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True Community with No Strings Attached

Four churches creating spaces based on neighborhood needs.

How connected is your church to the community?

Not the community you’ve created inside. The community you would connect to if you stepped out the front door and just started walking.

Of course, being what the community needs isn’t as easy as it sounds.   Churches develop over time, and neighborhoods grow and evolve. These changes can sometimes result in disconnects.

Here are four churches who decided to radically engage their communities, and how they are doing it.

A United Methodist Church in Philly reconnects with its neighbors

Wharton-Wesley United Methodist Church in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of Philadelphia was formed in the early 1970s as a merger of Wesley Church, a thriving African-American congregation needing space to expand, and Wharton Church, a dwindling white congregation.

The congregations came together in Wharton's building—a soaring stone structure that began construction in 1905. While turn of the century buildings can be beautiful, they aren’t friendly to people with mobility impairments, and dated mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems are expensive to operate and maintain.

With a large space and a desire to reconnect to the neighborhood, the congregation applied to Sacred Places / Civic Spaces—a partnership between the Community Design Collaborative and Partners for Sacred Places to re-envision underutilized, purpose-built religious properties as community hubs.

Heidi Segall Levy, director of design services for the Community Design Collaborative, shares, “For many neighborhood churches, originally congregants were from their surrounding communities, but over time as congregants moved, ties to the community were somewhat lost.

Wharton-Wesley UMC is embedded in a residential community, but now few of the congregants live there. In order for us to look at these church sites as becoming true community hubs, we needed to introduce congregations to their community partners so they could recreate those ties.”

An important tenet of the Sacred Spaces / Civic Spaces project is creating community dialogue between churches and the neighborhoods they share. To facilitate the dialogue, Wharton-Wesley UMC was paired with ACHIEVEability—a non-profit which focuses on breaking the generational cycle of poverty and has a long history in the local area.

“As churches begin to reimagine these spaces as community hubs, it’s crucial that the community is involved in its design,” continues Segall Levy. “Community residents, city agencies, service providers, elected officials, and business owners served on a task force, and ACHIEVEability helped Wharton-Wesley UMC create some of those connections.”

The meetings resulted in two main ideas that will drive the facility renovation and the programs: The first was to “use food and music to engage, educate, to promote a better connection to the community”; and the second was to “draw people from the community onto the site and help extend the church’s new programs out into the neighborhood”.

The community program goals for the site include: food access/education, music, congregational space sharing, health/wellness, senior programming, afterschool education, re-entry programming, and community gathering.

As part of the Sacred Places / Civic Spaces initiative, the church was also paired with Brawer & Hauptman Architects, who worked to reconfigure the church’s spaces to support these community-focused initiatives.

Zion Baptist Church focuses on revitalizing a commercial corridor

Zion Baptist Church—another congregation working with Sacred Spaces / Civic Places is in the Tioga neighborhood of North Philadelphia. The site is comprised of two buildingsthe 1970s contemporary building where it worships and the 1920s “annex” which housed the church’s outreach programs until recently.

Zion was teamed with the community development organization, Called to Serve CDC, an emerging socio-economic community development entity dedicated to the renewal, restoration and revitalization of underserved neighborhoods.

Segall Levy shares, “Zion Baptist Church is located on a main commercial corridor near a key transportation hub—but the area is in need of revitalization. Zion and Called to Serve CDC are focused on reactivating the vacant annex as part of the commercial corridor revitalization.”

The overarching theme that came out of the meetings with the community is: “healthy body, minds, souls, and community.” The design team translated this into a program for the space which includes urgent care, a fresh food grocery, a multi-purpose event space, workforce development, STEAM education, and a small business incubator. The church was teamed with Studio 6mm to develop the design.

The churches who were selected by Sacred Spaces / Civic Spaces went through a competitive selection process to receive the support. “The churches who applied had the motivation to do this,” says Segall Levy, “and have invested a huge amount of effort into this process even though the church volunteers were already going above and beyond before this started. Our hope is that this will become a model for other cities. We wanted the process—as well as the designs—to be prototypical and are hoping that this effort will create widespread policy changes in terms of funding, ownership, and redevelopment.”

Life in Deep Ellum serves a historic artists’ community.

The 2006 headline in the Dallas Observer splashed: DEEP ELLUM DEEP SIXED on newsstands.  The former commercial district shadowed by the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas evolved into a home for musicians and artists as warehouses were converted into music venues and clubs. The area draws everyone from big name artists to local bands; and murals give the area its unique lookone that celebrates creativity, especially if it isn’t too mainstream.

