The upside of unused church space

Churches in Denver, Colorado, Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. are turning unused space—empty church buildings, undeveloped parcels, old parking lots—into affordable housing solutions. Recent stories about what’s happening in these cities call this a nationwide trend, and I suspect that’s overstated, but I suggest we keep calling it that in hopes that it becomes true.

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How much land do churches own nationwide? How much of that land is in cities with an affordable housing crisis? Think of all the old, aging church buildings with declining memberships—they’re everywhere, and in some cities they’re becoming bars, climbing gyms, high-end condos. But some congregations are using a better economic imagination.

In downtown Denver, St. John’s Cathedral sold an old parking lot for $1 to a nonprofit that built 50 affordable housing units. That inspired the local Interfaith Alliance to pull 20 churches together to “transform their unused land into housing with a higher purpose.” They looked at county data and found more than 5000 acres of unused land owned by churches around Denver. Statewide, there’s even more—down in El Paso County (home to church-dense Colorado Springs) there are 10,000 acres of development land.

There are lots of ways this could go, and it sounds like the Interfaith Alliance is getting lots of advice and being as creative as possible. Some churches are selling their buildings are market rate and using the cash for housing efforts, some are running their own properties, some are giving the land away.

This work is absolutely vital in one of the hottest housing markets in the country—more and more families are facing fewer and fewer housing options. More than 50% of Denver renters pay more than 30% of their income in rent, and last summer, the average price of sold single-family homes was over $500,000.

The housing affordability problem hits far beyond the hottest markets, however. “Millions of low-income Americans are paying 70 percent or more of their incomes for shelter,” reports Glenn Thrush at the New York Times, and our federal and state responses to these challenges are slow, stubborn, and often inept.

Here in Texas, I am certain there is lots of opportunity for churches to get creative about our own brewing housing crisis. (The Texas Tribune has a new series on the issue.) I saw a recent annual report from the Rio Texas United Methodist Conference, and concerns about the real estate of their empty churches—mostly in the “inner city”—took up a significant portion of the report. Also, last year at Folo Media when we were trying to build a comprehensive list of San Antonio congregations, the county data we pulled showed land holdings that far exceeded the number of churches in the area. It wasn’t clear how that land is being used, but I wonder if congregations around here are having the same conversation that is happening in Denver, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

Here’s hoping a trend really is underway, and that congregations want to be trendy.

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Writing about Mom

I’ve been thinking about writing a book about my mom for over a decade. She is an extraordinary person who lived a life of struggle with remarkable integrity and even joy. I think her story would do a lot of people a lot of good.

For a long time, I told myself I wasn’t working on that book because she was living with cancer and I did not want to be looking backward at her life as if her life was about to be over. I wanted to keep hoping we’d have her another 20 years.

I don’t have that excuse now. Since she passed in February, I’ve published one article—about how prayer was her life’s work—and yesterday I posted to Medium this short story about anger and the things people say when someone you love dies and a trail run I took on the day of her death.

Both times I’ve written about her, it feels a little like I’m spending time with her. That makes me want to write a lot more . . . and not write any more at all. I love thinking about her, of course, but to think about her is to remember again that she is gone. Choosing to sit with that loss regularly might be more than I can commit to.

But I do enjoy spreading the gospel of her life:

She was good at loving things. Not just people, but delights of all kinds. She’d exclaim over a bite of pie — My law, that is good! She’d thrill to a rush of snowy air barreling through a door — Polly Wolly, that is cold! She’d revel in the small actions of my children or the everyday insights of my wife — I do believe that is the sweetest thing I have ever heard! I called or texted her when any good thing happened, because her delight upgraded my delights. Her joy added to my joy, like a contagion.

I stood at the top of that hill and pretended for a moment that I did not know what I was feeling instead of anger — but I knew. I knew even as it welled up within me and pushed everything else aside: it was joy. I could almost hear Mom sharing it with me.

UnChristian Christianity

Conor Friedersdorf:

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ speaks of the Second Coming, telling his disciples that all humanity will be gathered to distinguish those chosen to reside with him in Heaven from those damned to join the devil in Hell. He says those blessed to spend eternity with God will be told, “Take your inheritance … for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Whereas the condemned will be told, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil… For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” When they retort, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” Jesus said, they will be told that whatever they failed to do for the least of their fellow humans, “you did not do for me.”

