In Durham’s Walltown neighborhood, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove runs the Rutba House, a community that focuses on living intentionally together through conversations, sharing resources and welcoming any who need food or shelter.
More than 20 members from both homeless and homeowner backgrounds currently live in three houses.
Each morning, the group of families and singles, employed and disabled, meets for prayer. Each evening, they gather for a communal dinner. The Rutba House is one way Wilson-Hartgrove pursues a peaceful and flourishing life among his neighbors.
“The message of Scripture is not just a challenge to the church, but is actually a vision for the whole city,” he said.
Wilson-Hartgrove was one of the featured speakers at the National Christian Community Development Association conference in Raleigh, which ends Saturday. Starting Tuesday, more than 2,500 Christians from as far away as Ethiopia and Malawi gathered at the Raleigh Convention Center to discuss how to improve poor and marginalized areas.
Chicago-based CCDA started in 1989 under Rev. John Perkins, a respected minister and civil rights activist from southern Mississippi. It works for reconciliation and just redistribution of resources in impoverished communities, especially through non-profits and churches. Many members commit to living in poor neighborhoods for at least 10 years.
Conference participants discussed topics such as justice, multiculturalism, immigration, climate change and poverty.
Many attendees toured Triangle organizations like the Rutba House during the week to meet who they call local “practitioners” – men and women living out their faith in long-term and concrete ways.
Church as community asset
Byron McMillan remembers the impact fifth grade made on his life, when he witnessed African-American students being bussed to Lynn Road Elementary during Raleigh’s school integration in the 1970s.
“I grew up as a black kid in a white neighborhood, going to a black church,” McMillan said.
Coming from Michigan, he didn’t understand the separation. He helped bring the CCDA conference to Raleigh because of his passion for conversations about race, reconciliation and the ongoing divisions in Raleigh.
He says that the message of this year’s CCDA conference, themed on the Bible chapter Jeremiah 29, is about prospering cities.
“If the city prospers, you’ll prosper. The church should be the greatest asset to a community,” McMillan said.
“Raleigh is growing and prospering, but the numbers of homeless and impoverished are growing, too. The thing with Raleigh is that it seems possible to make a difference. There is so much wealth and so many people of faith,” he said.
Dozens of organizations and churches appeared from all over the Triangle to discuss justice. They included an anti-death penalty organization, Dorcas Ministries, Lemonade International and Habitat for Humanity.
The role of the Christian church
Karen Morant, a program consultant for Wake County Human Services, helped bring the conference to Raleigh to unite community development organizations in the Triangle.
“Raleigh-Durham communities are so close and yet so fragmented,” Morant said. She does not think that the church is as visible as it needs to be, and she is seeking regional collaboration in the Triangle.
Biblically, she said, it is the church’s responsibility to care for the community.
David Spickard is president of Jobs for Life, which works with and trains 40 Triangle churches and organizations to connect the unemployed with local businesses. Annually, they make around 250 to 300 job placements.
One of their goals is to equip local churches, Spickard said. “The church is positioned to provide answers to all the hopelessness and brokenness in our cities,” he said. “Second, work is central to a flourishing community.”
Another local organization, Neighbor to Neighbor, has worked in the South Park neighborhood of downtown Raleigh for almost 20 years. It mentors in Southeast Raleigh and has expanded to include the Latino community in North Raleigh.
“We help the community flourish by listening,” said president Royce Hathcock. “We want to create reconciliation across race and culture. Biblical Shalom means peace in every direction.
“You don’t become a good neighbor until you put yourself in the path of the broken.”