by Wendy McCaig
I have an unusual ministerial role. I do CCD work in RVA from an ABCD perspective. Confused? Most people are. My husband refers to my work as “alphabet soup.” Let me try to unscramble it for you.
When I graduated from Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond (BTSR) in 2007, I knew that God was calling me to do ministry outside the walls of the church in the inner-city of Richmond, Virginia (RVA). I started out like many well-meaning and totally clueless — but missionally-shaped — Christians. I started hanging out in a homeless shelter. There a met a homeless woman who changed my life forever.
We became friends and together we started helping other homeless families. Five years later, I was the executive director of Embrace Richmond, a non-profit with the largest furniture bank on the east coast south of New York City. What I learned in those first five years is that giving out stuff, while helpful, was not having a significant impact on the level of poverty in our city. I watched people exit the shelter, get a home, have that that home furnished by our group … and then a year later they were homeless again.
I knew that God was calling me to do more than give handouts, but I had no idea what that something more was. That’s when I first began reading about Christian Community Development (CCD). I became a student of John Perkins and Robert Lupton, reading everything I could get my hands on. I was then introduced to asset-based community development (ABCD) by Jay Van Groningen, the founder of the Community First Association (CFA). Jay founded CFA because he saw the value of the ABCD movement as a tool for Christians who wanted to do Christian community development in a way that resulted in stronger community capacity and sustainability.
What is asset-based community development, or ABCD? The official definition taken from the ABCD institutes website is this:
“Asset-Based Community Development is a large and growing movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development. Building on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations and the supportive functions of local institutions, asset-based community development draws upon existing community strengths to build stronger, more sustainable communities for the future.”
In other words, ABCD builds the internal capacity of the community in a way that avoids long-term dependency upon outside resources and increases the sustainability of the development effort.
While the ABCD movement was launched as a secular movement by John McKnight more than 25 years ago, ABCD has found its way into the Christian community development conversation and is seen as a CCD best practice by leaders in the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA).
I think the best way to understand ABCD is through story. So let me tell you the story of a Hillside Court, a 404-unit public housing complex. With unemployment rates in excess of 80 percent and average household income under $9,000, most people would see Hillside as a very needy place. In 2011, three murders resulted from shootings. With ongoing nightly gunfire, the residents themselves had little hope things would ever change. After two teenagers were struck by stray bullets, the sense of fear and outrage hit a boiling point.
The Embrace Richmond staff hosted a community conversation and asked the neighbors what they cared most about. The overwhelming response was the safety of their children. I asked, “Who in the neighborhood cares enough to get involved in making the streets safer for the children?” Patrice Shelton volunteered.
Over the next six months, Patrice began talking to her neighbors and asking, “If you could do anything to make Hillside a better neighborhood, what would you do?” Through that initial listening process, Patrice started the Family Support Team, which was made up of neighborhood parents who wanted to work together to provide a brighter future for their children.
Over the next five years, the Family Support Team recruited more leaders and they started eight additional resident-led initiatives: a mobile food pantry, a computer lab, a cheerleading team, a football team, a hospitality and cooking team, a block-by-block care team, a men’s group and a senior group.
As one resident told me a few years into this process, “Hillside now has pride!” It is not perfect, but there is a hopeful, contagious spirit born out of the neighbors’ own initiative. This year, the residents are launching three additional projects: two mentoring programs (one for girls and another for boys) and an employment readiness initiative.
This is just one of many neighborhood transformation stories. While every neighborhood looks different, all ABCD efforts unfold in a similar way:
Phase 1: Community listening
Phase 2: Community building
Phase 3: Leadership development
Phase 4: Partnership development
Phase 5: Capacity transfer
While working with Hillside, my role was to identify the resident leaders who cared enough to get involved (community listening), bring them together around what they cared about (community building), coach and train them in how to build community action teams (leadership development), connect them to congregations and institutions that cared about the same things they cared about (partnership development) and, when they were ready, get out of their way (capacity transfer).
In 2013, we helped the resident leaders form their own association, the Hillside Court Partnership. Patrice Shelton became the director. The entire operation is now fully run by the residents with the support of more than a dozen congregations and institutions. We continue to offer micro-grants to support new projects, but the neighbors do all the work on the ground.
This “inside-out” approach to strengthening communities is a process that Embrace Richmond trains congregations to do through “Mission Shift” training. We launched Mission Shift in 2014 and have trained more than 100 congregation members who are impacting nearly a dozen neighborhoods across our metro region. Embrace Richmond is just one of more than a dozen CFA partners who do this kind of work across the nation.
While the resident-led initiatives are beautiful, what is most exciting is the cultural shift that happens in a community when the residents are empowered to shape their own future. Each of the resident leaders we work with has discerned a call to be a blessing in some way to the community. When you gather concerned citizens who feel called to help, an amazing power emerges out of their collective desire for the common good. Walls fall down, streets become safer, hope and shalom emerge.
In 2011, almost everyone would have seen the brokenness and neediness of Hillside Court. Today, anyone who enters Hillside Court is struck by its richness. One of our key leaders recently said, “Far too many people look at our material poverty and they are blind to our spiritual richness. But, Richmond is rich!”
In my work with congregations, my prayer is that they would all be given eyes to see the richness of our cities’ most materially impoverished neighborhoods. God is at work in every neighborhood in the hearts of the citizens. Far too often, we make the neighborhood transformation story about us, or our church, or our non-profit — and in so doing we leave the precious gifts of the neighbors unwrapped and unrecognized. It is a tragic loss.
If your congregation is serving in under-resourced neighborhoods, I encourage you to consider shifting from a “needs-based” approach to an “asset-based” approach. You can find additional insights into ABCD at my website and more information about Embrace Richmond at embracerichmond.org. To find other ABCD coaches and trainers, visit the Communities First Association website at cfapartners.org. For additional information on asset-based community development movement, visit the ABCD Institute website at abcdinstitute.org.
WENDY McCAIG is the founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond and the author of the book, “From the Sanctuary to the Streets.” She has spent the past 10 years working in Richmond’s inner-city doing asset-based community development.