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One Nation Under God

Saturday, March 1, 1997

While President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich hold out the hope of federal aid for Washington, D.C., some local churches aren't waiting for government to rejuvenate the city's most depressed neighborhoods. The Hope Center, a church-based community development corporation, is seeking to buy and renovate the vacant Buchanan Elementary School in Southeast Washington. It's no mystery why Buchanan was shut down. The surrounding blocks are awash in unemployment, drug-dealing, broken families, and violence.

Our goal is to establish a faith-guided community center offering urgently needed social services: crisis-pregnancy counseling, an AIDS hospice, a job-training and placement program, alcohol- and drug-rehabilitation services, and, eventually, a grade school. Our sister church, the Christian Fellowship Church Inner-City Congregation, which now meets in a nearby grade school, would form its spiritual hub.

Our plan builds on existing relationships between suburban church members and urban neighborhoods. Since 1992, the largely white Christian Fellowship Church in Ashburn, Virginia, has reached out to mostly poor black families in Potomac Gardens and Arthur Capper, two public-housing projects in Southeast D.C. Volunteers provide regular worship services, a Kick Drugs Karate School, a mentoring program, and food and clothing to dozens of families-nearly all on welfare.

We have seen lives gradually turn around. When Patricia Hill attended our first worship service in the inner city, she was in poor health, on welfare, and addicted to crack cocaine. She soon became pregnant. Pat attended services sporadically. One day, at an open-air rally, she came forward, turned away from her sins, and put her faith in Jesus Christ as her savior. She later said she felt God was telling her she would be dead within a year if she didn't mend her ways.

Today, Pat is drug-free and healthy and radiates optimism. She has found part-time work and also assists the elderly members of our congregation. Having ignored a counselor's advice to get an abortion, Pat is the proud mother of a one-year-old boy. She even volunteers in the same crisis-pregnancy center, encouraging other women to keep their babies.

"My love for these people stems from the knowledge of where they are," says the Rev. Samuel Sierra, the director of the Hope Center and pastor of the Inner City Congregation. Sierra attributes his own recovery from drug addiction to his Christian conversion.

It's time to expand our effort in Washington. We have told city officials we are prepared to invest $4.3 million to renovate Buchanan, a 57,000-square-foot facility. We've already begun planning a benefit concert and raising funds by appealing to our suburban congregation and other area churches as well as to businesses and philanthropic foundations.

We've adopted a "shopping mall" approach to redeveloping the space. Our suburban church would be the main investor. The Hope Center, the umbrella organization, would effectively serve as property manager. The facility's tenants would include a variety of nonprofit groups tackling the community's social ills. They would share a common foundation in the Christian faith, but would serve anyone living in the neighborhood.

Many groups have either expressed interest in working under the auspices of the Hope Center or have already begun to do so, including the Labor of Love Homeless Institute, a food delivery ministry; Charity for Choice, a $1,000 scholarship program for at-risk kids; Uncle Sam and the Capitol Hill Puppets, a multimedia program for children in public housing; and the H Street Task Force, a neighborhood development effort.

We intend to make the most of every square foot of space at Buchanan: The school's neo-classical auditorium, for example, would serve as a sanctuary on Sundays, a gymnasium during the school day, and a "safe haven" for basketball in the evenings. Classrooms could double as community meeting rooms.

Our vision is grounded in a proven model of Christian community development: a church-based, interracial effort to revitalize and remoralize cities, block by block. Pioneered by the Rev. John Perkins, the concept has taken root in more than 100 cities across the nation and involved at least 300 congregations. The key is creating partnerships-suburban churches must not act like the "Great White Hope" of the inner city, while poor churches must also invest their own human and spiritual resources in the task.

The District may indeed be ripe for revitalization, but not primarily the kind initiated by politicians. Many of us are convinced that only heartfelt religious faith can produce the moral transformation and racial healing needed to rescue families and communities from despair. Twenty-five of the largest churches in suburban Virginia met in January to begin praying for the revival of specific city blocks in the District. With prayer, sweat, and sacrifice, we are trying to bring about real, permanent change in people's lives.