A Community Church as the Catalyst for Community Change

A Community Church as the Catalyst for Community Change

Ashley Fisher, IRFA and Shared Justice Intern, April 20, 2017

The church is not just a place for Sunday worship. According to Pastor Anthony Minter, the church is called to pour into the surrounding community and bring about positive change. “To get the best out of our community, we have to be a part of the community,” said Pastor Minter, the head pastor of First Rock Baptist Church,.

First Rock Baptist Church, located in Southeast Washington, D.C., doesn’t sit on the sidelines when it comes to investing in the local community. Communities throughout the U.S., whether urban or rural, each have their own unique struggles and hardships. Whatever the community’s struggle is, it takes the work of multiple institutions to bring about effective change. Upholding public justice in our society means acknowledging the roles of each institution and supporting these institutions in a way that allows them to effectively execute their mission. Individuals, faith-based organizations and secular nonprofits, and the government all play a part in solving the problems that communities face every day.

When it comes to systemic issues of poverty and inequality, the church may not be one of the first institutions that people look to to address the problem. Yet. while churches throughout the country are focused on helping their congregations grow spiritually, some also look out into the communities that surround them in order to see what needs to be done.

First Rock Baptist Church is one example of a church that is not afraid to step outside its door and be involved in the surrounding community. For First Rock, this means not only investing in the local community, but also partnering with other institutions, like local government, to advocate for policies that will improve the overall wellbeing of local neighborhoods. First Rock’s mission as a church is, “To live in loving obedience to our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ… To make Disciples… To transform the Benning Heights Community and beyond… To the glory of God.” First Rock has lived out this faith-based mission by engaging in both acts of service towards the community and equipping congregants to recognize their Christian calling to citizenship by working with local government. Pastor Minter and his congregation promote public justice by working to restore the community around them through service and civic engagement.

Recently, Pastor Minter and his congregation worked to provide affordable housing to those in the local community who were struggling to find homes they could afford. First Rock partnered with Habitat for Humanity and was able to build 15 homes and affordable senior housing. The 15 homes were sold to individuals in the community at an affordable cost.  Pastor Minter said he valued the partnership that First Rock had with Habitat for Humanity and recognized how it helped the community around them flourish. Pastor Minter also reflected on the importance of treating the needs of the whole person, which means meeting both their physical and spiritual needs. By helping to provide affordable housing in its neighborhood, First Rock is able to do both.

Pastor Minter and First Rock are committed to impacting the culture in a way that reflects the love of Christ. Pastor Minter has pushed to not only minister to those who live near his church, but has also formed relationships with those in positions of authority to help bring a positive impact on his community. Pastor Minter became a part of the leadership team of the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) after realizing the importance of acting through  a coalition in order to enact change in Washington D.C.  WIN is a multi-racial, multi-faith, non-partisan organization that is committed to developing and training neighborhood leaders, addressing community issues, and working to hold those in leadership accountable. WIN and Pastor Minter have focused on specific issues in the community such as affordable housing, living wages, and education. WIN has opened up service and advocacy opportunities to Pastor Minter and First Rock Baptist and speaks to the significance of partnership when working to bring about impactful community change.

First Rock takes its role as a community church seriously. For example, when the public housing complex across the street, Benning Terrace, had a football field that was deteriorating and becoming  unsafe for the local children to play on, Pastor Minter took it upon himself to ensure that the field would be restored. He contacted D.C.’s Parks and Recreation Department to see what could be done and they referred him to the Department of Housing, explaining that they did not have jurisdiction. When Pastor Minter contacted Housing, they pointed him back to Parks and Rec, and it became an endless back and forth game. However, through WIN, Pastor Minter was able to speak with local residents, note their concerns, and bring them straight to the D.C. Mayor. His efforts ended in success and the D.C. Mayor walked the grounds personally to see how badly the field needed to be improved. The field received the necessary improvement as the lights were fixed, the field was touched up, and new bleachers and a scoreboard were added.

It is not just First Rock Baptist that is doing work like this for their surrounding communities. Congregations and faith-based organizations across America play a critical role in supporting their local communities. Congregations have focused on not only serving their members, but also on reaching out to others in their communities. Faith Communities Today published “A Report on Religion in the United States Today” that highlights the impact of congregational community outreach across America. The report found that over 80 percent of the congregations polled provided some form of cash or food assistance to their surrounding community. Over 85 percent of the congregations listed outreach ministries as one of their top member- oriented activities. Echoing this, “The Economic Halo Effect of Historic Sacred Places”, a study published by Partners for Sacred Places, highlighted the economic impact that churches have on the surrounding communities. The study explains that the average congregation employs five full time and six part time staff. Along with this, churches purchase goods and services from local small businesses and vendors, which helps sustain the local economy. Of the congregations featured in the study, on average each congregation contributed over $500,000 to its neighborhood through its annual spending. Communities that have churches pouring resources, both finances and services, into them are more likely to thrive than those without.

Even more specific than congregations in general, black congregations like First Rock have a higher rate of providing social services to their surrounding community.  An article published in Penn News looks at the study, “Black Church Outreach: Comparing How Black and Other Congregations Serve Their Needy Neighbors” by Ram Cnaan and Stephanie Boddie. According to the study, black congregations have a higher rate of providing social services to their surrounding community. The study focused specifically on congregations in the Philadelphia area. According to its findings, black congregations had an average rate of 2.4 programs per congregation, while other congregations had an average of 2.25 programs. The study also found that in regard to congregational social service programs, black congregations were more likely to work with other religious groups. Black congregations were also so committed to investing in their surrounding communities that not even financial strain could prevent their work. One-third of the churches had reported financial troubles, but this did not in any way affect the level of their outreach to the local community.

While poverty in a community  might only affect specific individuals, overcoming poverty often requires more than just an individual’s efforts. Poverty often has a systemic aspect that points to deeper-rooted issues. Whichever community we reside in, we should be alert to the impact of poverty and how it is affecting the lives of those around us. If we are to uphold public justice in our society, we must acknowledge that poverty will not be fixed by the work of one individual; it will require the effort of multiple institutions in our communities. Each of us can do our part by understanding that every person is made in the image of God. We must work towards ending poverty because it diminishes human flourishing. The government can have a hand in bringing about change by enacting policies that not only support individuals who are affected by poverty, but also supporting communities and other organizations that are working to help those affected. As seen through the work of First Rock, faith-based organizations, congregations, and nonprofits can invest in the communities that surround them and work to support those who live in poverty.

The work of Pastor Minter and First Rock Baptist church is an encouraging reminder of how we are called to invest in those around us. Flourishing communities require not simply the work of individuals, but calls for investment from multiple institutions. Congregations, faith-based organizations, and other non-profits can engage in supporting the community through acts of service, but also through working with those in local office and positions of authority. In order to bring about systemic change in an environment, one must be willing to step out and develop relationships with those surrounding them.

As Pastor Minter said, “I believe the key is building relationships with the community.”