THE IMPORTANCE OF ENGAGING BEYOND YOUR USUAL CIRCLE
Finding a Connection Point
By: Dawn Bormann Novascone
When Kansas City Oasis, a nonreligious fellowship, first partnered with a religious organization to serve meals to the needy, some Oasis members expressed concern that their secular group could become fractured.
Would the separate factions find shared connections? Would they breach one another’s beliefs or boundaries?
These days that concern is hard to remember. The religious group – Micah Ministry – and KC Oasis are partners. Members from both groups happily stand alongside one another to serve dinner every Monday to more than 500 needy Kansas Citians. Micah Ministry, an ecumenical outreach effort to the urban poor out of Independence Boulevard Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, has been invited to speak twice at Oasis’ secular Sunday gatherings.
The partnership is testament to the leadership skill of engaging with unusual voices, an important aspect of being able to energize others through leadership. The religious and nonreligious can often represent unusual – even discordant – voices to each other. By connecting around a shared goal of improving the community, they have found ways to work together despite their very different beliefs.
“We talk about the things we have in common,” says Helen Stringer, who founded and directs KC Oasis. “We do happily partner with a wonderful organization that shares our same hope to actually make a real difference in KC.”
Sharon S. Cantrell, a pastor and social worker who helps coordinate Micah Ministry, says the program is another way for their pastor, the Rev. Lee Chiaramonte, to fulfill their mission.
On a recent night, volunteers came from a Catholic and a public school. There were also volunteers from American Sign Language and kindness clubs. A woman wearing a hijab worked alongside Jewish and atheist volunteers. There is no litmus test for volunteering, Cantrell says, just as there is no test for the homeless who come to eat. For Cantrell, the work allows her to practice the gospel. For atheists, they are acting out their humanity, she says.
“We all have the same goal, and that’s to treat others with respect and dignity,” she says. KC Oasis distinguishes itself as an alternative to faith-based communities. It’s not an activist group and accepts those who identify as religious, too. The group offers a multigenerational network for those who are nonreligious or don’t fit in a traditional church.
The civic commitment is especially important, Stringer believes, because so-called religious “nones” – those who identify as atheist, agnostic or with no religious group – account for 23 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. The center found that more than a third of those “nones” are millennials.
“We wanted to provide the same benefits that a lot of people get out of religious communities, and there really isn’t any other way to find it unless you want to go to religious communities,” Stringer says. “Religion kind of holds the monopoly on multigenerational support and connection.”
It’s part of the reason Stringer helped form Oasis. The Kansas City Atheist Coalition had been around for a long time and served a vital purpose to connect the community, too. But Stringer wanted something more.
Stringer, a wife and mother, wanted a place for her family to bond and form regular connections. She wanted to volunteer with a group to make the community a better place. She found a model group and used that to form KC Oasis. The group has evolved into a community with a strong focus on civic engagement. It’s such a high priority for Oasis that it meets every Sunday morning and invites nonprofit agencies and others to talk about their civic work.
It’s not unusual for members – the community averages an attendance of 200 to 250 people each week – to get involved after hearing a speaker. Oasis also has a weekly mobile blood bank set up outside so members can donate.
Stringer has also created an international network called Oasis Network to help guide others in cities across the country.
“Our goal is to figure out how we can live the best life we can and give back as much as we can now that we’ve decided religion isn’t a good fit for us anymore or it was never a good fit,” she says.
Micah Ministry is one outlet for giving back. A volunteer coordinator also helps Oasis members connect with agencies that include, among others, The Whole Person, which assists people with disabilities.
Stringer believes that the group’s members are stronger together as a community. “When you have an entire group of people who are passionate about something, you can really effect change in the world,” she says. “We’re creating a space for that kind of opportunity to develop.”
Stringer points out that Oasis is not anti-religious. The group touts itself a place for “agnostics, humanists, skeptics, atheists, freethinkers, deists, questioning theists and the like.”
