Community Renewal

Weaving Us Together, All Of Us

Community Renewal | December 2017

Read this slowly. It requires something of you.

Despite the sunshine in her name and her sweet disposition, Ms. Rosie is not a woman to be trifled with. She is poised and profound, elegantly resolute. A living legend, really.

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When she moved to Allendale in 1964, it was a beautiful middle-class neighborhood with modest homes and proud homeowners. According to Rosie, as the younger generation grew up they mostly moved away and took their aging parents with them. Renters moved in and didn’t take care of the community or neighbors in the same way. In the late 80’s, when the drug dealers and gangs moved in, they anchored their operations in the vacant lots—like the one we’re sitting in now, kitty-corner to Ms. Rosie’s house. It used to be two lots, she says—drugs sold on one side, girls on the other. 

Having watched (for twenty years at that point) the gradual decline of the neighborhood, Ms. Rosie was vocal with her they set fire to her garage and shot out her windows.  

“There were enough neighbors, if they really wanted to save Allendale they could have. But they didn't. They wouldn't help.”​

And she wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Six hundred miles away in a small, West Texas town, a man named Mack McCarter was hitting his head against the same wall, arriving at a similar conviction. 

Mack had been pastoring for 18 years at that point, trying to get his congregation (and other congregations) out of the pews and into caring for the community. He had seen trends and truisms toss the church this way and that for decades but saw little to no lasting social transformation.

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He realized that even in towns and cities with more churches than grocery stores, deeply rooted division and inequity held steady and strong.

Burnt out on churchiosity and sectarianism, Mack moved back to his hometown of Shreveport-Bossier, Louisiana—now considered one of the most segregated cities in the south and the last place on land where the confederate flag was lowered. When he returned in 1991, he saw deep fracture (a chasm really) between black and white, rich and poor, male and female, young and old, educated and uneducated, upwardly mobile and downwardly spiraling. And lots of churches.

He wondered: Jesus' command to 'love your neighbor', was that possible here? 

The Bottoms

Mack started on Lawrence Street in The Bottoms—the ghetto of Shreveport and home to the most violent gangs. He walked the blocks of shotgun houses and got to know the people, thinking “maybe if we can get to be friends, we can change our city.” After a few months of regular Saturday visits, the neighbors started sitting out on the front porch waiting for him. Over a couple years, even the gangs respected him…at least enough to not shoot him when given the opportunity.

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Slowly, neighbors joined in—walking their blocks and putting 'We Care' signs in their yards to make themselves visible to one another. Some folks signed up to be block coordinators, taking initiative to create neighborhood directories, organize block parties, and communicate about goings-on.

As people from all different walks of life came together with a shared heart and vision for transforming their community, this radical idea of "neighboring" was formalized into a movement: Community Renewal.

It was clear rather quickly that the neighborhood lacked common space where kids and neighbors could gather safely and warmly. To solve this and provide more opportunity for long-term relational anchors, Community Renewal constructed its first two "Friendship Houses"—newly built community homes to allow for after-school programs, mentoring, tutoring, and general coming together.

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The first neighborhood to get a Friendship House was Ms. Rosie’s Allendale—in fact they built two! One for children and the other for adolescents.

Now, by this point, Ms. Rosie had received permission to use the vacant lot, but she needed a lot of help to clear the bushes, haul the garbage, and turn the soil.

Meanwhile, Mike Leonard and other volunteers had begun doing what they’d seen Mack do in The Bottoms a decade earlier: Walking the blocks, getting to know the neighbors and making themselves useful in any way they could. That's how they met Ms. Rosie.

"A garden is the simplest thing you can do, but look how it brings people together." - Ms. Rosie

Dave Baker

“Now, I had heard about Community Renewal, but to be honest with you, I didn't have much faith in them because I felt like there was going to be one of these organizations was going to come in the neighborhood like so many had, giving you hope, and then five months later, you are in worse shape than you were before. But the more and more I got to know Community Renewal, the more I had confidence and believed in them.”

“I remember the first morning we decided to go out there and start the garden, Community Renewal was out there. Mack McCarter had gotten other organizations to help—Moon's Tree Company and Summer Grove Baptist Church. That day they took about six loads of trash and garbage from off that lot.  It just got better and better every day. Better and better every day. As the garden got better, it attracted more people. More people came to work and help; churches, organizations. It got so powerful that even the University of LSU tied in with it. Writeups was made about it.”

