The Common Good
November-December 1998

Leaven in the Loaf

by Kevin Clarke | November-December 1998

Bethel New Life creates a place for God's people on Chicago's West Side.

The three men are relaxing in front of a small corner park in Chicago's Garfield Park neighborhood. A fountain sparkles in the bright morning sun of one of those rare, unbeatably beautiful summer mornings that tease Chicagoans into thinking the Midwest winter will never come. The little park makes a strange but pretty and inviting oasis in the otherwise completely urban surroundings, and a handful of children are playing on the park swings behind the men who sit quietly watching the morning pass.

Two of the men are sanitation workers on break; the other has been a community resident since 1963. They sit among two rows of fold-out metal chairs placed directly by the entrance to the park. The chairs and the cooler of Gatorade that accompanies them seem like a nice communal touch to the park setting, but the men explain their presence here is part of a monthlong effort organized by the local alderman's office to keep drug dealers and their customers out of the park so that some actual children can spend some actual playtime in it.

The impeccably maintained park and its drug-dealing inhabitants are just one of the contrasting realities of life in Garfield Park and adjoining West Side Chicago neighborhoods. Rows of charming, barn-roofed, brightly painted single family homes that would not look out of place in Bavaria are cornered by trash-strewn vacant lots. New construction struggles to rise alongside burned-out, barely boarded up greystones that provide refuge for a gamut of unsavory activities. Laughing children push go-carts along streetsides where demure young men wait for the opportunity to make their next drug sale, and working-class families try to find a way to raise their children safely amid the pathologies of poverty that surround them.

This low-tech but effective attempt to reclaim the park isn't Garfield Park's only civic improvement program. About two blocks down the street from the three men are the main offices of Bethel New Life. All the men have heard of Bethel New Life, but two of them offer cynical grunts when asked if they think its remarkably varied development programs were helping turn the neighborhood around. The three men prepare a quick urban litany of unemployment, guns, crime, abandoned properties to explain the neighborhood's decline. "We need homes; we need housingà.But drugs is the first," one says. The others quickly concur. "Drugs and gangs are the worst problems."

"They're out here at 9 in the morning 'til 9 at night selling drugs," Lamont Spokes says, gesturing toward Lake Street, a main traffic artery into Chicago's Loop. "They got their morning clients stopping by on their way to work in the Loop, and they got their evening clients on their way home to the suburbs."

Futility hangs in the air and it seems downright pointless to ask anything else about Bethel New Life. "I think they make a difference in some things," Eugene Warfield, the long-time resident finally adds as if to soften the other men's cynicism. "If it weren't for them things would probably be a lot worse around here."

Warfield shrugs and holds out his hands, gesturing to the streets that surround him. "I've heard good things about them. They're trying to do good work, but there's so many things around us, it's hard to make a difference.àThis neighborhood is so full of problems."

MARY NELSON might wonder if one of the big problems she has had to face and continues to face as executive director of Bethel New Life is that depth of hopelessness. She's heard comments like these many times since she helped start Bethel New Life in 1979. "You're always hovering between 'Boy, we're going to get this done,' and 'Boy, this is a terrible problem and there's nothing we can do about it," she says, adding, "and a vociferous voice will lead you either way.

"The only way you can respond to that kind of thing is to say that the eyes of faith won't label anything as hopeless. God will make a way; God will help us find a way, and then you celebrate the victories and you mourn the losses and you move forward."

Nelson first began moving forward soon after she arrived on the West Side of Chicago in 1965. Her brother David Nelson had become pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in a community then of German and other European ethnics. "Three days after we got here there were riots," she says.

"In 1965 this neighborhood was 95 percent white, and in 1967 it was 90 percent black. We had it all: block busting, red liningàthere were National Guard troops in our streets." Nelson describes a cultural cacophony of fear and white flight.