“I think for so long we’ve been dividing ourselves rather than finding what we have in common, and working together toward a common good is so much more powerful and effective than just building walls and isolating ourselves,” Stringer says.
At the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, President Joshua Hyde said the group, which is focused on advancing atheism, also volunteers with Micah Ministry, a nonprofit that helps homeless pets get adopted (KC Pet Project), a community food network (Harvesters), a domestic violence shelter (Hope House) and more.
The work is a way to give back but also dispel myths and stigmas about what it means to be an atheist. It also allows atheists to feel more comfortable coming out in their community, philanthropies or jobs.
Hyde says atheists face a lot of misconceptions including that “atheists are just selfish people who disagree with God because they want to be able to sin.” That one still surprises him, but he doesn’t let it bother him.
The work with Micah Ministry began after another religious group turned away the coalition from serving a holiday dinner after a history of working together cooperatively. Chiaramonte heard about it and recruited them to help at Micah Ministry. It initially raised a few eyebrows at Micah Ministry, too, Cantrell says.
“We had one guy who came to us and said, ‘I’m not going to be able to eat. The atheists are serving.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ll miss you,’” Cantrell says.
He’s since returned, she says.
The partnership is strong, Hyde says, because of their ability to set aside differences and focus on their goals.
“We spend so much time around Micah Ministries and people who are glad to have us and don’t really care if we believe in God,” he says.
ANYONE CAN LEAD, ANYTIME, ANYWHERE
Taking Over the Work
By: Dawn Bormann Novascone
Attempting to respond to adaptive challenges in an economically disadvantaged community can be daunting and intimidating – but it’s also the stuff of leadership.
Pastor Adrion Roberson likes to say that youth sports founded his church in Kansas City, Kansas.
He has spent 25 years coaching youth football in Wyandotte County and founded the KC United! Youth Sports Initiative – a league that has grown to 65 teams in several Kansas City-area communities. He launched it so working parents with little access to transportation didn’t have to join suburban leagues 45 minutes away in order to have their children get involved in sports. It’s become a lifeline for many kids.
But practices sometimes morph into another kind of session. The beloved coach is a natural counselor. He would stay as long as a child or their parents needed him.
“You’d end up after practice one hour, two hours, three hours later,” says Roberson, a Kansas Leadership Center alumnus and a member of its faculty.
The children would confide in him. Sometimes it meant reaching out to parents and helping them find jobs. It wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, but he wondered: If he wasn’t ready to step up and do something, who else would? “They come from some pretty dark places.
“Some of these kids we’re finding are going through things most adults would commit suicide over. That’s their home life,” he says. “If school is a safe place or if coming with us is a safe place, then so be it.”
In 2013, Roberson founded Destiny! Bible Fellowship Community Church, a small nondenominational church. He had already been moved by his faith to guide young African-American men for decades.
“Our vision is to be relationally evangelistic. And because of our connection to kids in sports and the arts, (that’s) been our avenue into the homes of the parents,” he says.
Roberson’s faith-based civic work is a fitting reminder of just how daunting it can be to lead on adaptive challenges in a community. The formidable social and economic challenges in northeast KCK can’t be addressed with a neighborhood cleanup or fundraiser. They require building deep relationships with people across the community and doing what one can to address underlying problems and inspire others to do the same.
But despite the scope of the challenges at hand, Roberson’s story is a reminder that anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere.
He is careful not to judge. He doesn’t hold himself up as the perfect model. It wouldn’t do anyone any good. “We don’t hide anything. They know everything about my life, my marriage,” he says.
Roberson has been clean for 10 years. “I started out smoking weed, and it ended up being worse. My wife, kids went through 20 years of hell. It was bad,” he says.
These days he uses that story to help others. “What’s crazy is to even be working in the same community where I used to buy dope out of; I used to sell dope out of,” he says.
