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Mary Nelson: Embracing God's vision for community

Leaders see possibilities amid despair. At-risk neighborhoods need pastors and community workers disciplined by creativity, resolve, hope and -- above all -- a God-given vision.

July 14, 2009

“Bethel has always looked at the neighborhood and seen the possibilities,” explains Mary Nelson, former president and CEO of Bethel New Life, a community development organization on Chicago’s West Side. Since moving in 45 years ago, Nelson has brought a hopeful, faith-filled perspective to a neighborhood that many considered beyond redemption.

Nelson holds a doctorate from Union Graduate School and has taught asset-based community development to pastors and community leaders. A board member for Sojourners and the Christian Community Development Association, Nelson has helped transform one community and inspire leaders in others through her commitment to Christian leadership, community development and social justice.

Nelson spoke with Faith & Leadership in June 2009 while teaching at the Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute: “Shaping the Beloved Community.” The video clip above offers additional comment by Nelson.

Q: The organization you led for more than 25 years, Bethel New Life, has worked to improve its neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. How did you go about creating and sustaining community development?

The organization that I was the founding director of came out of a little [Lutheran] church that decided that we needed to be outside of our building, dealing with what was going on in the community. We committed to an affordable, livable, just community.

If one idea didn’t work, then we would try to do something else to figure out what would work. Since most of the systems of society don’t work in our very low-income, primarily African-American community, we have a freedom to try to do things differently.

Q: How would you describe the role of your church in your community?

Our church is committed to our community and to empowering people to be the fullness of what God envisions for them. People can’t be the fullness of what God envisions when they have inferior school systems and a justice system that doesn’t work. We’ve got to be standing with people when injustice is present. We’ve got to be a voice that calls out, as the prophets of the Old Testament did, “Let justice roll down!”

Another way is possible. That is the good news of the gospel. God has given us the vision, the smarts and plenty of other people to work with to help make change happen.

Q: How did the scope of your work come to encompass all the areas it currently touches?

Bethel New Life came out of Bethel Church in a very low-income community with about 200 community residents as members of the church. We didn’t have any people with great degrees or great jobs. It started with a conviction that we needed to be about creating an affordable, livable, just community.

In the beginning, people put in $5 and $10 a week until we had $5,000. That was our five loaves and two fishes -- it’s what we started with.

At that time, all the housing around our church was crumbling. This was the early ‘70s. There was a staggering need for affordable housing in our neighborhood. We approached other churches [in the neighborhood and said], “We think we should start a housing ministry.” They said, “It’s too complicated. It takes too much money, and it takes too much time.” But our little church said, “We’re going to do it.”

Q: Did you know what you were getting involved in?

We built the road as we traveled. We started with a commitment to affordable development without displacement. Then, after developing some three-unit and five-unit and fifteen-unit apartments, we found out that even the most affordable housing isn’t affordable if people don’t have jobs.

So we evolved, and the next step was to figure out how to create jobs and link people up with existing jobs. Then we realized that the school system isn’t working; the kids either don’t graduate or don’t have the skills that are needed for living-wage jobs. So we got involved in the schools. Then we found out that if people don’t have access to the health-care system, then the sick or addicted can’t get a job.

Had we known when we started about the complexity of what we were getting involved in, we probably wouldn’t have done it. We would have been scared spitless! But God has a way of giving us enough manna -- and enough vision -- for one day at a time.

Q: How did Bethel New Life handle its growth as it got involved in so many areas of community life?

As we grew, our organization became bigger than our church in terms of both employees and budget. The church was -- and still is -- central to the identity of our organization, but there’s been a tension around maintaining our sense of vision out of that faith base.

Another challenge that we face is a tension about how to be genuinely community-based in a low-income, minority community where we don’t have all of the traditional resources at hand. We struggle around having decisions made by people in the community and not getting corporate in terms of our organizational structure and board involvement. We need to be good stewards of the money and the opportunities that we have, but we also have to make sure that decisions are being made by the people involved in the situation.

