THR Web Features   /   March 10, 2015

The Role of Faith Communities in the Flourishing City

Chris Meekins

( Historic postcard of First Church of Christ Scientist, Detroit, recently restored.)

Faith communities, their ministries and programs, and their congregants play a vital role in the health and vibrancy of our cities. These communities are full of people who want to contribute to their city’s success and flourishing. After all, charity toward those less fortunate is one of the ways the faithful are called on to act in a community. But what does it mean for the faithful to contribute to the successful flourishing of a city?

There are as many answers to this question as there are faith communities. For example, on  Instagram, I’ve witnessed suburban churches that mobilize their volunteers to drive to the “inner city” and help paint over graffiti or plant flowers in a playground. I’ve also watched volunteers show hospitality by distributing water bottles with a church's business card as a way to invite strangers to worship services.

Good intentions are plentiful in faith communities, but how do we know that the good faith efforts in which we engage are actually helping those around us? Do our efforts reach those most in need? It is not enough for religious organizations and their volunteers to declare their love of a city without first considering the subtleties of the surroundings in which they live.

In her groundbreaking 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs investigated what social workers learned by talking with residents of a housing project in East Harlem. She learned that the social workers found that the tenants were indifferent to the physical condition of their apartments and the buildings overall. Crime was rampant and there was almost no evidence of neighbors caring for one another. In fact, the tenants hated the project housing. Why?

Tenants complained that the urban planners and architectural designers had built the projects without considering the context of the community. The non-native “experts” did not understand how the community functioned and their efforts essentially created an environment of isolation—segregating the residents from the social fabric of the surrounding neighborhood.

Even though the professional planners had good intentions, they were, in Jacobs's eyes, too focused on rationalism and the City Beautiful tenets of orthodox urbanism. “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” Jacobs noted, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretend order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Jacobs contended that in order to achieve a sense of thriving in a community, leaders must work first to understand the complexity of their communities—when it comes to urban planning, one size doesn't fit all.

Faith-based organizations seeking to improve life in their cities may fall prey to this same “meaner quality.” A call to action is not enough. True affection for the city requires a virtue which David Brooks calls “epistemological modesty”—the ability to remain humbly open to the input and influence of others to ensure the best possible result in a given plan of action. In order to discern the needs of the city, faith communities should first learn about the history of the city and its residents, connect with those residents, and activate a communal call to collaborative improvement. How does the city work? How are decisions made? What are the benefits and consequences of the built environment within the principal city?

Questions like these have driven my interest in the Thriving Cities Project (TCP). By focusing on the history, culture, and institutional interconnections of a city, the Project allows practitioners and faith leaders to understand both the assets and the intricacies of a city. Further, TCP’s recognition of social connectivity highlights the ways all neighborhoods, ethnic groups, and faith communities collectively contribute to the common good.

Religious organizations must begin by building relationships with those outside of their immediate communities. As author and pastor Jay Pathak suggests, get to know the neighbors around where you live and worship. According to John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, leaders should also learn how to leverage the assets and strengths of a neighborhood by creating strong, multilayered networks of trust. When trust is established, religious groups will have a solid basis for long-term transformation in their cities.

Developing these networks of trust is also key. Working collaboratively, the members of the network may develop a plan of action. But don't be daunted by the “tyranny of the urgent.” The realization of urban improvement plans may take years. When we as faith communities commit to learn all we can, to connect with each other, and to activate our networks for long-term change, we take meaningful steps toward realizing the flourishing and thriving of our cities.