Community and the Christian Church
by Elli Rassbach, Millie Pacheco, and Rose Cachero
“Easily one of the worst places in the metro area…no exaggeration. Parkland is awful.”
Parkland is often perceived as the “ghetto” part of Tacoma by short-term residents and college students. However, those who are from the area disagree. Carol (a pseudonym), a longtime resident and parishioner at Trinity Lutheran Church, spoke via interview about the history of Parkland and its changes over the years. She maintains that there exists “some individuals who have worked tirelessly to help Parkland become a place that would have a positive sort of feel to it.”
Parkland is a community in transition. In fact, much of the city’s business centers around the local transit station. As an urban, census designated region located in Tacoma, Washington., Parkland has no town hall, no individual government, and is very densely populated. Parkland is home to higher education institutions such as Pacific Lutheran University and Clover Park Technical College, but it is also home to high schools and middle schools such as Keithley Middle and Washington High School. As far as racial demographic go, Parkland is 57.5% white, 11.8% Hispanic, and 10% African American, along with smaller percentages of Asian, Pacific Islander, and American Indian (Parkland). Within this varied community lies many churches connecting people to God, each other, and providing for those in need.
Church and Community Connections
Churches have the potential to connect people through their networks of common involvement. In his 2011 essay, Malcom Galdwell explores the ideas of common space as they apply to the workplace, and how the design of workplaces can help cultivate creativity and relationships. He uses the idea of “public characters” or someone that “is in frequent contact with a wide variety of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character” (Gladwell). In other words, the public character is someone who is well known and puts in effort to connect with a large number of people. He draws this idea from Jane Jacobs’ book, The Life and Death of American Cities, where she describes “public characters” as “people who have the social position and skills to orchestrate the movement of information and the creation of bonds of trust” (Jacobs). Jacobs claims that public characters not only interact with many people, they pass on and receive information from those people, and in the process build trust.
“Public characters” in a community are often individuals that serve or run institutions where gatherings and interactions are held. A church is an example of such institutions. The people that run churches are the “public characters” in a community because they go beyond their religious duties to carry out the responsibility of social and economic welfare. Dr. Janice M. Staral investigates this relationship in her article “Building on Mutual Goals: the Intersection of Community Practice and Church-Based Organizing”. Dr. Staral describes a case study based on the Reformation Church, a church located in Milwaukee’s west side. The church was on a downturn as the area began to shift towards crime and poverty. It was able to recover and become a stable influence on the area, largely thanks to the effort of a new pastor that was called to the church because he had experience with enacting social change through religion. Part of his ability to enact change stems from the fact that a pastor is a public character in the neighborhood. He cultivates the relationships of others and serves as a channel through which people can navigate their community. When the new Reformation Church pastor first came to the area, he knew that he would have to serve the role of public character in order for his church and its members to function positively. He began by “being visible in the neighborhood” through visiting the local library, high school, assisting people, and simply walking the streets. He built a “base of support” and “became well known” throughout the community (Staral 89). He has the social skills that Jacobs’ refers to, and is interested in being a public character in the way Gladwell describes. He made himself a public character for the neighborhood in order to gain the trust of the people so his church could serve the community to its full potential .
Social Services and Community Building
Churches and social services have always been fundamentally linked within a community. By definition, churches are a social service, providing a place for people to come together to worship with others that share their religious beliefs. Often, churches provide services to the community that go beyond religion, everything from hosting a soup kitchen to holding a coat drive. In Parkland, the role of churches in the community is especially important. The Christian churches in Parkland, for example, serve as both a provider of social services and a gathering place for the community that would otherwise be almost non-existent.
As there has been an increasing need for social services over the past two decades and less funds available to provide these services , it is important that we closely examine how churches and the social services they provide can benefit communities. This is the question posed of Dr. Staral’s essay: how does the Reformation Church exemplify the overlap between churches and social services? The Reformation Church was chosen for the study because the area around the church has changed significantly from the 1960’s to the 1980’s and 90’s, shifting from a predominantly white, middle class population to a largely African American population with a 57.9% poverty rate (Staral 87). Although this shift is much more dramatic, Parkland has experienced similar changes over the years as a community that is constantly evolving.