We are very intent about growing leadership. We hire from within the community, and we promote from within the community. We have got a lot of people who work in the organization and live in the community for whom this is life -- they aren’t just doing it for a job. When you’re interviewing people, you say, “I want your soul and not just your body in this job.”

Another part of it involves making people clear about your vision, values and focus. Each time you get new management people, you’ve got to start from scratch. All of the managers don’t have the same vision when they come in, so it’s one of those things you struggle for and keep working on. God somehow helps make it happen.

Initially, we didn’t do everything with absolute quality, but we sacrificed some things to make that kind of leadership a reality because we had a different set of values.

Q: How does a Christian commitment inform the day-to-day work Bethel is involved in?

Being faith-based, we’ve got three G’s that make our work possible.

First, our faith is the glue that holds us together. We can fight and argue and disagree. But when we get down on our knees and pray, God reminds us of God’s vision for the human community. That pulls us out of our pettiness into God’s bigger vision for our work.

The second G: it’s the gasoline for the long haul. This other world that’s possible in God’s name isn’t going to happen quickly. Sometimes we get discouraged. It’s that gasoline that says, “Hey, we’ve got to go back and ask that bank to give us that loan because they can’t do anything more than turn us down again.”

The third G is guts. It’s the guts to make the risky decisions, to put our lives in the balance. For instance, at the point when we were starting to build bigger housing projects, the bank said to us, “We need collateral.” We looked around and decided that what we had was a church building free of any debt. We decided to mortgage our building, to put our church at risk so we could be about what we thought God was calling us to do.

Q: Did Bethel New Life have growing pains as it expanded its mission?

An organization learns a lot both by what works and what doesn’t work. We learned, for instance, that we really needed to be focused on what we were good at. We found out early on that we were good at putting programs together, but we weren’t good at operating them long term. We identified our strengths as creativity and vision.

Another lesson for us was that we do not have to do everything ourselves. We can be a partner in the background instead of a partner in the foreground, and we can still be catalytic in the community if we allow ourselves to step back.

Q: How do you partner with others to take advantage of opportunities in your community?

Bethel has always looked at the neighborhood and seen the possibilities, not the liabilities. The census information says we’re a poor, low-asset community.

But we looked and saw that we had a lot of elderly folks in our neighborhood. That turned out to be a good, long-term business possibility. We started looking into providing in-home care services for the elderly and found that we could employ 200 people. Those are jobs in the community that we created.

But those weren’t living-wage jobs unless people were properly trained. So we had to partner with the community colleges so that they could come in and offer training to become certified nurse’s aides, licensed practical nurses and, ultimately, registered nurses. We could bring the people to the job opportunities, but we could not offer the training.

Q: How do you measure the success of your initiatives?

We think about every initiative and program and ask, “How do you make it a reality?”

Thinking about outcomes made a big difference for our child development center. We asked ourselves, “What is the desired outcome for the years that a child would spend in this place?” We decided that we want every child to be school-ready. Then we asked, “What does school readiness mean?” And we began thinking about numeracy skills, the recognition of colors, mobility skills and so forth. Setting those goals caused us to look at each child. We ended up individualizing plans for each child in this daycare center.

As we made these things logical and down-to-earth, everybody got into this notion of thinking about practical ways to make our outcomes realities. As staff changed, we had to go through that process all over again and keep our goals in front of people.

Q: What are you doing with your time now that you’re no longer on staff at Bethel New Life?

I retired from Bethel New Life in 2006. I still live in the community and worship in the community. I teach for the Seminary Consortium on Urban Pastoral Education, and I teach with the Christian Community Development Association. I stay very much involved in the justice issues. I have a little bit more flexibility of time, so I can be a part of the planning sessions, the marches and the petitions.

I have a strong passion for the fact that another world is possible. This world doesn’t have to be the kind of place where some people don’t have the same chances as everybody else.