By the time the turbulence exhausted itself, Bethel Lutheran had 35 elderly congregants and not much of a future. The church's image in the neighborhood was beyond poor; it was associated with the German neighbors who had departed so swiftly with the arrival of African Americans on the West Side. David Nelson's job as pastor was interrupted by a brief stint as door-to-door salesman. "He knew that the only way to break into the parish was to go door to door and say, 'How can we help?'" Pastor Nelson brought in black youth groups to sing at church and gradually began winning over his new neighbors as they in turn transformed Bethel Lutheran. By 1979 the congregation had recovered to a membership of 200 (it has 600 members today) and Mary Nelson says, "They call us that Lutheran-Baptist church."

But driving up the parish rolls did little to solve the community's problems. Without financing and insurance to keep housing construction going, the community was losing a rapid war of attrition. In the late 1960s Garfield Park began a 20-year decline that cost the community nearly 40 percent of its housing stock. The evidence of that decline lingers all around the streets of the neighborhood in boarded-up flats, burned out building shells, and the vacant lots that randomly break up house rows throughout the community. "The banks weren't giving out loans, and the city wasn't paying attention," Nelson said. "We looked around and said, 'Man, we better do something about housing or there won't be a neighborhood left to be a church in.' So with no money and no plan of action, we felt called by God to try and do housing."

Bethel New Life's work began small. "People put in $100 and after a while we got $5,000 togetherà.By God's grace we were finally going to do something we could see."

MARCIA TURNER IS a public relations specialist for Bethel New Life. Turner seems to enjoy showing off the agency's various success stories. In a morning tour of the West Side neighborhood where the program makes its home, she'll guide you through Garfield Park's streets and boulevards to the new buildings Bethel New Life is constructing and the forlorn shells of greystones the church is rehabilitating, to its senior day care facility, to its preschool program, and to the cultural center it is putting together. One stop is a row of townhouses already constructed and a big hole in a corner lot where workers prepare to pour concrete for the foundations of what will be another row of affordable housing. Adjacent to the work site is another row of housing being rehabbed by Bethel. The buildings, Turner says, had been abandoned and dilapidated eyesores for more than 10 years. "After a while, [buildings like that] just become commonplace; they're just there."

Bethel New Life began as an effort to rebuild the community's housing stock, but in doing that work it soon became clear that what the community really needed to build was not just more housing but sustainability. It had to become a housing agency whose real investment was in the people of Chicago's Garfield Park and Austin neighborhoods. Before long Bethel New Life transformed itself into an engine of comprehensive community development through a variety of programs in education, employment, transitional living for people who were homeless, health care, job-skills training, and senior and child care. Bethel even runs an "incubation" program to help local entrepreneurs get their ideas or new businesses safely off the ground.

Turner is herself something of an embodiment of Bethel's success. She is one of the 330 or so people, mostly residents of the immediate community, who have found employment through Bethel. The agency is one of the neighborhood's largest job providers. "Everything we do is geared toward community development and creating jobs," says Turner. That focus has meant turning neighborhood liabilities into opportunities. Most of the housing in Garfield Park and Austin was constructed at the turn of the century, and peeling lead paint has been a threat to children. Bethel put together a lead-abatement program that provided skills and jobs to community residents while it resolved a persistent health threat. Transforming the area's "brownfields"ùcontaminated one-time manufacturing sitesùinto properties that can be safely developed has become a similar opportunity to build something positive out of a community problem.

Turner's last stop is Bethel's latest and proudest achievement, the Beth-Anne Community Center, which is being built within the compound of what had been St. Anne's Hospital. When the project is completed it will include assisted living for elderly residents, expanded preschool and child care, and a performing arts center in what had been the St. Anne Chapel. The closing of the hospital had been one of the greatest symbols of the neighborhood's decline. When Bethel New Life announced plans to purchase and transform the shut-down facility, Nelson saw a headline in a local magazine that read: "This will take a miracle." Nelson is already making plans to invite the periodical's editors out to Garfield Park for opening day when the first phase of the $10 million project is complete next spring.

