So far in this series we’ve taken a look at what Christian community development is, emphasizing the so-called “three Rs”: relocation, reconciliation and redistribution. We have also considered the marks of an authentic church, the kind of church that would make Christian community development possible.
Now we turn to the important role of the urban environment that many find themselves in. Perkins says that over the years he has learned that “it is difficult to be salt and light if we ignore the concrete realities of people’s environment.” So what are some of the important factors at play in underdeveloped urban contexts? And what can be done to enrich communities in each of these ways, so that development is possible? Before we take a look at eight factors, Perkins advises us to remember that “local leadership is the most important sign that long-term community development is taking place.”
1. Dignity. Theologically, it is true to say that all of us have equal dignity because all of us are made in the image of God. But generational patterns of dehumanization (whether from the outside or within) can convince the rich and poor alike that some are more dignified than others. By encouraging a healthy sense of pride in one’s cultural and even ethnic background — all in the context of who we are in the eyes of God — and by emphasizing the importance of the place in which one lives, dignity can slowly be restored.
2. Power. The urban poor experience powerlessness in many ways, often unrecognizable to the wealthy and middle classes, and certainly beyond much of our understanding. It’s not surprising that many poor people are suspicious of those with power, because it has so often served them so negatively. Perkins does not suggest a combative response to those with power, but rather collaboration for the sake of the powerless. Power can be life-giving when it’s in the right hands.
3. Education. The crisis is two-sided: the quality of education available in inner cities is generally terrible, and people in inner cities are increasingly not seeing the value in education. Which causes which is hard to say, but it’s a real crisis with real ramifications. Perkins promotes the incalculable value of after-school tutoring as well as encouraging teachers and parents to hear from each other. This would be a start in circumstances far from ideal.
4. Employment. Unemployment rates are often highest among the urban poor, and while some people find themselves in poverty after losing a job, the chronically poor are unemployed primarily because they are unprepared. Small businesses and social enterprises in poor urban areas are crucial in creating employment for those ready and eager to work but unable to find it, and fostering an entrepreneurial environment where more will be inclined to do what it takes to land steady, fulfilling work.
5. Health. You and I inherently understand the sky-high costs of health care, which is why the benefits package that comes with a potential job is a significant consideration. For the reasons above and more, health problems that would be inconveniences for us in fact constitute crises for the urban poor. Many Christian community development organizations start health clinics to fill this gap, often depending on volunteers from the medical profession as well as donations, offset a bit by modest fees charged to patients.
6. Security. Poor urban areas are notoriously dangerous, and many residents would argue that the police have done more to hinder security in some cases than to protect them. Racial profiling is real, and even for the city police departments and officers with the best intentions, budgets are often so tight they are prohibited from timely responses in the worst areas. Neighborhood crime watches and other community coalitions can go a long way, Perkins says, but ultimately what matters is developing the next generation and exposing them to non-destructive alternatives.
7. Recreation. There’s far more to life than work, and many of us underestimate the importance of rest, exercise and fun. Whereas busyness may keep us from these things, urban environments are often loud, chaotic and tense. Whether it’s basketball or Girl Scouts, giving kids and teenagers healthy ways to spend their time could pay enormous dividends.
8. Beauty. If what we want for ourselves and for the urban poor isn’t just more money or more stuff but abundant life, we need to consider the importance of aesthetics. Many poor neighborhoods don’t have a lot of green space, and the arts are often neglected. Community gardens that relieve neighborhoods of the eyesores of empty lots and invite neighborhood participation are one idea. Programs giving kids the opportunity to explore the arts like painting, music, and acting can help kids and adults alike recognize the beauty that already exists and the capacity they have to be creators.
This list certainly isn’t intended to be exhaustive. What else would you add?