Intervening millennia have offered no shortage of opportunities to care for strangers who are hungry, thirsty, sick, or otherwise destitute, rather than turning them away. Christian charities are often at the forefront of such efforts. The UN Refugee Agency now estimates 68.5 million displaced people worldwide, including 25.4 million refugees—roughly half children—and 3.1 million asylum seekers.

If Trump’s coalition believes the U.S. cannot possibly absorb all of them—that even God would not want so many people welcomed into the life raft that it sank, to invoke an analogy oft-used by immigration restrictions—it seems equally clear that the levels of refugee absorption the U.S. sustained for decades were eminently sustainable. Yet Trump and his supporters—a coalition its churchgoers can make or break—have the distinction of planning to help tens of thousands fewer strangers in urgent need than any governing coalition in modern history.

 

The people who know what’s going on

Yesterday I met a Hispanic pastor in  San Antonio whose church features a Spanish-language service as one of its three Sunday morning services. Those are increasingly common nationwide, but this guy’s church had an interesting wrinkle—one that is a tell-tale sign of what’s happening with immigration along the southern United States border.

This pastor speaks fluent Spanish, and his parents are from Mexico, but he was raised in Texas. A few years ago, he realized he was “no longer fluent enough” to reach his neighborhood’s current wave of native Spanish speakers—recent immigrants, many undocumented, who are living in extremely vulnerable conditions.

By “fluent enough,” he didn’t mean language, but culture. “My skin is brown,” he said, “but my culture is U.S.”

“These people are from Mexico, but also Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua,” he said. And they’re very new to the United States. I asked him how often he meets people on Sunday mornings who have just crossed the border illegally. “All the time,” he said. (Note: that’s why I’m not including names or locations in this post.) His Spanish-language service expands and contracts based on what’s happening in the news. “That service shrinks when a[n ICE] crackdown is happening,” he said. “And I understand—people can’t leave their homes.”

He realized his skin color, his lifelong Spanish fluency, and his deep Mexican heritage wasn’t enough to relate to the immigrants of today. So he recruited a young person from Mexico to come help him and his wife lead this portion of their church community.

Think about that—the care and concern and principled leadership involved in that decision. This church is not large, and its neighborhood is high-poverty, with a median income around $33,000—well below the national average. It’s a stretch and a risk for this church to hire another pastor, especially one whose job is to focus on the most vulnerable and transitional people in the congregation. But that’s what this guy did.

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A San Antonio church. (Not the one mentioned in this post.)

Which leads me back to a thought I have a lot these days:

One of best ways we could serve America’s most vulnerable people is to ask pastors and priests serving low-wealth neighborhoods to make a list of what they need, and just give it all to them. Yeah, I know that’s been tried, sort of, and it’s a non-starter politically.

But it pains me, because I talk to a lot of ministers in low-wealth neighborhoods, and what I find is that they really know what’s going on—they have direct, up-to-the-minute knowledge of the lives and needs of people in a few square miles of city. Unlike elected officials and even many activists, ministers talk to the people in these neighborhoods everyday, and they talk to a cross-section: parents, young children, teenagers, the elderly, small business owners, the out-of-work, ex-cons, the disabled, people struggling with mental health issues, and on and on.

And what needs would these ministers identify? Well, they might surprise you—though I find that their thinking often echoes what I read from the best academic researchers and journalists on these issues.

The pastor I mentioned above mentioned two big needs: a soccer field for local youth, and business training for locals who are running fragile-but-promising ventures like lawn care and BBQ catering. Both needs, if fulfilled, would touch upon a laundry list of issues that the government and big nonprofits and foundations struggle to address: for the soccer field—physical health, idle time, confidence-building, teamwork thinking, beautifying a dangerous empty lot, and more; for the business training—economic development, leadership training, job creation, and more. (Side note: if this nation ever gets serious about job development in low-wealth areas, we’ll apply our startup know-how to the mom-and-pop businesses that already exist.)

