The Center for Religious Wisdom & World Affairs’ Puget Sound Network gathered on March 14th along with the Center team, Graduate Student Affiliates, and four key community partners as part of its continued work around how faith-based organizations (FBOs) can more effectively respond to pressing social problems, like homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.
Center Director Dr. Manuel Mejido opened the meeting by reminding the group that, despite the important role congregations, specialized faith-based service agencies and religious advocacy groups play in America’s social welfare system, these organizations tend not to address the systemic causes of poverty and inequality. A way FBOs might begin to tackle, for example, the lack of, or unequal access to, decent jobs or affordable housing, Dr. Mejido suggested, is by drawing on community economic development and social business strategies. By combining market mechanisms and participatory democratic practices, these models of community engagement push beyond mere “assistance,” and seek to create wealth, enhance assets, and expand the socioeconomic opportunities in poor or vulnerable neighborhoods.
Faith-Based Organizations and Community Economic Development
During the first part of the meeting, the Center’s Community Engagement Manager, Rev. Maggie Breen, presented the group with three faith-based community economic development initiatives – Bethel New Life, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement and Homeboy Industries. These organizations, she suggested, ground their work in three interlocking strategies:
- Empowering local actors: initiatives are grounded in the needs of the community and are implemented in partnership with community members and local stakeholders;
- Fostering sustainable solutions: the focus is on developing resources for human flourishings like affordable housing, employment, skills enhancement, and access to banking;
- Harnessing markets: markets are leveraged in socially beneficial ways and are used to incentivize community control and the development of local capacities.
The Network and guests brought their experience to a conversation around these points and arrived at the following considerations.
Mr. Michael Yoder and Rev. Marilyn Cornwell reminded the group of the important and particular contribution congregations make in the work of social change in that they tend to lead with personalized care, prioritize relationship, and take seriously spiritual as well as practical considerations. How, they asked, might we encourage congregational support of community economic development without imposing solutions that are not embedded in community needs? Rabbi Aaron Meyer and Mr. Michael Ramos pointed to community-led initiatives like those currently underway in the Central District, as well as those grounded in historical initiatives in Beacon Hill and the International District. They suggested that congregations and faith-based groups find ways to provide support to grass-roots initiatives already at work in their own locations.
As the group began to think about some of the particular needs and opportunities in this region, Rev. Brown challenged: how do we answer the critique that those who are marginalized and vulnerable are too often considered incapable of high-skilled employment or of pursuing entrepreneurial activities? In response, the group noted that the Pacific Northwest is an area rich in dynamic executive leadership, pioneering technology, and entrepreneurial skills, which together are fueling a robust economic engine. How might the faith-based community help leverage these facets of our lives in the Northwest so as to help all of our neighbors not just survive, but also thrive?
The marketplace and the development of social enterprises also offer new possibilities for faith-based organizations trying to sustain themselves as traditional sources of financing dry up. Ms. Kathleen Hosfeld and Mr. Dave Frederick pointed out that the development of possible business components within social endeavors must be based in the assets, gifts, and calling of the community. They cannot be “bolt-ons,” but must be grounded in a desire to conduct the business arm of the enterprise well. Mr. Frederick commented on his own journey to understand and embrace his love of creating an excellent coffee business as integral to his ministry. Good outcomes in this scenario, Ms. Tina Walha cautioned, depend upon excellent competencies for business practice as well as social change. The faith community must be clear on the assets available and the partnerships needed.
Mr. Rizwan Rizwi closed out this first half of the conversation by referring back to a case study he presented at the start of the conversation. The young mother, in his narrative, needed to find a better job as soon as possible in order to maintain her housing. After helping her to secure housing, Muslim Housing Services then focused substantial resources toward ensuring she found adequate employment. Mr. Rizwi emphasized that, given the emergent need and time constraints at play, he has no choice but to help his clients find entry-level jobs. However, he returned to the group’s earlier point that community economic development is necessarily grounded in representation, relationship, and partnership with other stakeholders. He could imagine a situation where, with more diverse partnerships, we might respond efficiently to the short-term need, and then also stay with a client to offer the support needed to actualize their long-term goals and potential.
Conversation with Center Scholar Mr. Michael Fisher, Jr.
