Photo courtesy of Kit Danley
Keeping it in the neighborhood
Kit Danley founded Neighborhood Ministries, a Phoenix-based holistic outreach organization serving low-income families and at-risk children, after her "phone booth" conversion.
March 15, 2011 | Editor's note: Kit Danley will be teaching at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation's 2011 Summer Institute.
Kit Danley walks into El Mercado de la Comunidad, a warehouse-turned-thrift store in inner-city Phoenix, Ariz., that has concrete floors and graffiti art painted across the building’s tin siding.
With white, stylishly curled hair, the 56-year-old Danley wears jeans, a casual blouse and a pair of leather designer shoes, which she bought at El Mercado.
She greets shoppers with a friendly, familial tone. Conversing in both English and Spanish, she asks customers, “How’s your son?” “How are your siblings?” “What are you looking for?”
A man, shopping with his son, said he’s searching for a washing machine.
“If we don’t have one today, just keep checking back every day,” Danley said. “I’m sure we’ll get one in soon.”
Later, seated in her office about 100 yards away from El Mercado, Danley’s demeanor shifts, turning serious and determined as she speaks about the poverty and injustice she sees daily in her community, and about El Mercado.
The store is one of 15 outreach arms and programs run by Neighborhood Ministries, a Phoenix-based holistic outreach organization for low-income families and at-risk children that Danley co-founded in 1982. Neighborhood Ministries serves more than 9,000 people each year, including about 1,000 children and teenagers.
“Our reference point is God’s heart. [His] heart is for the widows, orphans and aliens living in the land,” said Danley, president of Neighborhood Ministries.
“This is my assignment, and it’s the journey of my life.”
Questions to consider:
- What are the advantages of a holistic outreach approach like the one employed by Neighborhood Ministries?
- What are the benefits of not only serving a community but living as a part of the community as well?
- Is there a “phone booth” conversion that you have experienced and subsequently acted upon as a Christian institutional leader?
- Where are your leadership discomfort zones in which you can be challenged and changed?
- What could your organization do to help break down walls of injustice?
A heart for the poor
Danley grew up at the base of Phoenix’s Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., an affluent city sprinkled with art galleries, high-end restaurants and sprawling properties. Though the scene from the outside was picturesque, Danley had her share of childhood trials. Her father committed suicide. Her mother was an alcoholic. Her stepfather was abusive.
Danley often wondered, “If God is so loving, then why is there so much suffering?”
After graduating from high school, she followed in her father’s footsteps and enrolled at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. There, one day, driven by her own personal pain and emboldened by a country just coming out of the civil rights movement, she sobbed in a phone booth to a friend on the other end of the line. The friend quoted her parts of Luke 12:48, “… Much is required from those to whom much is given.”
Danley felt like she was waking up for the first time. Though she had committed her life to Jesus long before, it was a vow full of caveats, including “a big P.S.: Don’t mess with my life,” she said.
But that day, Danley simply and directly asked God, “If you are so loving, then why is there so much suffering?”
The answer: “Keep asking me the hard questions. I will meet you in those questions.”
The “phone booth” conversion, as Danley calls it, opened her eyes to what she as a Christian could be doing.
“In Scripture, it was about getting everyone, especially the prophets of old, out of their comfort zones,” Danley said. “In my discomfort zone, I’m changed.”
Hungry to learn how she could help her own community, Danley transferred to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she discovered a “hothouse environment” of a socially conscious Christian movement and met her future husband, Wayne.
“From our very first conversation, I could see how focused she was on God’s heart for the poor,” he said.
After both separately moved to Phoenix, Kit and Wayne reconnected at Open Door Fellowship Church. At the time, according to a 2001 study based on U.S. Census data conducted by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, Open Door was located right in the heart of the most impoverished area in Arizona. Densely populated, with 20 to 40 percent of its residents living in poverty, the area also had a growing population that was largely Hispanic with low education attainment and high unemployment rates.
The couple married in 1978 and had two children, Heather and Ian, now 32 and 29.
Determined not to be just “Sunday-service churchgoers,” they bought an old house -- complete with six shattered windows and motor oil-stained carpets -- in Open Door’s neighborhood and moved there. Their daughter asked at the time, “Why are we moving from the pretty house into the dirty house?”