Downwardly mobile for Jesus

Like other evangelical relocators, Baltimore’s Matthew Loftus wanted to have a personal stake in fighting poverty

Matthew Loftus, left, walks home with his wife, Maggie, and daughter, Naomi, after attending Sunday service at New Song Community Church in the impoverished Sandtown neighborhood in Baltimore.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

BALTIMORE, Md. — At the corner of Laurens Street and Fulton Avenue, a man watches Matthew Loftus walk by with his 21-month-old daughter, Naomi, strapped to his back. “She got big!” the man says.

Loftus, 27, says something friendly back, but he’s not sure who the man is. “My eyesight is actually really bad,” he says.

As he runs an errand in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, people notice Loftus before he notices them. On Presstman Street, where Loftus rented before buying a home several blocks away, a young girl in a school uniform smiles and says, “I see you’re visiting the old neighborhood.” A group of men playing cards on the corner asks about the rabbits that he and his wife, Maggie Loftus, 25, were raising the last time they saw him. In front of a Monroe Street car wash, a man spies Naomi. “She still gorgeous!” he says. “Tell your wife I said hi.”

For his neighbors, Matthew Loftus is hard to miss, no matter their eyesight. He is white in a nearly all-black neighborhood. Like much of West Baltimore, Sandtown faces relentless poverty, addiction and violence. Six hours after Loftus’ afternoon stroll in late May, three men were shot just down the street from the car wash.

For a brief while, though, as Loftus walks through the neighborhood, it feels like a small town. 

Matthew Loftus holds a meeting of New Song Community Church’s mental health group at his home after Sunday service.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

He doesn’t fit into the typical narratives about changing American communities. On one hand, recent housing policy has encouraged integrated suburbs by helping low-income families access communities of opportunity with more jobs, less crime and better schools. When integration moves the other way — into poor urban neighborhoods — it often tips over into gentrification as upscale amenities arrive, taxes and rents rise and longtime residents get priced out.

For people like Loftus, it’s not coffee shops or home values drawing them to places like Sandtown. It’s Jesus. Shortly after Loftus started medical school in Baltimore in 2007, he began worshipping at New Song Community Church, a racially diverse congregation in Sandtown. New Song is part of the same Presbyterian denomination as the church Loftus and his 14 siblings attended as children in Harford County, Maryland, 40 minutes outside the city.  

New Song is also a member of the Christian Community Development Association. The CCDA’s model is similar to asset-based community development, which tries to build out from a community’s strengths rather than fix its deficiencies. But the CCDA asks more of its practitioners across the nation: that they have something personally at stake in the development. Leaders at New Song talked to Loftus about the core of the CCDA’s philosophy, the three R’s — relocation, redistribution and reconciliation.

The CCDA model emerged largely from the work of John Perkins, a black 84-year-old civil-rights activist from rural Mississippi. Evangelism is at the heart of Perkins’ model. But what separates his approach is his insistence that outsiders who want to help a neighborhood actually move in. The idea is rooted in incarnational ministry, the idea that God became flesh and shared in human suffering. Jesus, CCDA supporters like to say, did not commute back and forth from heaven.

Perkins rejects “impersonal and bureaucratic” solutions to poverty, which he believes make residents dependent on outside institutions that don’t understand the roots of their problems. The CCDA helps its member organizations build relationships within the community that bridge racial and economic divides, hoping development will grow outward from that foundation. The CCDA now works with nearly 1,000 organizations around the nation. Close to 3,000 people attend CCDA’s annual conference.

Miami University anthropologist James Bielo studies the reurbanization of evangelicals and says he’s seeing more of the younger ones leave the suburbs for the city. “It’s sort of a hot thing,” he says. Mark Mulder, a sociologist at evangelical Calvin College in Michigan, says some evangelicals subscribe to what he calls the “miracle motif” — the belief that racial justice depends on more people becoming Christian — and others say that’s not enough, believing systemic changes must also be made in society. “Perkins and the CCDA,” Mulder says, “get traction in speaking to both communities.”