It gives him pause almost daily. “That God would put you right back in the same place where you did your dirt to do better,” he says.
It motivates him to create more opportunities for young people. KC United! offers cheerleading, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) camp and a basketball program that begins this winter. The work has gotten the attention of several corporate sponsors and athletes, such as NFL Hall of Fame lineman Will Shields of the Kansas City Chiefs, who have donated money to pay for athletic uniforms and camp.
The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, built a football field in the urban core and named it after the coach. The honor was nice, he says, mostly because it focused attention on the need for more youth opportunities.
Roberson says he’s been surprised how much the six-week STEAM camp has been an outlet for promoting peace. He’s using it as a way to encourage young men to value themselves, he says.
“If you value yourself, you can value another life,” he says.
On one particularly impactful day, the campers toured an evidence room at the KCK Police Department. Inside they saw a pair of Nike Air Jordans and a pair of jeans covered in blood. There was also a jersey with bullet holes and a plastic bag with $150. It was all covered in blood.
“This 17-year-old was killed over the Jordans,” Roberson says. “His life was worth no more than $450.”
They happened to be touring the police station when a police captain was shot and killed. The entire experience left an impression on them all.
It also caused Roberson to double down on his message. His church is one of five in the KC Grind. The group partnered with the police department to address crime. The police agreed to give the pastors a list of hot spots where crime had been especially troublesome.
“We make ourselves accessible and available in the community,” Roberson says. “Now our mindset is going beyond the marches. We have to be more hands-on.”
They’ve started working more in housing units where they can talk with children.
“Our message is hope and value,” he says. “We just try to be there.”
When Roberson was growing up, adults were always looking out for him. His village was ready and willing to dial his mom when he stepped out of line.
“You knew Ms. Jones could tell on you,” he says.These days Roberson is taking over Ms. Jones’ work.
Yet for all his work, Roberson admits that he doesn’t have all the answers. It can be overwhelming. A camper this summer told Roberson that his daddy sells drugs.
“How do you handle that? How do you help to address that when more than likely if dad knew that he was conveying the information to us, we don’t know what the repercussions could be. These are the kinds of situations God puts us in,” he says.
A social worker gave him advice about how to broach the situation. Yet some days Roberson wonders if he’ll ever have the right answer.
“It’s a lot of work, but it keeps you going.”
But it’s also the exact place that more faith communities will need to be – responding to momentous and disorienting social problems in thoughtful, experimental ways – to fully live out their faith and help communities respond to their most daunting challenges.
LEADERSHIP IS RISKY
Looking for the Next Leap
By: Dawn Bormann Novascone
The pastor of a growing, successful church in Johnson County constantly looks for openings to enlarge its community impact.
When Pastor Adam Hamilton embarked on a series of sermons about Moses last year, he knew the gravity of his message.
Hamilton knew his call to action had the power to change the lives of children and families forever.
So he started at the beginning.
Inside Leawood’s United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, the nation’s largest Methodist congregation, Hamilton reminded church members that Moses was adopted – rescued – by Pharaoh’s daughter.
“She becomes the savior of the savior of Israel,” he said.
Hamilton also paused to acknowledge the hundreds of members who had been adopted, had lived in foster care or had been helped by others. It included his son-in-law, who had been taken in by his fourth-grade teacher, who found the pupil sleeping on his doorstep.
“He calls the boy’s dad and says: ‘Do you think I could help with your son?’” Hamilton said.
Hamilton also told his flock that he was praying for his daughters. He was praying that someone was nurturing the men his daughters would someday marry.
Hamilton’s call to action that August morning wasn’t simple. It wasn’t pounding nails at Habitat for Humanity, buying school supplies or taking on one of the myriad projects the church has become known for. It was far more profound.
“Are there some of you that God might be calling to be part of our foster care ministry? Or our adoption ministry?” he asked.