"I knew the idea was workable, but it was going to take more than one person. I had thought about the vision, but I had no one to help me. So mine was just a thought that would have never come to pass, had it not been for Community Renewal." - Ms Rosie

Erica Baker

“This got to a place where everybody in the neighborhood began to kind of come together. They wouldn't help me always, but at least they would keep up their own premises better. And even keeping up their own premises was a big start. And so little by little, it just began to get better and better. Eventually, it ended up being the safest predominantly poor neighborhood in the city—Allendale. So it can be done.”

The drug dealers never said they're sorry, but now they mow the grass for me.

“It's just amazing what a garden will do. Not only did the garden help Allendale so well, but it was an outlet to the entire world because it brought so many people in the neighborhood that would have never been here before if it hadn't been for that garden. And also, it gave people a better understanding about the races because when you come together, work together, you understand people better.”

“We all have prejudice; blacks, whites, everybody. But anyway, with all those different people coming around, fellowshipping and everything – in fact, many of them have told me, ‘You know, it's a lot of things I used to think about people. Now, I think different.’ And that's true. It's kind of like the more you be around the person, you more you learn about them.”

Within just a few years of Ms. Rosie’s ‘Garden of Hope and Love’ being established, along with two Community Renewal Friendship Houses, crime in the neighborhood dropped more than 50%—and it has continued to drop ever since.

Simple Caring, At Scale

What I find so profoundly mystifying about Community Renewal’s work is that it’s as individual and specific as each of us, but as big and vast as the world. It’s simple caring, at scale.

Pam Morgan remembers Mack’s early visits to The Bottoms. She was fifteen then, a troubled and troubling teen who had just lost her mom. “I started partying seven days a week to escape the pain, and I was in an abusive relationship and the last two years were a living hell,” Pam says. “I had no hope at all because my mom was my backbone. After she passed, everything went blank, and I felt very helpless. I was just getting myself in more trouble, making things worse and making more pain.”

When the Friendship House was built in Allendale, she began visiting. It was there she was inspired and supported to earn her GED and change her life. She raised her four kids in the neighborhood, and they are gratefully unfamiliar with the gangs that used to dominate the streets. Today, she lives in a Friendship House, providing daily care for neighbors and neighborhood kids. Following Ms. Rosie’s example, she, too, maintains a community garden.

Over the past 25 years, Mack’s intentional caring has grown much bigger than one man.

Take Wade, Russell, and Stanley—an unlikely trio if ever there was one. For fifteen years these men have partnered together to care for the residents of Shreveport’s Hollywood neighborhood. One of the earliest recipients of that care is Ms. Linda, a gentle, sweet, very poised and graceful woman in her mid-sixties. She remembers when Wade and Russell came around and started caring for her and her ailing mother.

Wade, Russell and Stanley regularly care for their neighbors' lawns...together.

Erica Baker

During one of their visits, Ms. Linda mentioned to Wade that her mother’s lawn was growing out of control since she’d been in the hospital. The next day Wade and Russell loaded a lawn mower into the back of a truck, drove over to the house and mowed the lawn…and Ms. Linda’s too. And they kept on for as long as was needed. Touched and inspired by Wade and Russell and their consistent kindness, Ms. Linda became a block coordinator herself and over the past thirteen years has trained thirty-one others as well.

"We have a common problem: Isolationism is a disease and Community Renewal is the cure.”

Wade, Block Leader, Community Renewal

It’s so simple, and so desperately needed.

Block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood, Mack, Mike, Rosie, Pam, Wade, Russell, Linda and 1,500 other block coordinators in Shreveport are rebuilding our cultural foundation through coordinated caring.

That’s the profound difference Community Renewal is making. It’s not a quick fix or symptom-solving initiative, but a call to participate in renewal at the most basic, fundamental level: My neighbor, my block. 

What started with Mack in The Bottoms grew to Mike and Ms. Rosie in Allendale and then Wade and Russell and Stanley in Hollywood, and it has since spread to other neighborhoods, like Highland, Cedar Grove, Queensborough and the Barksdale Annex in Bossier.

Slowly, over the past 25 years, more than 50,000 people have joined the movement—each pledging to one act of caring for their neighbor. Perhaps just enough to change the world.

In the Streets, Within the Gates

This movement is multi-generational, multi-cultural, multi-faith—simply and intentionally coming together to do something profound: Create a new village.

