This article is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Cost of Poverty: Learn, Pray, Join initiative.
Leonard Dow is vice president of Community and Church Development for Everence, where he leads in efforts to serve emerging diverse communities and churches that have been historically underserved. Dow also leads the Everence team in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Everence Senior Leadership Team, as well as president of Everence Community Investments LLC. Leonard, his wife, Rosalie, and three adult children live in Northwest Philadelphia.
When I look at the pockets of poverty in my Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, community, I can’t help but also see the history that led us here. The blocks and neighborhoods where I see hardship today mirror the red lines that separated the places Black, Latino/a, Asian, Indigenous and other people of color lived, versus the wealthy areas, where primarily white people lived.
The red lines were never painted on the streets, but they are painted in our history. As far back as the 1930s, lenders and government bodies literally and figuratively drew red lines on maps around neighborhoods considered “high risk” and “undesirable.” The red lines marked off the places where mostly Black, Latino/a, Asian, Indigenous and other people of color resided. These areas were where house appraisals were lower; where banks gave higher-interest mortgages and business loans, if at all; where real estate agents showed homes depending on your race and ethnicity; and where the government didn’t invest in improving schools and community spaces.
Today, more than 50 years after the Fair Housing Act banned redlining, the poverty in my community matches the same blocks where redlining was most persistent. And the poverty in these neighborhoods doesn’t exist solely at an individual level. It impacts the ways city governments, corporations and civic organizations invest — or not — in the community, which affects education, access to food, small-business opportunities and other resources intentionally kept out of the previously redlined communities.
At the heart of the damage left by redlining is that Black, Latino/a, Asian, Indigenous and other people of color were not given the option to build wealth through homeownership. In the United States, homeownership is the foundation of wealth-building. Once you own a home, you get equity, which gives you options to invest in things like businesses, your children’s education and retirement.
In addition to redlining, the federal government implemented other policies and laws — such as the Homestead Act, the New Deal and the GI Bill — that benefited many Americans and excluded most families who came from Black, Latino/a, Asian, Indigenous and other diverse backgrounds.
My childhood neighborhood in North Philadelphia had a lot of wealth in relationships, community and perseverance. But due to the lack of public and private investment in that community, people have chosen to leave when they can — rather than stay and help restore the community. And other historically redlined neighborhoods across the country are experiencing the same.
Despite this bleak history, I see an opportunity for hope: Humans created this system of injustice, and therefore, humans can create a new system of justice. I draw inspiration in asking myself, “What intentional efforts can we do now to eradicate the poverty created by the systems that intentionally kept diverse communities in poverty?”
Spurred by faith
As an Anabaptist, I seek to approach my work by balancing the three parts of the Anabaptist faith — Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center of our lives and reconciliation is the center of our work.
When Jesus first came out to the community in Luke 4:18-19, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (NRSV).
Jesus was here to speak to those outside the power systems. A lot of my work engaging church and community in development speaks directly to that in trying to help restore what was lost.
When I think about community being the center of our life, I recognize that I can’t do this alone. In Acts 4 and 6, we hear the call to the early church to pray and sing together, but we’re also invited to share of our gifts and possessions, because our gifts belong to God.
Lastly, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul calls us to the ministry of reconciliation; we are to be reconciled with God and one to another. Reconciliation done well requires proximity with those whom we need to be reconciled with and an honest acknowledgement of the past, while building a new future.
Partnership for holistic health
In my work with Everence®, I seek to find sustainable ways to support financial health within urban centers, currently in the North Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. People in this neighborhood, like many others in metropolitan areas, have not been served well by traditional financial services companies, which, for generations, have chosen to invest their resources in wealthier neighborhoods.
As Everence President and CEO Ken Hochstetler put it, our new Philadelphia office “is part of a commitment to grow who and how and where we serve.”
As a financial organization, it’s important to understand that our traditional model of working with primarily middle- to upper-class individuals, organizations and churches is likely not what is needed by the marginalized and economically disadvantaged communities that continue to struggle against the history of redlining.
And it’s important to acknowledge that individuals living in hardship don’t just need education around finances. They also need access to financial institutions that are part of their communities. This philosophy is at the heart of our work in Philadelphia, where we work with Esperanza Health Center, a trusted partner with a strong community history, and we can be part of the restoration of the neighborhood.
Be open to transformation
I believe that each of us has a place in bringing change.
First, we need to be open to transformation. The willingness comes from being receptive to others’ experiences and listening to their stories. Instead of rejecting perspectives that challenge our beliefs, we need to be present in relationships and engage in communities for the long term.
One step you can take is to educate yourself about the ways that faith, race, money and injustice intersect. I put together a reading list with books and resources that I (and others) have found helpful.
Supplement this learning by conversing with your Black, Latino/a, Asian, Indigenous and other diverse friends, family and neighbors about how they’ve been impacted by the injustices of discrimination. Approach these conversations with humility about your own lack of knowledge, curiosity about their experiences and nondefensive reactions to perspectives that challenge you.
Consider ways you might invest directly in Black, Latino/a, Asian, Indigenous and other people of color’s businesses and communities. Research whether the financial and philanthropic institutions you use are using just or unjust lending practices, and be intentional about where you shop, dine and self-direct your taxes to nonprofits — along with seeking to have your investments make a social impact.
I’m hopeful that these examples demonstrate that change is attainable. These disparities are human-made, and therefore, the solutions can be human-made as well. We can all participate in Jesus’ call to minister to each other and build a more just future.
Mennonite Church USA encourages you and your congregation to participate in the Cost of Poverty: Learn, Pray, Join initiative as one way to learn more about the topic of poverty from theological and practical perspectives, as well as learn how to get involved.
Find upcoming webinars and ways to get involved at mennoniteusa.org/ministry/peacebuilding/learn-pray-join/cost-of-poverty/.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.