Leadership, as the Kansas Leadership Center tells its conference participants, is risky. And Hamilton’s sermon was a risk other pastors might have shied away from. In fact, it was a risk to call on congregants to follow suit and consider taking more risks themselves.
Those willing to take a chance could take comfort that they wouldn’t be doing so alone. Hamilton reminded members that the church has resources and monthly support programs for families willing to do the work.
“We have a vision of hundreds of our people adopting children or becoming foster parents,” he says later. Civic work is not a lofty expectation at the church. It’s a requirement that is clearly defined upfront.
“We just say: You can’t join the church unless you’re committed to serving outside the walls of our church,” Hamilton says.
It comes down to a fundamental core belief.
“For us as Christians, the ideal is the kingdom of God – this place where justice and beauty and truth reign. Where people love their neighbors and they love their enemies and they love God,” Hamilton explained. “So we tell folks: You’re really not living into being a Christian unless you’re out there with your sleeves rolled up looking for the person who is sick or hungry or naked
or in prison and doing something about it.”
It’s Hamilton’s job to help sketch out a vision for creating that change, and remind people of it. Church of the Resurrection organizes large volunteer teams to fix homes, serve dinners at soup kitchens, work internationally and much more. Church members helped after Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters. Members work in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Russia and Honduras. They’ve built long-term relationships with six regional elementary schools, where nearly 100 percent of the students live in poverty. Members buy and read books at the schools, tutor, paint and purchase classroom supplies. This fall they bought 2,647 pieces of school clothing, distributed 25,000 books and outfitted 1,646 children with all of their school supplies.
Church of the Resurrection has built relationships with city staff and nonprofits to determine where its congregation can do the most good. They meet with the Mid-America Regional Council during strategic planning to learn about poverty and other factors that could guide their civic commitments.
When the church celebrated its 25th anniversary on Oct. 25, 2015, its members had completed 28,680 hours of community service – the goal was 25,000 – in 25 days.
“This was a stretch for us, but reflects a high level of mobilization that is expected (of) our people, and it was a great way to celebrate our anniversary by living out the vision of working with others to transform the community,” says Dan Entwistle, the church’s managing executive director and a Kansas Leadership Center alumnus.
The church also doesn’t shy away from tackling society’s riskiest subjects. As racial tension has increased, members have met with urban churches to talk about their experiences and learn from one another. One meeting allowed congregants to meet with members of St. James United Methodist Church, which is located in the urban core of Kansas City, Missouri.
The group is led by the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, the son of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II.
“A large part of it is getting to know each other, hearing each other’s stories,” Hamilton says.
Yet even good deeds have risks. Hamilton points out that church members get energized by the work and can easily forget that they don’t always know what’s best for others. His church works hard to get direction and build consensus from those they seek to help before work starts.
“We don’t have all the answers. We’re not the great suburban army of saviors. We’re just people who are willing to offer whatever we can to be of service,” he says.
In an increasingly skeptical society, Church of the Resurrection has been criticized for its new $90 million church building going up in Leawood. Hamilton expected that. He knows they’re known as “that big church in Johnson County.”
But he also thinks that critics are hard-pressed to insult the congregation’s integrity when they realize its members donated more than 120,000 volunteer hours outside church walls in 2015 and serve as the largest source of the metro area’s blood and food donations. Or when they learn it gives every dime of Christmas Eve collections – when everyone is asked to give as much as they spent on their own families – to local and international charities that benefit children.
Even though Church of the Resurrection has achieved impressive successes as a faith community, it’s not one that’s willing to rest on its laurels. But that continued push rests on a willingness to take on new risks in how it tries to serve the community.
“Let’s be the church that’s not just big,” Hamilton tells members. “Let’s be the church that’s big-hearted. Let’s be the church that’s known for serving in the community, not for the size of our buildings or membership.”
LEADERSHIP IS AN ACTIVITY, NOT A POSITION
A Gathering Spot for Action
By: Dawn Bormann Novascone
Once a safe space for immigrants to learn, Kansas City’s Jewish Community Center now fosters the activity of leadership “all over the place.”