Mr. Fisher, who works at the intersection of public theology, social ethics, and urban studies, discussed his research for the Center. His project examines how neoliberal urban policies in Washington, D.C. have led to the increased regulation and criminalization of unhoused people, especially in gentrifying and gentrified neighborhoods. His work also looks at how prosperity theology, which holds that God will bless the faithful with material wealth, serves to legitimate the policing of homeless individuals. Mr. Fisher problematizes the notion of private property as an expression of piety and divine justification for the accumulation of wealth and considers how faith-based organizations might disrupt and respond to such “religious illogics” in the context of the neoliberal city.
After this presentation, Dr. Mejido moderated a conversation between Mr. Fisher, Network members, and guests.
Rabbi Aaron Meyer reflected on how the American Jewish experience, as a successful immigrant story, has been oversimplified into a bootstrapping narrative. He wrestles with how this narrative minimizes the role of whiteness and systemic racism, and how it has become part of the American Jewish tradition, even without the theological undergirding provided by prosperity theology. In this vein, he wondered if there are some cultural trends outside of the Protestant community – in addition to the theological underpinnings – that Mr. Fisher is seeing at work in cities. Mr. Fisher remarked that the drive for money and ideas about what success looks like are culturally embedded in a capitalist society like the United States in such a way that they infiltrate its communities across religious affiliation. He pointed to the need for ethnographic research to answer the question more fully.
Rev. Marilyn Cornwell revisited the notion of “religious illogics” and asked two questions related to what she termed “progressive theology.” Noting the perceived contrast between prosperity theology and progressive theology, she questioned whether these two orientations are actually distinct with regard to the illogics Mr. Fisher raised. She suggested that progressive theologians also contribute to these illogics and are called to disrupt them – and their own complicity with them – on a structural level, through theological reflections, scripture studies, preaching, and ministry. Mr. Fisher responded by insisting on the need to refrain from demonizing adherents of prosperity theology. As we take time to reflect together, he suggested, we might be able to address gaps or dissonances within our own religious convictions, cultural values and lived faith.
Mr. Michael Ramos asked whether neoliberal urban development, beyond contributing to the marginalization of people who are homeless, might actually guarantee that a certain percentage of the population will experience homelessness. He cited factors like displacement, the escalation of rents and the number of market-rate units, and incentives given to companies to purchase large swaths of formerly or potentially residential real estate. Taking issue with Mr. Ramos’ use of the word “guarantee,” Mr. Fisher argued that, while neoliberal urban redevelopment certainly generates displacement and economic difficulties for low- and middle-income people – such that they may have to move outside the city or double up with family – it doesn’t necessarily guarantee homelessness. He noted that there is, however, a strong correlation, and the question raises more questions about the nuances of homelessness (e.g. chronic versus temporary homelessness) and about what it means to be able to afford to live in one’s city.
Finally, Dr. Mejido closed the conversation by posing the following question: “Do you think that faith-based community economic development and social business initiatives are expressions of neoliberalism, and more specifically of what you refer to as ‘prosperity theology’? Or are there liberative elements in these strategies? I ask because there seems to be a fundamental tension between, on the one hand, the tenets of liberation theology – especially when this tradition is read in light of the critique of neoliberalism; and, on the other hand, the turn to market mechanisms, the entrepreneurial spirit of the individual, and asset creation that orient social business models and some variants of community economic development.”
Mr. Fisher offered that FBOs engaged in community economic development and social business initiatives do not necessarily fall captive to neoliberalism and prosperity theology, but acknowledged a possible danger. He stated his belief that markets, agency and wealth are not inherently problematic or “evil” – it’s more about how we use and leverage our resources to come alongside and benefit the communities in which we’re trying to serve.
Network members, community partners, and Graduate Student Affiliates will have an opportunity to continue their conversation with Mr. Fisher and other Center scholars on April 25-27 at the upcoming symposium on homelessness. Center scholars will be at Seattle University during these three days to present and discuss their research projects, which will appear in a collected volume that will be published by Fordham University Press. More information about scholar presentations is available on the Center webpage.
The community partners present at the March Network meeting were, Mr. Michael Anderson, Stake President, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Mr. Dave Frederick, Executive Director of The Coffee Oasis; Ms. Kathleen Hosfeld, Executive Director of Homestead Community Land Trust; and Ms. Tina Walha, Director of the Innovation Team, City of Seattle. These partners appear in the photo header at the top of this article.