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Learning about Neighborhood Economics

Last week, three of us from the Transformational Communities Network attended the Neighborhood Economics conference in Jackson, Mississippi. Though two of us were delayed in arriving due to a canceled and rescheduled flight from San Antonio to Jackson, I was excited with anticipation wondering what I was to learn from the conference and to understand more greatly what neighborhood economics are about.

Finally arriving in Jackson and then stepping into day 2 of the conference, I soon realized I was in a different world. Knowing the conference was to be in Jackson, I wondered about the water crisis the city suffered in late 2022. I wondered what insights I might pick up about the historical narrative that led to this crisis. One of our Uber drivers spoke about how the neighboring town where he lives is experiencing growth, all homes are brick veneered, and there are no apartment buildings so that a clean and safe community to live is maintained. This description was then mirrored by the crime in Jackson and how Jackson was not the same as when he lived there growing up 30 years ago. His account of Jackson made it to be the negative spot in the middle of the surrounding towns that Jacksonians have fled to over time.

This is an increasing tale in the U.S. that invokes the word “desert” reflecting the wasteland that some communities appear to be, based on looking at them from a distance or understanding them based on negative media reports. But regardless of these perceptions or reports, there are people in these communities. People with stories, people with gifts, talents, knowledge, and experiences, and people with hopes and dreams. Just as our Uber friend noted what his former community looks like 30 years later, we know that restoration takes time, vision, and hope. I am sure that creativity and collaboration are key factors as well.

According to its webpage, Neighborhood Economics is about: Connecting capital to neighborhoods that normally don’t get it. Neighborhood Economics mobilizes entrepreneurial possibility in disenfranchised neighborhoods through a reimagined, liberating economy. The prevailing moral hunger of our day is the desire to repair historic, systemic inequities. Neighborhood Economics works alongside communities that have been denied access to power and privilege to rebuild regenerative local economies. We believe when connection points and resources work through equity and empowerment, things change. We will rest in the work when harmful economic systems crumble, enabling wealth generating-futures for everyone.\

This statement in and of itself is a lot to unpack and think about! The various conference speakers shared about real-time projects from across the U.S. that reflected these words. A powerful example shared was that of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Louisville, Kentucky in its’ community development work through the MOLO Village Community Development Corporation. A congregation of about 50 community members in a church building over 100 years old is bringing life back into the community through the cultivation of affordable housing and economic development through The Village, a business and retail center. The church’s foundation in connecting to the community was simply responding to its needs through food and resource assistance and programs for children, youth, and families. The development of The Village, a $4 million+ project, came about through the collaboration of the UCC Building and Loan Fund coordinating and connecting to various investment partners and local government.

Within the United Methodist Church world, there are powerful examples such as the United Methodist Church and Community Development for All People [C4AP] in Columbus, Ohio, and the Better Community Development, Inc. that grew out of Theresa Hoover UMC in Little Rock, Arkansas. Church for All People grew out of a free store engagement with the community that cultivated a worshipping community and development of community simultaneously. Better Community Development grew out of Theresa Hoover UMC providing daycare services for the community as a direct response to the community naming this need. Both ministries reflect 25 years + of the church’s journey in seeking the well-being of the community. Within the Rio Texas Conference, we are seeing the emergence of ministry centers, affordable housing, resource centers such as Light on the Hill at Mount Wesley, and current and potential creative redevelopment projects of church properties.

The church is at the intersection of change in the 21st century. We are at a moment to behold and perceive the new things and the potential of new things God is doing in our midst [Isaiah 43:18-19]. As the church experiences the challenge and impacts of change due to the fallout from the COVID pandemic, polarization and strife within society, and the seeking to understand or the denial of systemic inequities, this is a great time to lean into perceiving the new things God may be doing. In the midst of church decline and closures, we are seeing creativity emerge in the reuse and development of church buildings for the sake of the well-being and common good of the community.

As I continue to process my learnings from the Neighborhood Economics conference, I get excited thinking about what the future might look like as the church strives to serve as a facilitator in seeking the well-being of communities. In doing so, may we too begin to recognize and respond to the prevailing moral hunger of our day and the desire to repair historic, systemic inequities. An opportunity for us to learn more about Neighborhood Economics will be sometime in February 2024 when the next conference comes to San Antonio.

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