The history of Deep Ellum sways from standing-room-only clubs to vacant storefronts, and the people who live and work there are passionate about the neighborhood’s identity.

Rachel Triska and her husband joined the church, Life in Deep Ellum (LIDE), in 2009. What had started as a traditional church ended up building a space inspired by the Copenhagen Christian Cultural Center. For as much as Dallas is in the Bible Belt, the area of Deep Ellum was closer to Copenhagen in its post-Christian culture.

“It’s helpful to think about what we do in two categories,” shares LIDE’s Executive Pastor, Rachel Triska. “There’s the space, but there is also what we do with our community partners.”

The big square building is typical of the warehouse spaces turned venues in the area. It features its own mural, and “Mokah Coffee and Tea”. The popular café is open seven days a week, and is frequented by the area’s business people. LIDE’s “Umbrella Gallery” features shows by local artists which generally run from 6 to 8 weeks. The office space at LIDE is shared with other not-for-profits.

LIDE’s larger spaces are utilized by community partners. For example, the dance company, Muscle Memory Dance Theatre, has been using the space for rehearsals and performances for over seven years. DaVerse Lounge—an initiative that gives kids a voice through spoken word performance has been part for nine.  Local groups like the Deep Ellum Foundation and Deep Ellum Community Association meet monthly, and the local AA chapter also meets in the space.

In fact, the space is used for about 35 unique events a year with another 200 recurring events.

“I always say, our neighborhood disciples me. In the early days, it was tough going. The experience taught me how to be the Church in ways that seminary didn’t cover,” shares Triska. “When we started, I thought, ‘Oh we will plant this many churches, and have this many people—and that didn’t happen.”
“A few years in, I was on the floor in my office praying and feeling like a failure. I’m so sorry. I tried. We just aren’t growing. I read the passage in Mark where the disciples come with a few loaves and fish and tell Jesus that they don’t have anything. In the next chapter Jesus points out that they still don’t understand. I realized I didn’t understand either. What if my responsibility was to bring it to Him and let Him take it from there? He helped me redefine my understanding of success and why he brought us to Deep Ellum.  And that changed my life.”
Triska has advice for other churches who want to deeply engage the community. “In traditional church there is a lot of conversation around growth metrics and pathways to conversion. For us, relationship has to be the primary value with no strings attached. Many of our friends don’t come to The Gathering and those who do find a relationship in our faith community—sometimes it’s after years—so we value the relationship regardless of the outcome.”

“On a practical note, our approach has always focused on the strengths of the neighborhood rather than its weaknesses.  We believed God was already at work in our neighborhood and we wanted to get behind what He was already doing. That approach connected us with amazing organizations and projects. So, we became a part of what the neighborhood was already doing. Which put us in a very different position than following our own programming.”

The Bridge creates the Hub in a busy city center.

In an area of Niagara Falls, Ontario known as The Q (short for Queen Street) is a storefront that serves as community space. It is used as an art and showcase gallery, a skills development centre, counselling space, fitness classes, tutoring, business receptions and more. 

Allen Kleine Deters, Church Planter at The Bridge, shares, “Our main focus is living in a missional community setting. When we carved out our parish, we did a scan of the area and realized that what’s lacking in this community are communal hubs where people can develop relationships.  We are in a downtown core--not a tourist area. There are a lot of working poor, and there wasn’t a lot of space for anything happening unless you wanted to hang out in a bar.”

As the word spread about the Hub, community use of the space expanded. “We are right next door to City Business Enterprise, so we help do training—especially for small businesses and sharing resources for entrepreneurs. We were approached by Community Health to partner with the city to share the space for youth programs over Spring Break. We enjoy that rapport.”

Kleine Deters highlights one program that has grown since they started in 2016, “We run a summer arts camp for kids who could never afford to go to a summer camp. We have a big enough outside support group in the arts community that we rarely have to buy any expensive supplies. The artists find them. Two bars in our community help feed the kids lunch for free. They see what we’re doing. We’re approachable--not moralistic. We’ve built relationship with owners and managers. And the support has been amazing.”

For other churches considering building something for the community Kleine Deters shares, “Don’t go in assuming you know what they need. You have to have a really good listening ear. Not, ‘here, we built this for you,’ but developing real relationships. You have to do something at the street level that means something to people.”

The relationships built by The Bridge have created other opportunities to expand what they bring to the neighborhood. Recently, they were able to expand into a local coffee shop to create even more space where people can connect and form friendships.


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