Working for the Economic Flourishing of our Places

How Churches Can Engage in Economic Development of their Communities
East Washington Street Partnership
Image via East Washington Street Partnership

I was delighted to be at the Wild Goose Festival last weekend in the scenic mountains of western North Carolina. Although there were tons of excellent speakers and wonderful music from bands like Gungor, one session stood out to me: a panel conversation on Neighborhood Economics with Tim Soerens, Rosa Lee Harden, and Kevin Jones. Tim Soerens is one of the co-authors of The New Parish. Kevin Jones is the co-founder of the renowned SOCAP conference, a gathering of “heart-centered investors, entrepreneurs, and social impact leaders who believe in an inclusive and socially responsible economy to address the world’s toughest challenges.” Rosa Lee Harden is the executive producer of both SOCAP and Wild Goose. Harden, Jones, and Soerens work together to coordinate the Neighborhood Economics conference, which will be held in Cincinnati this November.

One comment that was driven home by this panel was that churches should be involved in the work of economic development in their particular places. Economic development, for those who might not be familiar with the term, is “the sustained, concerted actions of policy makers and communities that promote the standard of living and economic health of a specific area.” (Wikipedia) This idea that churches should be doing this kind of work resonated with me, as Englewood Christian Church, my church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, has been engaged in economic development for over a decade. We didn’t set out to do economic development, but stumbled into it as a result of seeking to be faithful in our neighborhood and to bear witness to the healing and flourishing that God intends for all places. This work began on a very small scale, almost 20 years, ago with church-based businesses (a daycare/ pre-school and a community development corporation) that created a few jobs for some church members and neighbors. As we continued in the work of caring for young children and of creating affordable housing, we found ourselves drawn deeper into the economic development of our neighborhood. Our daycare grew to recognize the importance of an economically diverse student body and the importance of early childhood education for the economic vitality of a place. As our work in affordable housing grew and expanded, we came to realize that in order to sustain their housing, many of our neighbors would need jobs that – despite the handful of jobs that our church businesses created – were sorely lacking in our neighborhood.

In addition to affordable housing and early childhood education, we had other members in our congregation who were engaged in the food economy of our neighborhood, working for instance alongside neighbors to launch Indianapolis’s first food-coop. More recently, we have taken on the role of coordinating economic development along the East Washington Street corridor, a section of the historic Old National Road that stretches for about 3 miles from the east edge of downtown to just past our Englewood neighborhood. Over 60 percent of the properties along this corridor are vacant or underutilized. We’ve helped a few of small businesses get started in buildings along East Washington Street, including a tamale shop and Puerto Rican coffee-shop in our neighborhood.

We’ve also worked with larger corporations, enticing them to expand or relocate to a space in this corridor. One of our newest and most exciting ventures is collaborating with a hyrdroponic agriculture corporation to begin their Indiana operations in a warehouse in this corridor (and two blocks from our church building).

Over the last quarter century, groups like CCDA have challenged churches to be involved in community development, but there has been significantly less conversation about churches entering into the work of economic development. To do economic development well requires cultivating a wide range of collaborations – with government, corporations large and small, funders, non-profits, etc. – which is not only a slow, complicated, and intense work, but one that might raise theological red flags from many churches. I would challenge churches that might be uneasy about these sorts of collaborations to consider the image of the church in Ephesians 3, bearing witness of God’s wisdom to the powers and authorities. How better to bear witness than in relationships that focus on the health and flourishing of our neighborhoods?

The work of economic development is challenging. We had been working for about a year, for instance, on a deal with a large corporation to expand its operations on East Washington Street, and that deal fell through earlier this year. Challenging or not, this work is inescapable if we are to bear witness to God’s transformation. If our churches are going to be involved in the transformation of our places, we will need to roll up our sleeves and join our neighbors in working for the economic flourishing of our places. This work will vary across different kinds of places, urban, suburban, rural, or somewhere in between, but everywhere there is work to be done. Churches are ideally suited for this kind of work because our call is to seek the health and flourishing of all people and all creation.

C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books and co-author of Slow ChurchHis next book is Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (IVP Books, July 2016).

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