Day-to-day success ranges from report card parties and reading comprehension pop quizzes during snack time, to summer tutoring and filling cracks in the concrete with glitter and gems, adventuring with kids across America (who have hardly crossed the city), exchanging garbage bags for luggage, and sharing clothes to wear for a funeral.

Each of us can intentionally cross the street and walk the block to get to know our neighbor. The difference that caring and connectedness will make is profound.

Erica Baker

But the work of renewal and solving for relational brokenness isn’t relegated to low-income, crime-ridden neighborhoods—it’s needed in the safer, wealthier, gated communities as well, which brings us to Paige Hoffpauir. 

Paige is a passionate Community Renewal volunteer who lives in Southern Trace, a gated golf course community. Over the past couple years, Paige has wrestled with and confronted deep depression and purposelessness, fueled in part (she says) by a sense of isolation—she had lived in Southern Trace for fifteen years and didn't know her neighbors.

Attending a Community Renewal meeting at the invitation of a friend, she remembers thinking she’d do her good deed and donate to the charity, but about halfway through the meeting she realized that she was the charity. “I was totally void of caring relationships and connection with my neighbors,” she recalls. And that recognition changed her.

Paige rallied her neighbors and her network to build the ‘We Care’ park, which like Ms. Rosie’s garden, creates a common space that brings people together in a beautiful way, fostering relationship and the potential for understanding.

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Paige rallied her neighbors to construct a community park in Southern Trace.

Erica Baker

And Paige has remained intentionally and consistently working within her wealthy, gated context to neighbor and to love—also creating opportunities for two very different yet adjacent neighborhoods (Southern Trace and Cedar Grove) to join together in love and caring. She is a beautiful example of what it looks like to leverage power and network to serve the marginalized, vulnerable, and isolated.

Let It Grow

The last time I visited a Friendship House in Shreveport it was Science Day. A team of students and instructors from LSU's Department of Chemistry and Physics came to teach the kids about soap making. Previous lessons had included lemon batteries, rocket building and Dippin' Dots making with liquid nitrogen. 

Emmitt and Sharpell Welch live at the Friendship House and provide consistent caring to the kids in the neighborhood. For those enduring volatile home contexts, Emmitt and Sharpell provide stability and structure.

Erica Baker

As I stood watching the science lesson, a mother from the neighborhood walked slowly, sadly up the porch steps and approached Emmitt. He called her girls out of the lesson; they went over to a corner of the playground to talk. Just before, I had asked Emmit to describe a normal day. At this moment he turns to me and explains, "Right now that mom is telling her kids that they've been evicted and that this morning she assigned guardianship of all five kids to us while she goes and gets help for herself. There is no 'normal day' here."

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Instead of entering foster care or bouncing from shelter-to-shelter, the kids were brought into the Friendship House with Emmitt and Sharpell's love and care. What a profound difference for five futures.

This is the depth and power of a strong social fabric that supports all and excludes none. It takes individuals to choose intentional, visible caring over isolation—it requires something of each of us.

So far ten other cities and towns in the U.S. have begun to implement the model within their contexts. In fact, Community Renewal is even being implemented in several African countries and villages. A regal Muslim woman named Fatamatu visited from Cameroon to study the model, as she said, "In my country, modernity has made us strangers to each other, but it wasn't always that way. I want to restore my village." 

This is possible because the principles of neighboring are universally relevant and essential, and Community Renewal’s model is both flexible and simple enough to scale globally.

Every town, village, city, state, territory and country could benefit from a network of intentional caring amongst its people. In every instance, it starts with a Committed One (as it did with Mack in The Bottoms of Shreveport), then a Bonded Two and spreads outward from there.

We want to restore the neighbor bond, renew the village ethic—our social fabric—overcoming isolation by making caring people (the silent majority) visible. 

United and together, we can create a different cultural reality now and for generations to come.

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Editor's Note

Having told and been told hundreds of stories of program interventions and cause campaigns, I have become simply convicted that the healing of our systemic fractures requires individuals stepping up and stepping out—not only institutions, corporations and government.

And we don't have time to not. The fractures are growing wider and deeper—we must each of us be clear and committed in caring for those on our block. It's the least and the absolute most we can do.

And as we've seen in Shreveport, it works. Love thy neighbor. Let's try, and may God have mercy.

Kate Schmidgall 2022 color
Kate Sig

Kate Schmidgall

Editor-in-Chief, BitterSweet Monthly

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