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Theology Thursdays: Buffalo's Black Churches Build On Their Faith In The Inner City By Deidre Williams

When the typical church talks about “saving,” the focus usually is on souls.

But when it comes to saving neighborhoods, an examination of major economic-development initiatives on Buffalo’s East Side shows the black church — not business leaders — as the catalyst for most of it.

In the last 10 years, African-American churches have spent at least $70 million on economic-development projects in Buffalo, including:

• A $54 million project spearheaded by St. John Baptist Church in 36 blocks of the Fruit Belt. It includes a hospice, 28 new town homes and seven single-family homes.

• The Jefferson Marketplace, a business incubator that includes an M&T Bank branch and three minority-owned businesses that opened last September across from the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue. The project cost $1.5 million and is part of about $7 million in development that Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church estimates it has invested over the last decade.

• The Subway Sandwich Shop in which True Bethel Baptist Church invested $250,000 and which opened three years ago in the church at 907 E. Ferry St.

• The Greater Refuge Temple Plaza on Jefferson, a roughly $300,000 miniplaza that opened four years ago and houses several minority-owned business.

Those involved and outside experts say this economic focus is the natural outgrowth of the church’s historic leadership role in the black community. The perception among African- Americans, they added, is that the church must provide what they cannot get from other institutions.

“There aren’t many others we can depend on on a consistent basis. No one is going up to a 15-year-old black kid to teach him about stocks. They don’t get it in school or at home,” said the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, one of the African-American pastors active in the economic-development movement. “The church is the only place our people are going to hear it.”

Pridgen will be among dozens of local and national experts gathering this weekend for the third annual “Rise to Freedom” conference Friday and Saturday at True Bethel Baptist, where he is pastor.

This year’s theme is “The Role of the Church in the African-American Rise to Freedom.” The purpose is to reconnect African-Americans to the leadership and sense of community that has historically been provided by the church, organizers said.

One example of that is the Jeremiah Partnership, a group of seven African-American churches that banded together to pursue economic-development efforts.

“We were all involved with individual projects, then we realized our areas of interest bordered each other,” said the Rev. Richard A. Stenhouse, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. and chairman of the partnership. “Why not work together? We don’t have to be in competition.”

Since the partnership was created four years ago, several projects have been completed or are under way, including the new hospice at St. John Baptist, the Jefferson Marketplace and the Greater Refuge Temple Plaza. Now the organization is ready to move to the next level, Stenhouse said, by hiring an executive director and a consultant.

Church organizations have moved from the civil rights era into commerce and economic revitalization as African- Americans pursue self-determination, said L. Nathan Hare, executive director of the Community Action Organization of Erie County. The organization is co-hosting this weekend’s conference, along with the Buffalo Local Action Committee, an outgrowth of the Millions More Movement. These days, Hare said, black churches are utilizing financial resources from government and nonprofits to create economic engines.

“In the black church, they’re going after those grants, too,” Hare said. “The church has been a focal point for getting senior citizen housing, mixed-income housing. And many church organizations around the country have gotten into building schools and convenience stores and supermarkets for themselves.”

Relying on churches as the catalyst for economic development makes perfect sense, Stenhouse and others say.

At St. John Baptist, for example, the church already has a 150-unit apartment complex, a senior citizen housing complex and the Family Life Center, which houses a day care center and Christian academy.

Now the church is spearheading a $54 million project that focuses on redeveloping 36 blocks in the Fruit Belt. The project includes single-family homes, a hospice under construction and 28 town homes being built at various sites, the Rev. Michael Chapman said. The project is funded by city, county, state and federal money, as well as by private foundations — evidence, Chapman said, that reliance upon black churches and the government for funding are not mutually exclusive.

Andrew J. Rudnick, Buffalo Niagara Partnership president, said the business advocacy group has provided St. John Baptist “technical assistance, contacts with financing sources and some political advocacy in regard to public dollars.”

“I think everybody needs to be involved in the development of the inner city, and in a number of cities across the country, the faith community has been engaged in similar projects. I think it’s incredibly important,” Rudnick said.

Similarly, Timothy E. Wanamaker, Buffalo’s strategic planning director, said the city has provided “millions” to faith-based projects on the East Side, including the Jeremiah Marketplace, Bethel and St. John housing, and the St. John hospice.

“Black churches can be an effective partner with the city, as other privatesector and other community-based organizations are,” Wanamaker said.

“Churches are located in these neighborhoods, and they have resources. “They have a real desire to change these neighborhoods and turn them around.”

Still, Pridgen said, it falls to the church to take the lead in making such projects happen and meeting fundamental needs in the black community.

“Yes, we are depending on the African- American church for economic development. However, they have no place to go. Banks and businesses are not running to the inner city. They don’t send people into the inner city in huge numbers,” Pridgen said, adding that churches in the suburbs might never talk about stocks and bonds on Sunday. “There’s no need for churches there to provide economic instruction or encouragement because their congregants have reached a level of economic success and freedom,” Pridgen said, “but black churches have to do just that.”

But it’s about more than just economic development, said Henry L. Taylor, director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies and a presenter at the conference.

“We must have unity first,” Taylor said. “Once we can create unity and a common platform, then, as a people, we will be in a position to unite with other groups with the same problems. Then we will be in a position to force politicians to [enact] policies that will raise the quality of life.”

That has to be the ultimate goal, Taylor said. “Economic development,” he said, “is good only if it makes a community stronger, makes lives better [and] makes people happier.”

Faith-based redevelopment at a glance

Over the last decade, African-Americanchurches in Buffalo have spent at least$70 million on economic-developmentprojects, primarily on the East Side.The initiatives include:

• A $54 million redevelopment project – including a hospice, town houses and single-family homes – under way in 36 blocks of the Fruit Belt.

• A $1.5 million business incubator that opened last fall accross from the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue and includes an M&T Bank branch and three minority-owned companies.

• A $250,000 Subway restaurant that opened three years ago in an East Ferry Street church.

• A $300,000 miniplaza on Jefferson Avenue that includes a restaurant and other small stores.

You can contact Deidre Williams via e-mail at:

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Buffalo News.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

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