Loftus, center, praying before a meeting of New Song’s mental health group.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

Sandtown’s first relocators were the Tibbelses, a white family of four who moved in 28 years ago, and Mark Gornik, a pastor friend who joined them. “We were black on black,” says Clyde Harris, an African-American nonprofit founder who grew up in Sandtown and had started Newborn Holiness Church before the Tibbelses arrived. “No way white folks would come in here to live with their babies.”

Suspicious neighbors wondered if the new arrivals were part of a cult. The neighbors sent Harris to check them out.

Harris embraced the newcomers, who introduced the neighborhood to Perkins’ model. Ever since, the New Song church and ministries, which Allan Tibbels — the father of the family — and Gornik helped launch, have worked hand in hand with Harris’ Newborn Holistic Ministries to do community work in Sandtown.

Tibbels’ suggested method for engaging potential relocators was to try as hard as possible to dissuade them and if they still wanted to move in, encourage them. Matthew Loftus consulted with church elders for most of 2009. At the end of the year, he and Maggie married, and they moved to Presstman Street.

Relocators often arrive with more education than their new neighbors, more wealth, more connections — you name it. (The median household income in Sandtown was just $22,237 in 2009, when the Loftuses moved in). The CCDA’s redistribution principle means making those resources available to empower neighbors.

One of Matthew Loftus’ redistribution efforts has been a program connecting residents with underutilized mental health services. In poor, violent neighborhoods like Sandtown, there is often a more pronounced need for these services, yet there is a stigma associated with mental illness. His program helps neighbors navigate the mental health care system and follows up with clients about their appointments.

Having grown up with ample resources and his leadership potential consistently recognized, Loftus says, there is an ever-present temptation to feel like a savior in a neighborhood like Sandtown. “As a white person, my innate desire to fix, control, be in charge — all those sorts of things start to come out very, very quickly.”

The CCDA model is conscious of the white-savior trap and encourages indigenous leadership. Loftus, now a family physician, is training Sandtown residents to lead small group discussions on issues like stress and grief. The idea is that they will in turn train more people, allowing him to bow out and leave the reins with those who have the most at stake.

Early on in the CCDA movement, Sandtown relocators started a Habitat for Humanity chapter that has since built more than 300 houses as well as a school. Both are now run by lifelong Sandtown residents.

“Every ministry that’s come through church has always been with the goal of empowering the community to take over,” says 43-year-old New Song elder Antoine Bennett. “You never see a solo director of programs that doesn’t have a co-director or assistant director, someone from the neighborhood serving in a leadership capacity with decision-making power.”

Loftus with Antoine Bennett, who grew up in Sandtown. The weighty dynamics of reconciliation often fall on Bennett’s shoulders.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

Of the CCDA’s three R’s, reconciliation is perhaps the hardest work. This being an evangelical movement, personal reconciliation with God is expected. But in Sandtown, reconciliation — creating deep relationships — is also expected across the thorny lines of race and class.

Bennett and Patty Prasada-Rao, a relocator from suburban Silver Spring, Maryland, who lived and worked in Sandtown until last year and has also served as a CCDA operations director in Chicago, have walked many relocators through the ABCs of living in the area. Neighbors, they explain, can be welcoming but suspicious. They may not be as quick as a relocator to call the police. Bennett tells relocators that if they see a young black man in handcuffs, they should not “approach a neighbor saying, ‘What did he do?’ So he’s guilty because he’s a young black teen, automatically? Say, ‘Is everything all right?’ ”

Prasada-Rao gave her cellphone number to new relocators, saying that if they sense a conflict coming on or even observe a conflict and don’t know whether to intervene, they should to call her or Bennett first unless someone’s life is in danger. Bennett says he gets calls “all the time” from relocators adjusting to the neighborhood, and some have put themselves in dangerous situations. “There’s an old term, ‘Trust God, but tie up your camel,’” says Bennett. “He’s the greatest protector, but he also calls us to be wise.”

