods they work with. In the 2.5 minute video below, Alexis tells the story of volunteers from Calvary Baptist Church and the families of students in West Avenue Elementary School. Ryn tells how one young girl at J.H. Hines Elementary School was impacted by a volunteer from Pleasant Olive Missionary Baptist Church.
Both are stories of how social indicators are moved by the caring actions of people who put their faith into action. The outcomes are seen in local community development that is transforming communities and creating good cities.
Tonight on All Things Considered, a story that demonstrates how Christians involved in the arts in the second, third, and fourth centuries were brought together with impoverished youth by a visionary priest to restore both the artistic creations and prosperity of this younger generation. Christopher Livesay in his story, “Under the Streets of Naples, A Way Out for Local Kids”, reports on how Don Antonio Loffredo arrived in the rough and tumble Sanita neighborhood of Naples ten years ago and “…found three levels of frescoes, chapels, and cubicles beneath the neighborhood’s trash-strewn streets.”
Don Loffredo began to engage the youth in their teens to help him clean out these early Christian catacombs and reveal the artistic treasures within. In the process, the youth created a thriving business that today employs forty. “Before the the full-scale makeover, roughly 5,000 visitors came per year. Now it’s up to 40,000.”
This is a prime example of how community transformation occurs through asset based community development. This is the missional church at its best. The outcomes in work like this move the social indicators and create good cities.The 5 minute story of community transformation combines an appreciation for the arts and job creation. Click here to listen to this compelling story.
Last week I visited with Rev. Richard Coleman, who serves as the Executive Director for Hope United CDC in North Minneapolis (featured in short video below). Rev. Coleman helped form the Northside Community Response Team (NCRT), a coalition of the leaders of 60 nonprofit organizations and philanthropists who came together shortly after a tornado ripped through North Minneapolis on May 22, 2011. The NCRT mobilized thousands of volunteers to clear debris and help residents. In addition they received and distributed over $677,000 to assist the area and its residents in its recovery.
This was no small task. Of the 7,000 properties in North Minneapolis, 3,700 were damaged by the tornado in an area of the city that is depressed economically. Recently, a report was shared at Hope United’s Bridge of Reconciliation which stated the unemployment rate at 37% in North Minnepolis. In addition 67% of the residents are on some form of public assistance.
Having recovered from the tornado, Hope United and the members of the NCRT have dedicated their organizations to addressing the ongoing economic issues of North Minneapolis through a collective impact approach to jobs called the Workforce Investment Network (WIN). This is a community based collaborative led by the chief executives of Summit Academy OIC, EMERGE, Northpoint Wellness, The Minneapolis Urban League, Urban Homeworks, Community Standards Initiative, and Hope United CDC. The goal of WIN is to reduce public assistance dependency by 25% over the next five years.
This is a powerful example of a faith based organization working in partnership with community organizations around issues they and the community care about. They know the baseline and are working toward agreed upon outcomes using a collective impact strategy.
When Jeremiah wrote his letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, he urged them to make their new city their home (Jeremiah 29:4-7). He wrote that they should:
- Build houses and live in them.
- Plant gardens and eat their produce.
- Get married and have children and encourage your children to do the same.
- Seek the shalom of the city and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity you also will prosper.
This message was for a people who were forced to relocate against their will in the land of their enemy. Yet it is here that Jeremiah calls upon them to “seek the shalom of the city and pray to the Lord on its behalf…”
Over 90% of the world’s nations are experiencing rapid urbanization. My friend, Mac Pier, says that 38% of the global diaspora are landing in American cities. Many of these are trying to make this new land their home.
Recently, I met Patrice Tsague, whose family came from Ghana to Washington, DC when he was 11. Today, he serves as the President and Founder of the Nehemiah Project International Ministries. This is a biblically based training program for fledgling entrepreneurs, small and mid-sized business owners. The Nehemiah Project headquarters are in Portland, OR and they are actively training leaders in 20 cities. Patrice has found that the most important thing that Christians can do to create good cities economically is to unleash the creative and productive potential of entrepreneurs in business.
Patrice and his team teach entrepreneurs, small and mid-size buisness owners the importance of going beyond the triple bottom line to bring eternal kingdom returns as a result of their work. The triple bottom line that many in business are pursuing today include financial returns, investing in people, and stewarding the planet’s resources. As a Christian, Tsague believes that business leaders can exemplify kingdom values and seek the prosperity of communities through local community development where they are based. This is one of many faith based initiatives with outcomes that contribute to city transformation. In the video below, he shares two stories of business people transforming their cities.