Nelson says that "four G's" help keep Bethel New Life going:

Glue "that helps us stay together out of our faith when ageism, racism, sexism, or anything else tries to pull us apart. We can argue all we want, then get down on our knees and pray together. God reminds us of the vision of Christian community."

Gasoline: For Nelson, Sunday liturgy together is a "refueling" stop so that the community remembers that "despite setbacksàGod is going to bring us through."

Guts helps in making the tough decisions and, particularly in the face of government bureaucracy, to make things work. "When we didn't have the collateral [to begin our housing program], we struggled and pushed and prodded and finally we agreed to mortgage the church buildings. It was risking the only thing we had."

Grace: "This work can't be bleary-eyed; you have to have the hard skills to accomplish it, but it is faith that drives us. You have to have a vision that this good news can be an outpouring of God's grace in terms of peoples' lives and in terms of sustainable living."

Nelson has been working on this vision for almost 20 years and has no idea when her work will be finished, if her work will ever be finished. "The point is this is home. There's a major difference between a community development organization and a social service agency." The social service agency, she explains, can pack up and leave when the "problem" it has been sent to fix has been resolved. As a community development organization, Bethel New Life's role evolves and changes with the needs of the community, but it never "finishes" its work. Right now, Nelson and the other resident members and supporters of Bethel New Life are trying to work out the best ways to address the drugs and violence that have become the latest "job" for the West Side to take on.

"All the things we are doing [in Bethel New Life] is just neighborhood residents doing things together. We're trying to be the leaven in the loaf, to be the hope. What needs to happen may change from time to time, but there's always a place for God's people in community together."

Who knows what the three men at the park would make of Nelson's vision of community? Would hearing it assuage their hopelessness a little, motivate them? Would it help just a bit if they knew that the pretty little park they were protecting one sunny morning in Chicago was also one of the small successes Bethel New Life had managed in this "hopeless" community?

KEVIN CLARKE is managing editor of online products for Claretian Publications and social issues and public life editor for U.S. Catholic in Chicago.

The three men are relaxing in front of a small corner park in Chicago's Garfield Park neighborhood. A fountain sparkles in the bright morning sun of one of those rare, unbeatably beautiful summer mornings that tease Chicagoans into thinking the Midwest winter will never come. The little park makes a strange but pretty and inviting oasis in the otherwise completely urban surroundings, and a handful of children are playing on the park swings behind the men who sit quietly watching the morning pass.

Two of the men are sanitation workers on break; the other has been a community resident since 1963. They sit among two rows of fold-out metal chairs placed directly by the entrance to the park. The chairs and the cooler of Gatorade that accompanies them seem like a nice communal touch to the park setting, but the men explain their presence here is part of a monthlong effort organized by the local alderman's office to keep drug dealers and their customers out of the park so that some actual children can spend some actual playtime in it.

The impeccably maintained park and its drug-dealing inhabitants are just one of the contrasting realities of life in Garfield Park and adjoining West Side Chicago neighborhoods. Rows of charming, barn-roofed, brightly painted sin-

gle family homes that would not look out of place in Bavaria are cornered by trash-strewn vacant lots. New construction struggles to rise alongside burned-out, barely boarded up greystones that provide refuge for a gamut of unsavory activities. Laughing children push go-carts along streetsides where demure young men wait for the opportunity to make their next drug sale, and working-class families try to find a way to raise their children safely amid the pathologies of poverty that surround them.

This low-tech but effective attempt to reclaim the park isn't Garfield Park's only civic improvement program. About two blocks down the street from the three men are the main offices of Bethel New Life. All the men have heard of Bethel New Life, but two of them offer cynical grunts when asked if they think its remarkably varied development programs were helping turn the neighborhood around. The three men prepare a quick urban litany of unemployment, guns, crime, abandoned properties to explain the neighborhood's decline. "We need homes; we need housingà.But drugs is the first," one says. The others quickly concur. "Drugs and gangs are the worst problems."