These needs are no big deal in some parts of town. Fields of play are easy to come by in middle- and higher-class areas. Business coaching happens almost naturally in higher-wealth areas; it’s in the water. But in this pastor’s neighborhood? The infrastructure is not there. These needs are hard to meet.

A few years ago, he was able to get a playground built in his under-served neighborhood. It took some relational capital and some luck. A wealthy white business owner heard about the need, and offered to help. They had a meeting with few of the wealthy man’s friends, and by the end of the meeting, the men had pledged the $60,000 needed to build the playground. A few months later, they had a playground building party complete with 200 volunteers and free food and a band.

Cool story. But boy, that’s a hard model to scale across the many structural needs in a community like this one. Especially when no one thinks to ask deeply informed leaders like this pastor what a community needs.

This pastor recently turned down a big job offer in another city, one that would have given him and his wife some financial stability. He and his wife agreed that they simply could not leave. There is still too much work to do in this community. And if they don’t do it, who will?

A city in 12.5 miles

Anyone wanting to get a taste of the economic and social changes affecting people in San Antonio would do well to take a drive down Zarzamora Street. It runs only 12.5 miles, but that short distance covers a lot of ground.

Here it is: zarzamora map

In that trip, you can see what’s churning in our city. Gentrification? Check. Aging public housing? Check. Boarded up businesses? Check. Struggling traditional schools? Check. Newer charter schools? Check. Historic churches? Check. Distressed houses? Check. Middle-income neighborhoods? Check. Big new developments? Check. Untouched fields? Check. Plus plentiful taquerias, old-school factories, local artist murals, and more.

Start in the Deco District. Open the Zillow app and click around the listings, and you’ll catch the tell-tale language of gentrification: “up and coming neighborhood!”—“popular area”—“recently transformed”—“restored to original glory”—“income-producing property.” Per square foot, this is some of the priciest real estate in San Antonio. Here’s a listing for $160/square foot; here’s one for $161.

Zarzamora runs that way for about 7 blocks, or half a mile. Then you cross Woodlawn, and things suddenly shift. Woodlawn Lake is within walking distance, but now we’re in not-yet-transformed territory. The real estate listing lingo changes: “great opportunity” — “great potential.” The prices per square foot nosedive: This one is $108. This one is $71.

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A friend of mine called this paint color “the color of gentrification.”

(Every now and then, you’ll find a pioneering property, if “pioneering” is the right word, and it’s not. What I mean is that you’ll find someone who has ventured into an area they expect to gentrify, but they’ve ventured alone. “WOW COME SEE THIS HOME,” says this listing, which is asking $120,000 for 864 square feet. That’s $139/square foot on a block where most of the homes are severely distressed.)

 

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A house directly across the street from the listing above.

Retail changes in this area, too, as does the density of it—more aging businesses, and also more boarded-up businesses.

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Zarzamora Street Gym, for sale.

Eventually, you cross Alazan Creek, and then Apache Creek. You’re near big public housing complexes like the Cassiano Homes, and venerable nonprofits like Good Samaritan Community Services.

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One of two murals on the handball courts at Escobar Park.

Keep going south, and at some point you’ll realize you’re in what we call the Southside. Development is less dense here, and it’s more visibly middle class. You’ll see a Starbucks. You’ll see both a Home Depot and a Lowe’s. You’ll see the South Park Mall. Palo Alto College announces itself in the distance.

 

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The view of downtown from Zarzamora St. and Gillette Blvd.

Passing under I-410 brings another dramatic change. Open fields abound, but there is an anchor institution: the Texas A&M University-San Antonio. It’s a commuter campus, and I imagine most students come via 410, but I recommend the Zarzamora route—especially to the sociology students. It’s easy to imagine the fields around this campus filling in as the years go by. For Sale signs are positioned at the edges of some fields as Zarzamora runs southward until it abuts Route 16.

Take a drive of Zarzamora. It’s all here—the city’s historic heart, its churning present, and its future in flux.

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The south-most point of Zarzamora Street. It’s a long way from Deco Pizza.