Browse the list of summer youth camps at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and parents are bound to find something to suit just about any childhood personality.
There are classic youth activities for softball players, theater performances for emerging actors and trendy Lego camps for the STEM-obsessed.
The Jewish Community Center, situated in Overland Park near Sprint’s world headquarters, tweaks offerings to keep modern campers engaged. But one thing it hasn’t changed after decades of hosting camps is an underlying focus on good deeds and giving back to the community. The camp guide makes it clear: Values are part of the lesson.
By middle school, one special camp puts community service front and center. Ma’Asim Tovin camp, which means “good works” in Hebrew, allows campers to volunteer in the community every morning and participate in recreational programs in the afternoon.
“They’ve gone to Harvesters (Community Food Network). They worked in a garden whose produce goes to a food distribution center. They work with senior adults, children. They’ve been to the zoo,” says Jill Maidhof, director of Jewish life and learning. “So they’re all over the place – all with the idea that we give to the community. We are part of this community, and we give to the community.”
The work of Maidhof, a 2014 alumna of the Kansas Leadership Center, and the Jewish Community Center embody the Kansas Leadership Center principle that “leadership is an activity, not a position.” By inspiring and empowering those who walk through the doors to take action, the center works to make a sizable positive impact in a Kansas City region where Jews number about 19,000, or just more than 1 percent of the population, according to the online Jewish Virtual Library.
Younger campers help out by conducting drives, be it for toilet paper, food or school supplies. It’s important, Maidhof says, that children learn the importance of giving back for the greater good.
“The Jewish Community Center has been in Kansas City for over 100 years,” Maidhof says. “Throughout those years we’ve taken very seriously the (words) ‘Jewish,’ the ‘community’ and the ‘center’ as a place of gathering.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish immigrants came to the center to study English and learn American customs. It was a safe place to learn while their children were cared for.
“They were not burdens on society. We did our best to help them become contributing members in America as comfortably, happily and quickly as possible,” Maidhof says.
These days the center offers a helping hand to all refugees as it seeks to build understanding and compassion across faiths.
The civic commitment is an intrinsic part of being Jewish, Maidhof says.
Inside her office on a recent sunny day, Maidhof proudly wears a T-shirt with the Hebrew words “love your neighbor as yourself.”
“I’ve been here 30 years. And this is an expression we live,” she says. “No phony baloney. This is not poppycock here.”
The community center is open to all. About half the members are not Jewish. The center houses a state-of-the-art workout facility, swimming pool, day care, art and cultural programs, and more.
“That diversity only enriches us,” she says. “It broadens our thinking.”
Sometimes it means the center sends members into the community to serve others. Other times the center hosts programs and invites the public to use its facility. It is home to several collaborative performances.
For the past several years, the center has partnered with Johnson County’s Theatre in the Park on a production. This year audiences could see “Mary Poppins” at the air-conditioned community center theater. Or they could watch the same performance outside at the Theatre in the Park, which is organized by the county. It was the same production with the same actors, but by varying the venue it allowed different audiences to see the production.
“By doing that, we just use community resources more effectively,” Maidhof says.
The center has also become an established place for the public to hear about social justice issues, be it through theater performances, art gallery openings or ecumenical services.
“We use our various venues to forward a social justice agenda,” Maidhof says.
The work is far from easy. The doors remain open to the public even after a white supremacist targeted the center in 2014 and killed two people in the parking lot. The victims were on their way to a regional youth singing contest. A third person was killed in a nearby Jewish retirement community.
The tragedy strengthened the community center’s resolve and commitment. It promotes and helps host events for SevenDays, an effort to promote peace and understanding that was initiated after the shootings.
The center also built a memorial on campus with unsolicited donations received after the shooting. A youth group from Georgia on a cross-country trip recently stopped by to sing at the memorial.