"They're out here at 9 in the morning 'til 9 at night selling drugs," Lamont Spokes says, gesturing toward Lake Street, a main traffic artery into Chicago's Loop. "They got their morning clients stopping by on their way to work in the Loop, and they got their evening clients on their way home to the suburbs."

Futility hangs in the air and it seems downright pointless to ask anything else about Bethel New Life. "I think they make a difference in some things," Eugene Warfield, the long-time resident finally adds as if to soften the other men's cynicism. "If it weren't for them things would probably be a lot worse around here."

Warfield shrugs and holds out his hands, gesturing to the streets that surround him. "I've heard good things about them. They're trying to do good work, but there's so many things around us, it's hard to make a difference.àThis neighborhood is so full of problems."

MARY NELSON might wonder if one of the big problems she has had to face and continues to face as executive director of Bethel New Life is that depth of hopelessness. She's heard comments like these many times since she helped start Bethel New Life in 1979. "You're always hovering between 'Boy, we're going to get this done,' and 'Boy, this is a terrible problem and there's nothing we can do about it," she says, adding, "and a vociferous voice will lead you either way.

"The only way you can respond to that kind of thing is to say that the eyes of faith won't label anything as hopeless. God will make a way; God will help us find a way, and then you celebrate the victories and you mourn the losses and you move forward."

Nelson first began moving forward soon after she arrived on the West Side of Chicago in 1965. Her brother David Nelson had become pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in a community then of German and other European ethnics. "Three days after we got here there were riots," she says.

"In 1965 this neighborhood was 95 percent white, and in 1967 it was 90 percent black. We had it all: block busting, red liningàthere were National Guard troops in our streets." Nelson describes a cultural cacophony of fear and white flight.

By the time the turbulence exhausted itself, Bethel Lutheran had 35 elderly congregants and not much of a future. The church's image in the neighborhood was beyond poor; it was associated with the German neighbors who had departed so swiftly with the arrival of African Americans on the West Side. David Nelson's job as pastor was interrupted by a brief stint as door-to-door salesman. "He knew that the only way to break into the parish was to go door to door and say, 'How can we help?'" Pastor Nelson brought in black youth groups to sing at church and gradually began winning over his new neighbors as they in turn transformed Bethel Lutheran. By 1979 the congregation had recovered to a membership of 200 (it has 600 members today) and Mary Nelson says, "They call us that Lutheran-Baptist church."

But driving up the parish rolls did little to solve the community's problems. Without financing and insurance to keep housing construction going, the community was losing a rapid war of attrition. In the late 1960s Garfield Park began a 20-year decline that cost the community nearly 40 percent of its housing stock. The evidence of that decline lingers all around the streets of the neighborhood in boarded-up flats, burned out building shells, and the vacant lots that randomly break up house rows throughout the community. "The banks weren't giving out loans, and the city wasn't paying attention," Nelson said. "We looked around and said, 'Man, we better do something about housing or there won't be a neighborhood left to be a church in.' So with no money and no plan of action, we felt called by God to try and do housing."

Bethel New Life's work began small. "People put in $100 and after a while we got $5,000 togetherà.By God's grace we were finally going to do something we could see."

MARCIA TURNER IS a public relations specialist for Bethel New Life. Turner seems to enjoy showing off the agency's various success stories. In a morning tour of the West Side neighborhood where the program makes its home, she'll guide you through Garfield Park's streets and boulevards to the new buildings Bethel New Life is constructing and the forlorn shells of greystones the church is rehabilitating, to its senior day care facility, to its preschool program, and to the cultural center it is putting together. One stop is a row of townhouses already constructed and a big hole in a corner lot where workers prepare to pour concrete for the foundations of what will be another row of affordable housing. Adjacent to the work site is another row of housing being rehabbed by Bethel. The buildings, Turner says, had been abandoned and dilapidated eyesores for more than 10 years. "After a while, [buildings like that] just become commonplace; they're just there."