 

“It’s all about relationships” is not a cop-out

Over the last year-plus I’ve had dozens of conversations with people working to address inequity and inequality. They are scholars, nonprofit leaders, politicians, activists, ministers, business owners from a range of political, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Some make well into six figures doing what they do; others get by only a little better than those in the underprivileged communities they serve.

When we talk about the wealth and opportunity gap in San Antonio, we talk about a dizzying range of problems and a just-as-dizzying variety of potential solutions. But one idea, one theme, one solution comes up more than any other: “It’s really all about relationships.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that line come from the mouths of one of those people. And again, it doesn’t matter what their station in life is, their skin color, their political commitments. I’ve heard it from middle-aged, white, ultra-conservative Christians who live in all-red suburbs; I’ve heard it from queer activists of color who live in urban cores. Often it’s after we’ve discussed everything else—solutions that are promising and already working but are also big and complicated and slow-moving. It’s a line that brings things to a close, or adjusts perspective, or delivers a caveat to whatever else has been said. It’s really all about relationships.

What these people share is a conviction that the reason inequity and inequality are so bad in this country and getting worse is that we’re almost never actually confronted with the problem in any meaningful way. We hear data about inequality and injustice. We read stories. We form opinions. But we never personally interact with the problem—we don’t have physical, embodied, personal experiences of people who are not like us. Our neighborhoods, and thus our lives, are socially, economically, and culturally homogeneous, and we’re tricked into believing that the world basically looks like whatever our lives look like. This is particularly true in western cities that have been built for cars and where there is almost no opportunity to have a significant encounter with someone who is not a lot like you.

Still, it’s hard not to hear It’s all about relationships as soft, sentimental. The kind of thing people say when they’re not sure what else to say. Or even a cop-out, because the chances of wealthy and poor actually forming meaningful relationships are so slim.

But usually, the folks I’m talking to have operationalized this issue. They’ve experienced the power of unexpected relationships themselves and have realized how that experience reframes everything. One has moved into an extremely low-income neighborhood. One chooses to pastor a church in a low-income area. One runs a program that delivers food and other support to the poor, and she requires all (usually white and wealthy) volunteers to become mentor-coaches for people in her program. (She tells me that she’s pulling a trick—the wealthy people are the ones who end up feeling coached as they enter into these relationships.)

This is slow work, a person and a relationship at a time. But it’s a strategy that people who think about, write about, and work on inequity should take seriously. If people who are on the front lines of this issue are saying this, how do we make sure we’re hearing what they’re saying? How do we scale a solution like this?

Young, Broke, and Uneducated in Texas

Texas is one of the fastest-growing states in the country, and it’s growing in ways that belie its national reputation: it’s both an incredibly youthful state and and incredibly non-white state.

In his (utterly fantastic) new book God Save Texas, Lawrence Wright points out that in the city of Houston, for example, almost 40 percent of the population is under 24 years old, and “more than half that youthful cohort are Latino, and nearly 20 percent are African Americans.” Similar demographics (though trending more Hispanic) can be found in San Antonio, where I live.

But Wright points out another fact of this youthful cohort: this group is “the most likely to be undereducated.” Also, they’re often poor: “One in four Texas children lives in poverty.”

Temuco_children

I find this state of affairs troubling to the point of terrifying. People talk a lot about how much Texas is booming — lots of good jobs, growing industries, open for business and all that. A couple weekends ago I drove from San Antonio to Dallas, passing through Austin and Waco, and in all four cities cranes dot the skylines. The growth narrative is real.

But our growth is uneven, which is to say inequitable — the increases we’re experiencing are not going to be good for very many people, relatively speaking. We’re investing in growth with tax incentives for developers and jobs creators, but we’re not also investing in our children by ensuring they are educated, well fed, and living in safe homes and neighborhoods. In these measures — how much we spend on education and attending to the needs of the most vulnerable — Texas ranks near the bottom.

We’re building roads and buildings and new neighborhoods; we’re remaking our urban cores. A lot of this work is good and necessary. But if we don’t change how we plan for a future Texas led by today’s young people, we’re also laying the groundwork for a future tragedy.

And as Wright puts it: “These failures will have national consequences, since one out of ten children in the United States is a Texan.”