In Milwaukee, the Reformation Church served the vital role of community building. The pastor who serves the important role of public figure describes community building within a religious context as, ‘‘developing interdependent relationships among various church members and then extending these relationships to other people who live in the neighborhood’’ (Staral 90). The “interdependent” part of this relationship takes form in what the pastor calls “reciprocal giving”. When someone receives a service from the church, whether it is a short-term loan, bus pass, or family counseling, the pastor in turn encourages them to volunteer their time in service to the church as a way of repayment. This allows the church to not only be a part of the life of the community, but also for the community to be a part of the life of the church. The mutual partnership “helps to build a stronger linkage and deeper trust between the Church and the neighborhood people” (Staral 90).
Reciprocal giving is also present in the Christian churches of Parkland. In her interview, Carol explains that when people express gratitude for the services of the church and desire to repay them in some way, she often tells them “‘you already have by coming in here and allowing us to give a boost at a time when you need that’ and if a time comes when they would like to volunteer with us then we would love to see you, and we have had people do that.” The churches of Parkland truly care about the community and want to serve the community. In talking about the church’s role in Parkland, Carol claims “I think that Trinity has been a very stable influence in Parkland.” Carol emphasizes that churches are not simply places of worship, but active providers who seek to enrich and help the people of Parkland. Trinity has a food pantry that they supplement with fresh produce from their garden, and they have a free meal once a month. These are both open to all residents. Carol reflects of her church’s community involvement: “I do feel that we are doing what it is that we are called to do.” Providing social services is just one way churches contribute to building social networks and trust through the community.
The Effect of Churches on Youth Crime Rates
Churches have traditionally been places of worship , however, they can also be a safe haven for troubled youth or for children who may not have anywhere else to go due to poverty or a distressed home life. In the essay “The Role of African-American Churches In Reducing Crime Among Black Youth,” Byron R. Johnson explores the hypothesis that the religious involvement of African-American youth significantly shields them from the deleterious effects of neighborhood disorder and its contribution to youth crime.
Johnson explains, “delinquency research has confirmed for many years that risk factors such as poverty and structural disadvantage cause crime”(3). Poverty would indicate motive when discussed with crime. When someone does not have much to lose, they are more motivated to do what they have to in order to get what they need. Johnson states “it would seem that religious institutions such as churches, mosques, or synagogues are well suited to produce the relational networks of social and emotional support that help prevent at-risk youth from participating in negative behavioral outcomes such as crime” (3). As such, church outreach aims to not only have an impact on a person religiously, but also socially. Whether it be a church, mosque, or a synagogue, places like these located in areas where crime is prevalent can influence younger generations to make changes in the way they live, ultimately shifting the crime demographic for the area. In the essay, Johnson asserts that “Church involvement refers to the extent to which an individual is involved in a religious institution and is thus integrated into a social network or a set of people linked by a variety of social relationships that are church-base” (4). When youths are involved in a church, they are included in the “social network” of that church, providing a positive influence on that youth’s life as well as a positive way to spend free time, leading to a reduced crime presence in their life.
When this hypothesis is applied to the Parkland area, one can see many common characteristics. Many of the churches in Parkland have youth groups or activities targeted for kids of all ages. Rainer View Christian Church has a program for newborns through fifth graders called “Base Camp Kidz,” where kids have the opportunity to build relationships with their peers and mentors. Church For All Nations influences high schoolers through their Nations Youth program, which empowers youth through worship and community service. Middle school is a critical time period for youth in Tacoma, when they are exposed to elevated levels of risk and are making decisions. According to the demographics for this area, Parkland has a higher crime rate compared to other cities in Washington State. Churches are one potential way to combat this crime rate and provide a safe and stable place for youth to spend their time.
“Designs for Working.” Malcolm Gladwell. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
“Gang Reduction – City of Tacoma.” Gang Reduction – City of Tacoma. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Jacobs, Jane. “The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact.” The Death and Life of Great American Cities. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 55-73. Print.
Johnson, Byron R. “The Role of African-American Churches in Reducing Crime Among Black Youth, by Byron R. Johnson.” CRRUCS Report 2001-2 | The Role of African-American Churches in Reducing Crime Among Black Youth, by Byron R. Johnson. UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, 2001. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.
“Parkland, Washington.” (WA 98447) Profile: Population, Maps, Real Estate, Averages, Homes, Statistics, Relocation, Travel, Jobs, Hospitals, Schools, Crime, Moving, Houses, News, Sex Offenders. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.
“Parkland, WA Crime Rates & Statistics.” Parkland, WA Crime Rates & Statistics. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.
Staral, Janice M. “Building on Mutual Goals.” Taylor & Francis Online. Journal of Community Practice, 2000. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.
“Tacoma, WA (Parkland).” Parkland 98444 Tacoma, WA Neighborhood Profile. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014.