Bethel New Life began as an effort to rebuild the community's housing stock, but in doing that work it soon became clear that what the community really needed to build was not just more housing but sustainability. It had to become a housing agency whose real investment was in the people of Chicago's Garfield Park and Austin neighborhoods. Before long Bethel New Life transformed itself into an engine of comprehensive community development through a variety of programs in education, employment, transitional living for people who were homeless, health care, job-skills training, and senior and child care. Bethel even runs an "incubation" program to help local entrepreneurs get their ideas or new businesses safely off the ground.

Turner is herself something of an embodiment of Bethel's success. She is one of the 330 or so people, mostly residents of the immediate community, who have found employment through Bethel. The agency is one of the neighborhood's largest job providers. "Everything we do is geared toward community development and creating jobs," says Turner. That focus has meant turning neighborhood liabilities into opportunities. Most of the housing in Garfield Park and Austin was constructed at the turn of the century, and peeling lead paint has been a threat to children. Bethel put together a lead-abatement program that provided skills and jobs to community residents while it resolved a persistent health threat. Transforming the area's "brownfields"ùcontaminated one-time manufacturing sitesùinto properties that can be safely developed has become a similar opportunity to build something positive out of a community problem.

Turner's last stop is Bethel's latest and proudest achievement, the Beth-Anne Community Center, which is being built within the compound of what had been St. Anne's Hospital. When the project is completed it will include assisted living for elderly residents, expanded preschool and child care, and a performing arts center in what had been the St. Anne Chapel. The closing of the hospital had been one of the greatest symbols of the neighborhood's decline. When Bethel New Life announced plans to purchase and transform the shut-down facility, Nelson saw a headline in a local magazine that read: "This will take a miracle." Nelson is already making plans to invite the periodical's editors out to Garfield Park for opening day when the first phase of the $10 million project is complete next spring.

Nelson says that "four G's" help keep Bethel New Life going:

Glue "that helps us stay together out of our faith when ageism, racism, sexism, or anything else tries to pull us apart. We can argue all we want, then get down on our knees and pray together. God reminds us of the vision of Christian community."

Gasoline: For Nelson, Sunday liturgy together is a "refueling" stop so that the community remembers that "despite setbacksàGod is going to bring us through."

Guts helps in making the tough decisions and, particularly in the face of government bureaucracy, to make things work. "When we didn't have the collateral [to begin our housing program], we struggled and pushed and prodded and finally we agreed to mortgage the church buildings. It was risking the only thing we had."

Grace: "This work can't be bleary-eyed; you have to have the hard skills to accomplish it, but it is faith that drives us. You have to have a vision that this good news can be an outpouring of God's grace in terms of peoples' lives and in terms of sustainable living."

Nelson has been working on this vision for almost 20 years and has no idea when her work will be finished, if her work will ever be finished. "The point is this is home. There's a major difference between a community development organization and a social service agency." The social service agency, she explains, can pack up and leave when the "problem" it has been sent to fix has been resolved. As a community development organization, Bethel New Life's role evolves and changes with the needs of the community, but it never "finishes" its work. Right now, Nelson and the other resident members and supporters of Bethel New Life are trying to work out the best ways to address the drugs and violence that have become the latest "job" for the West Side to take on.

"All the things we are doing [in Bethel New Life] is just neighborhood residents doing things together. We're trying to be the leaven in the loaf, to be the hope. What needs to happen may change from time to time, but there's always a place for God's people in community together."

Who knows what the three men at the park would make of Nelson's vision of community? Would hearing it assuage their hopelessness a little, motivate them? Would it help just a bit if they knew that the pretty little park they were protecting one sunny morning in Chicago was also one of the small successes Bethel New Life had managed in this "hopeless" community?

KEVIN CLARKE is managing editor of online products for Claretian Publications and social issues and public life editor for U.S. Catholic in Chicago.

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