“We want this to become a destination,” Maidhof says, “and a place of comfort and inspiration for people.”
YOUR PURPOSE MUST BE CLEAR
Answering the Call
By: Dawn Bormann Novascone
When a storm blew through Shawnee this summer, it left downed trees and branches in an elderly man’s yard. He had neither the financial nor the physical means to clean up.
Many suburban codes don’t make exceptions when it comes to unkempt yards. But in Shawnee, the city has a backup plan thanks to a compassionate group of religious leaders who formed the City/Church Partnership a few years ago. Chris Winn, lead pastor at Community Life Church in Shawnee, got the call.
A team of religious volunteers went out with chainsaws, built a bonfire with the wood and fixed lunch.
“They burned all of it while they roasted wieners,” Winn says.
They did something similar for a soldier deployed to Iraq and again when someone needed their shutters fixed.
Winn helped launch the partnership after attending a Shawnee Chamber leadership class. He laughs at the awkward start. Winn was among a group that went to a former Shawnee mayor to ask a basic question: “How can we serve you?”
Winn recalls the mayor’s skeptical expression. It portrayed a man wondering, “What do you want? What are you mad about?”
“After an hour or so of conversation, (the mayor) started to relax and realized we had no idea. We just had influence over thousands of people,” Winn says. “Our whole purpose was to engage the people sitting in our pews to serve in our city.”
The partnership’s effort is an example of one of KLC’s five core leadership principles in action – “your purpose must be clear.” By anchoring their efforts in a desire to energize congregants into living out their faith through service, organizers have allowed groups to connect with others and shape their community for the better.
Eventually religious leaders throughout the city started creating a system whereby the city could enlist their help. Church members took emergency-preparedness classes, donated blankets to the fire department and offered their sanctuaries as temporary shelters. They also offered to help residents who met hardship requirements with code violations. The city and religious leaders created catalyst teams and enlisted key people – the mayor, police chief, fire chief, code administrators and more – to meet regularly. The group identified four keys areas of assistance: emergency preparedness, education, community needs and volunteerism, and spiritual support teams.
A few years before, churchgoers took ownership of the Flags of Freedom project, an effort to place flags along Johnson Drive, a main thoroughfare Shawnee had been planning to discontinue it for lack of manpower.
The religious communities put out notices, and volunteers descended. Boy Scouts and others then took on the annual project.
“The thing about it is, when the church steps forward and begins to serve, it leads the way for everyone to start serving,” Winn says. “Our ultimate goal is to get neighbors helping neighbors.”
When volunteers show up at homes, sometimes curious neighbors come over to learn what’s really happening.
“Our goal is instead of people calling the city is for them to step up and say, well, I can do that – like they do in small towns,” he says. The groups also work to provide mentors and tutors at Shawnee schools. Fittingly, they offer a spiritual support team that promotes peace and a volunteer chaplain program for police and fire departments.
The churches recently brought in a chaplain instructor. Winn said they invited regional churches to participate. They trained more than 20 chaplains from surrounding cities and counties. Religious leaders acknowledge that the overall program has been a learning experience for everyone. Cross Points Church startled city officials recently by blanketing them with notes of prayer, encouragement and thanks.
“The first time it happened, they didn’t know what was going on,” Winn says. “It really freaked them out. Then they realized that, no, we’re just supporting you.”
Winn says they’re careful not to overstep the division of church and state.
“Our goal is not to go in and proselytize. Our goal is simply to go and serve and meet the needs knowing that the reason why we do this is because of our faith,” he says. “That’s what Jesus said, ‘I’ve come to serve not to be served.’
“So when we the church follow Jesus and we go out and do what he did – go out and serve instead of waiting for the city to come serve us – good things happen.”
IT STARTS WITH YOU AND MUST ENGAGE OTHERS
Taking the First Step
By: Dawn Bormann Novascone
A church is leading the way for a growing pack who want to reinvigorate a dilapidated trail in northeast KCK.