Bennett, who is black, grew up in Sandtown; he’s part of the fifth generation in his family to do so. His mother died just months after he was born, and he was raised by his grandmother, who worked as a secretary at a pharmacy. His father struggled with drug addiction. At 18, Bennett was arrested for shooting a man; he served three and a half years in prison.

Now the director of Men of Valuable Action, a nonprofit that helps ex-offenders find employment and educational opportunities, he says New Song’s focus on reconciliation has empowered him to feel comfortable working with anyone. “Any community that says, ‘We just want to work for us and by ourselves,’ ” he says, “is a very limited community and destined to fail, in my opinion.”

The weighty dynamics of reconciliation in Sandtown often settle on his shoulders. As a lifelong resident who did time in prison, he can connect with the young men on the corner. As a New Song veteran and church elder, he becomes very close with relocators.

“I feel personally responsible for them,” he says.

The possibility of a white relocator doing or saying something paternalistic to a longtime resident — intentionally or not — weighs on Bennett, as does the specter of a relocator falling victim to neighborhood violence.

“We’re not walking on eggshells,” he says. But he adds, “It could unravel a lot of the relationships that have been developed over the last 26 years across racial and educational lines.”

Loftus says that although he has heard “snatches” of resentment, the impression he has gotten from his immediate neighbors is, as he puts it, “Well … Matthew and Maggie, they’re a little weird, but they’re nice people, and we’re nice people, and this is a cheap place to own a house.”

Marvin Wilson, a 21-year-old African-American man who lives at the southern edge of Sandtown, says he has no problem with relocators. “Anybody can move anywhere,” he says. “It just depends on how you carry yourself in the neighborhood.” 

Worshippers greet each other at New Song Community Church in Sandtown.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that 11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.

Yet at 11 a.m. on a recent Sunday, white families and black families arriving at a New Song Community Church service, held in a school gymnasium, greet one another with hugs. By the time the seats are filled, the room is half white and half black. The church band has two keyboardists — one white, one black. A black woman gives an Old Testament reading; a white woman reads from the New Testament.

The neighborhood itself is not nearly as integrated as New Song’s church service. There are approximately 20 relocator households in and around Sandtown, a neighborhood of nearly 10,000 residents. The difference between the level of integration one sees in the neighborhood and at a church service has posed a dilemma for New Song’s leaders.

All CCDA churches are encouraged to embrace the idea of relocation, but the CCDA doesn’t tell churches how to do it. In some cases, says Patty Prasada-Rao, “if a person’s coming to church and they visit for a while, but they’re not interested in relocating or they’re not actually working for the ministries or in relationship with people in the community, then they would be encouraged in a conversation with leadership of the church that maybe this isn’t the church for you.

“New Song used to do that,” she continues, “and that was called the Talk.”

A few years ago, some elders asked church leadership to rethink that approach, and the Talk stopped. The group of people involved with New Song’s neighborhood work had become more multiracial over time; why, they wondered, shouldn’t the congregation reflect that diversity? (Noel Castellanos, CEO of CCDA, says that, nationally, this practice was probably rare.)

To make sure newcomers understand New Song’s dedication to the neighborhood, each Sunday someone explains the CCDA’s three R’s philosophy to the congregation. It’s clear what’s expected. “Not to the point of ‘Can you make this your last Sunday?’” Bennett says, “but we want folks to respect that and care about the community.”

The Loftus family plans to go abroad in 2015 with an evangelical group to practice community development and train new doctors. Patty Prasada-Rao and New Song elders hope relocators will stay for at least 15 years or even a lifetime, but they advised the Loftuses that a shorter commitment was fine as long as they made it clear to the community that they would be moving out.

“What would feel bad,” says Prasada-Rao, “is if they made a commitment that they’re moving in for lifelong and then they left.

New Song encourages people who relocate to the neighborhood to stay at least 15 years, even a lifetime.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

Relatively few people have made the desired lifelong commitment to the neighborhood. The pastor of New Song Community Church, in fact, left a year ago, and the congregation has yet to replace him. When it comes to sustaining CCDA-style ministries in Sandtown, Harris says, “we are two handfuls of committed people.”

He and others practicing Christian community development in Sandtown are willing to partner with government and other outside institutions, but there is some built-in wariness of projects led by — and occasionally with funding from — outsiders.

“I think nonprofits coming in from 9 to 5 have probably done as much harm as they’ve done good,” says relocator Mark Lange. An outside partnership brought tens of millions in brick and mortar, including a housing development, to Sandtown two decades ago. When the mayor showed up to take credit, Lange says, the neighborhood was not kind to him. What residents wanted were jobs.

“Most people who got those homes were not from this neighborhood,” Lange says. “That’s what happens when somebody comes in with good intentions but their agenda and doesn’t know the people.”

CCDA-led programs also come and go. A jobs program started by relocators in the 1990s shut down, as did a health center started by a doctor in New Song’s congregation. A business that New Song helped launch in 2008, Gerry’s Goods, has been shuttered for over a year. (“We essentially had an upscale coffee shop in a chicken-box neighborhood,” says Bennett.)

But with the core of CCDA followers in it for the long haul, similar programs have popped up since then: Loftus’ mental-health initiative, Bennett’s ex-offender program, a farm on a vacant lot that grows lettuce for high-end restaurants. 

Activists in the Newborn–New Song orbit realize that no one organization will rebuild all the houses, employ all the residents or end all the violence. But there is hope within the neighborhood’s 72 square blocks. Residents see a school that can groom future leaders, a church where people of different races and backgrounds can worship together, an infrastructure to attract middle-class residents, a development philosophy that can keep the negative consequences of gentrification at bay (some call their model gentrification with justice) and successful people who can show those who dream of getting up and out that there’s a reason to stay. That includes “remainers” who grew up here, have the resources to leave but choose to stay, as well as returners like Al Stokes, who left Sandtown, found success and went back.

“I leave the community every day, earn a living and bring my living back here to disperse,” says Stokes, who has spent 26 years at an insurance company and lived in a seven-bedroom house in Ashburton — known as the neighborhood for Baltimore’s African-American elite — before deciding to return to where he grew up. “We want the children to know you can achieve anything you want and if you’re stumbling with something, there are professionals here who can help you.”

New Song members include not only relocators like Loftus, who move to Sandtown from other neighborhoods, but also “remainers” and returners.
Brooks Kraft for Al Jazeera America

Just before midnight on June 1, a 22-year-old black man named Barron McCree was stabbed to death on North Fulton Avenue, near the corner of North Avenue, a major crosstown thoroughfare.

Mark Lange works at Sandtown Habitat for Humanity’s secondhand home-improvement store just five blocks from the murder scene. Lange, a white relocator who moved to Sandtown in 2005, didn’t know McCree, but he has known many like him. While Sandtown’s overall crime rate is average for Baltimore and has mirrored the recent decline in the city’s rate, its homicide rate is double that of the city.

“You gotta be prepared to have your heart broken over and over and over and stay with it,” he says, sitting in his office taking a break after loading a cabinet into a customer’s car. “I’ve seen guys I’ve gotten to know get gunned down in the street since I’ve been here. I’ve grieved with their mothers. I still see their babies, who are 4 and 5 years old now. That’s the hard part.”

For years, Lange and his wife lived in Bel Air, Maryland, the same mostly white small-town-turned-exurb where Matthew Loftus spent his teenage years. He says they’re never going back.

“To live in that beautiful neighborhood in Bel Air made me complicit with the classism and racism that is endemic to the way communities are developed in this nation,” he says. “If we choose to live in those communities, we’re part of the problem, not the solution.”

Lange had been best friends with Allan Tibbels since high school. Each was the best man at the other’s wedding. He was with Tibbels when he died in 2010.

“Allan, toward the end of his life — we were talking, and he said, ‘We’ve been doing this 20 years. What have we accomplished?’ ” Lange says.

“He said, ‘OK, there’s the Habitat houses, you know. There’s the school, but the brutality and the violence is all still here.’ And he said, ‘Maybe all we’re here to do is just to come alongside people and suffer with them.’ ”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter