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A Way of Doing Life

A teacher and a policy expert on real neighboring

We usually think of Christian Community Development as the work of CCD organizations. But what about people who incorporate CCD principles into their everyday life and work in their neighborhoods without working for a Christian Community Development organization?

We talked to two such people. Tiffany Childress teaches chemistry and other sciences at North Lawndale College Prep, a public high school in Chicago. She grew up in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati and now lives in North Lawndale, where she is a neighbor to many of her students. Juanita Irizarry, formerly the CCDA Institute director, is now a program officer in the basic human needs program at the Chicago Community Trust and policy director for the Chicago mayoral campaign of Miguel Del Valle. A lifelong resident of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, she has explored running for political office herself.

How did you first encounter the philosophy of Christian Community Development?

Tiffany: When I was 18 or 19, I did an immersion trip with Campus Crusade. One of the leaders was a white guy from Iowa who came from privilege, had gone to college, and then left Iowa for Chicago Heights. I had always heard that if you can, you leave the city for the suburbs. I wondered: Why would this white [guy] go to the ‘hood to help economically disadvantaged families instead of getting a nice, plush job? But the verse about “to whom much is given much is required” would not leave me. This was God’s call, but I didn’t realize it then.

After I finished college at Ohio State University, I relocated to Chicago and worked as a part-time Spanish teacher at Oak Park Christian Academy, was on staff for a time at La Villita Community Church, and worked for Lawndale Christian Development Corporation as a community organizer responsible for starting and implementing LISC’s New Communities Program initiatives.

Juanita: I grew up in the Humboldt Park area, just five blocks away from where I live now. My parents moved into this neighborhood because Dad was part of a church planting team with Moody Bible Institute. My parents believed that we should live in the neighborhood where we’re ministering. I was raised in the ‘hood and didn’t feel trapped here. There was not a lot of money, but we had more than most of our neighbors. Our parents raised us with “care for your neighbor” as a way of doing life, and my mom was particularly good at that. While Dad was off working, Mom was loving the next-door neighbor.

I was always interested in the structural reasons that people were poor, but no one in my life was talking about these things. There were lots of arson fires in the neighborhood, whites were moving out and Latinos were moving in, and no one was explaining it to me. So I went to college thinking I wanted to give back to my neighborhood. I thought I would work in government, but I didn’t have an actual plan.

After college I started working at the Christian Center for Urban Studies program at the Olive Branch Mission, coordinating urban plunge experiences and learning more about the city while teaching about ministry in the city. While there I met the world of CCD through books by John Perkins, Ray Bakke, and Bob Lupton, and by taking students on tours of Bethel New Life, Lawndale, and La Villita. I also read Urban Ministry, by David Claerbaut, in which the author describes the arson fires on the Northwest Side of Chicago. He was describing my life!

You both were drawn to Christian Community Development principles and then to CCDA, but now neither of you works for a CCDA member organization. Why?

Tiffany: I work as a public school teacher because through CCDA principles, I came to believe that a Christian cares about where our neighbors live and their quality of life. I came to see that public education is incredibly critical to the quality of life young people in my neighborhood will have. Unequal education is a justice issue that Christians should care about.

We see our whole life through this lens of Christian Community Development, and we’re helping to transform the schools very intentionally and working at community housing corporations and so on. Some people consider me a missionary because of where I live as a relocator, but I just think I’m being part of a community and a concerned neighbor.

Juanita: God kind of dropped this Chicago Community Trust job into my life, and the job gives me freedom to pursue political work. It’s more of a nine-to-five job, and I have more space to put my energies into being part of the community as a resident—as an active neighbor who’s getting engaged. And when you’re involved in fighting gentrification and preserving affordable housing, it’s hard not to end up in politics.

The eighth component of CCD is empowerment of indigenous leaders. I am an indigenous leader. My neighbors recognize that when they say to me, “You’ve spent your life listening to the community.” I’ve never been called a community organizer, but I’ve always been involved in community organizing—organizing campaigns without holding that title. Empowerment has always been in the vocabulary of the groups I’ve been involved in.

What are some other ways you incorporate CCD principles into your work?

Tiffany: Though my school isn’t church-based, I work to keep neighbors and the churches connected and supporting our neighborhood schools. The church is there to support us. A group of us in the neighborhood aren’t employed by CCD ministries but feel loyalty to each other and to the community. We talk about staying “because you’re here.” We need that network of support beyond the church walls because sometimes there are challenges to living in the ‘hood. All of us have had bikes, computers, or car batteries stolen, and it can be tempting to move out, but then we think: What would happen to this family or that family if we all start pulling out our support and resources? Doing life together helps us to stay, and that’s deeply rooted in church relationships.

Juanita: As a neighborhood resident, I can listen to the community. My analysis for a long time of CCDA member churches is that sometimes they start out by listening, but then they get to the point where they listen to the congregation and not to the community at large. I’ve worked for community development organizations that are not in the church that listen to the community better than the church. Community people in the church can be disconnected from the rest of the community.

Tiffany: As a church we can do more leadership development too, and we can learn from secular organizations. Enlace Chicago (formerly Little Village Development Corporation) is a secular group, but their leadership development is exemplary. They’re going into high schools through the Community School Program, a federal initiative, and starting big programs, bringing young people into summer mentoring programs, and bringing them into organizations. They see young, talented people and say, “I’m gonna develop you.”

In the church if you’re a leader and you’re 22 years old, there is the feeling of “We’re gonna suck you dry.” Sometimes young leaders can feel that they are not protected or developed by church leadership. The attitude isn’t “We gotta develop this young lady.” It’s “We gotta use all the talent of this young lady.” I don’t want to be overly critical, but a lot of young leaders are burned completely out. We feel like the church is focusing on people who seem more vulnerable, but they don’t see us as vulnerable. Sometimes our spiritual needs are overlooked because we seem so stable. A lot of young leaders feel isolated.

Juanita: That reminds me of how I felt as a junior higher in youth program.

Tiffany: Like in the classroom, kids with more problems or obvious needs get the attention.

What other insights for Christian Community Development have you gained from your present work?

Juanita: I’m tired of churches building their own little kingdoms—CCDA and non-CCDA churches alike. In the context of a gentrifying neighborhood, particularly a Puerto Rican one like Humboldt Park, the analysis from the neighborhood is about oppression. I have Latino friends who are moving into Santería and Native American religion in part in response to oppression and racism in evangelical and Catholic churches. The church is absolutely disgusting and foul to a lot of people. Some CCDA churches are not listening well enough to the community.

Tiffany: That might mean just stopping work. Just stop and be.

Juanita: Bob Lupton says we spend too much time doing work in church and not neighboring.

Tiffany: We need to take the ministry hat off. In CCD ministries there’s always pressure: How can I get this kid into the program? It’s about numbers. Instead it needs to be: “I don’t care if you come to church. Just come and have some peach cobbler.” Ultimately I want them to have a relationship with God, but that’s not my agenda. Hopefully they will see the light and love of God in me as we’re eating peach cobbler.

Juanita: We should strive for what’s effective, not for a particular model. We need to be listening to the community…

Tiffany: …but without getting sucked into the community’s agenda. The church’s agenda should still be about discipling and spiritual formation. It’s a tension of engaging all of those things.

Juanita: I had a friend who said that he used to be in training to be a junior pastor, but he was taught that you have to love either God or the community and culture. He chose the latter. But my involvement, as a Christian, with community development and culturally focused activities has led him and others like him to be curious about Christianity as I practice it.

So the question is: How does church practice show that the church cares to engage with community and culture? Loving community and culture is a manifestation of the love of God.

You can read more about the 8 Key Components of Christian Community Development here.

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