Walking along the Jersey Creek Park Trail in northeast Kansas City, Kansas, Broderick Crawford can see the overgrown weeds, the fractured asphalt trail and broken benches.
“You can’t sit on them without getting a splinter,” he points out.
No one could blame him for being angry with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, which hasn’t kept up with trail maintenance. But instead of complaining, Crawford practically bounces down the path. He knows government doesn’t have the $1 million-plus needed for revitalization. Instead he’s motivated to be part of the change.
An alumnus of the Kansas Leadership Center, Crawford is familiar with the third of KLC’s five core leadership principles – “it starts with you and must engage others.” But he doesn’t just know it. He and other members of his church, New Bethel, are living it out.
Crawford, the executive director of the NBC (New Bethel Church) Community Development Corp., sees possibilities in deterioration. He envisions children biking to the playground, perhaps to play pickup basketball, and families who can enjoy the outdoors in safety.
The NBC Community Development Corp. is one part of a multifaceted coalition that includes Healthy Communities Wyandotte, Community Health Council of Wyandotte County, FreeWheels for Kids, UG Parks and Recreation, the University of Kansas School of Architecture, the Latino Health for All Coalition and other organizations that are working to improve the health of Wyandotte Countians.
“In order to really have an impact on the health of Wyandotte County, we all have to be involved,” Crawford says.
Small tweaks can beget big changes. KU architecture students designed and installed some new metal benches that double as bike racks and exercise stations. The Friends of Jersey Creek walking club meets at the park every Saturday morning with as many 40 people. The NBC Community Development Corp. has also started a family 5K and health fair. The Mount Carmel Redevelopment Corp., which has also played a big role in the effort, has its own health fair, too.
To keep building momentum, neighborhood resident Alexis Gatson got involved to help connect walkers through social media.
“This area has come a long way,” Gatson says.
“We’re doing the work.”
New Bethel Church got involved, Crawford says, because it takes a holistic approach to spirituality. The lead pastor, the Rev. A. Glenn Brady, is focused on the congregation’s spiritual needs.
“But he also understands that health is important. That mental health is important. That economic health is important. That physical health is important. That interaction between our neighbors is important,” Crawford says. “You can’t be a witness if you’re not healthy.”
The church also understood that Wyandotte County regularly ranks among the worst in the state for health outcomes. (Wyandotte County ranked last in the 2016 county health rankings released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.) That’s a problem government can’t fix alone. So why not harness the power of church congregations in the urban core?
“If you think back to any movement that has had an impact in this country, it all started with faith,” Crawford says. “Why was there a civil rights movement? Why was there a women’s rights movement? And who started each of those movements? It started in the church.”
New Bethel Church is one block off the Jersey Creek Trail, and for years congregants didn’t feel safe using it. These days they’re among the groups taking ownership of it. Crawford points to neighborhoods, churches, the Boys & Girls Club and a day care facility that have helped.
This isn’t just about fixing up one trail, Crawford points out. It’s about building a community. People start exercising at the park, and it deters crime and improves public safety. Residents walk or exercise together, and it improves their mental and physical health. People begin to feel more connected. Basketball players return to the court. House hunters might see the active trail and 24 acres of parkland – a crown jewel of real estate – and want to buy homes nearby. That won’t happen overnight.
“The beautiful thing is that we haven’t asked the city or the county for a dime. It’s all come from private funding. Obviously we won’t be able to continue doing that,” Crawford says.
Church members such as Crawford have already stepped forward and worked to engage others on improving the trail. But lasting change will require the involvement of even more people.
The group plans to challenge unified government commissioners to invest more. But first they’ll continue to mobilize their flock. When it works, Crawford says, state and federal officials can join the walking club to get advice.
“I don’t care what (Governor Sam) Brownback does in Topeka,” he says. “If we do what we should in Wyandotte County, he’ll come to us.”
This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe