Trust is vital to any relationship, but when it comes to funding African American-led urban ministries, it can mean the difference between success and failure. At least that is what Urban Faith heard from several notable leaders who identified lack of trust as a key factor in race-based funding disparities.
Brian Jenkins is director of Entrenuity, a ministry that helps urban youth start their own businesses. Although the organization has been featured on public television and has trained more than 700 adults and 4,000 youth since 1993, Jenkins says, “What I have found is that when it comes to people saying ‘we’re brothers and sisters in Christ,’ that’s fine, but when it comes to supporting my work and me as a minister in Christ, that’s where the breakdown occurs.”
Jenkins (left) was honored to be a presenter at a recent urban-ministry event with an audience of 200, but disheartened to find that he was the only black speaker when every organization there was working with minority populations. He says, “I just felt like, Wow, how can I be the only one here? … I have a directory full of people, you know, good Christian leaders, black men, black women, Latino men, Latino women, yet I was the only one there, and it was so frustrating because their stories weren’t being told, relationships weren’t being created, and the funding kept going to these same [white-led] organizations.”
The event organizer later told Jenkins he was limited by the people he knew. Jenkins responded, “You have to be intentional in finding and creating new relationships and also relationships that you don’t necessarily try to control.” As an independent, free thinking urban leader, he says, “A lot of times when you work with another organization — when you work with anybody — you give part of your freedom up, but what I have found is that some African American men and women who are successful in majority-culture organizations oftentimes have given up some of their cultural identity, and I’ve just refused to do that.”
Mark Soderquist is a Christian philanthropist, urban minister, and a good friend of Jenkins. He sits on several nonprofit boards and has lived and ministered in the predominantly black Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale for the past 20 years. Jenkins says of Soderquist, “He didn’t come in and try to use his family’s wealth or resources. He came in and served under a church. He didn’t come in starting a ministry; he came in serving.”
As Soderquist (left) talked to ethnic pastors (including his own), he kept hearing things like, “We could use help, but we don’t need another white organization to move in and set up shop and act like we don’t even exist.” It was an education for him. “Here I had grown up in the church outside of a major city, gone to a Christian college, had five years overseas with a great mission organization, got a master’s degree [from Wheaton College] in Intercultural Studies, and none of those experiences challenged me about the issue of race in this country and how it relates to my faith and how it relates to justice.” Soderquist, who serves as U.S. Director of Urban Ministries for International Teams, approached his pastor and elders at Westlawn Gospel Chapel about moving his work under the church’s local leadership. “I was saying the right words,” he says, “but what I didn’t realize at the time was they had very little faith or hope, based on their experience, that I would actually minister under their leadership.”
Fred Smith is founder and president of The Gathering, a group that encourages Christian philanthropy. He has seen similar dynamics in the Dallas area and agrees that lack of trust and latent racism can be factors, but says, “I suspect the predominant cause is a lack of networks that are peer-based.”
Soderquist acknowledges the reality that white-led ministries often have an easier time getting funding than black-led ministries. “It’s like urban ministry’s dirty little secret in that we are often the ones who speak prophetically to the majority culture church about issues of justice and issues of race, and yet we continue to fit into this system where we seem dependent on the white leadership of organizations.” He says it’s a catch-22, because inner-city ministries need resources, but funding more easily flows from white resources to white-led organizations. “There is the issue of contacts and connections at work here,” he says, “but I also believe race is a factor. I believe there still is mistrust of black-led organizations by white funding sources and we don’t openly recognize or acknowledge this since white-led organizations are dependent on those same resources.” (For statistical data on nonprofit funding bias, see the sidebar below.)
Another nationally recognized black ministry leader who asked not to be identified told Urban Faith about the painful experience of having to ask white associates to elicit funds from donors who had turned him down. “At least I was smart enough to say, ‘This is life as it is.’ I could either fight it or take advantage of it.”
After three decades of success, this leader has the clout to court donors independently, but says, “I’m watching 30-year-old white guys … Everyone wants to give them the world, and they haven’t done a thing yet.” His voice trails off. “But I’ve had to build this whole history of successful ministry that goes 30-plus years, and now maybe, maybe somebody might trust me that I might be able to do something constructive on their investment.”
Elmer Jackson sounds a similar note. As the charismatic founder and principal of West Side Christian Academy in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Jackson says, “What I’ve found is that I’ve had to make relationships and show myself faithful. People are looking to see what our end product is.” (Among West Side’s early supporters was musician Bruce Springsteen.) Jackson says he’s had to outperform his white peers in order to secure comparable levels of support, but the former Marine adds, “I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
For all these leaders, race-based funding disparities present a significant spiritual challenge. Though they remain confident that God has called them to their work, they find it difficult to have confidence in the current system. Says Jenkins: “There’s just this lack of trust, and oftentimes I feel that if the body of Christ cannot be representative of a new model, then how will we have any credibility to speak about what the kingdom looks like?”
Nonprofit Funding Bias: The Numbers
In Chicago and cities around the nation, our youth are dying in the streets. As public officials brace for a summer spike in violent crime, some are even calling for military intervention. It’s time to stop the madness and address the root of the problem.
At first glance, they seem completely unrelated. But a closer look reveals the inextricable link between the value our nation places on wealth and the value it places on human life in our inner cities.
As an urban minister and a political professional, there have been two big news stories that I have followed with some level interest recently. The first is the debate in Washington D.C. over the creation of a bill to regulate the banking and finance industry. The other is increasing levels of violence on inner-city streets around the country, perhaps most notably my home, Chicago. I, like many Americans, have looked at these issues and asked myself, “How can America deal with these two great crises?”
At first glance, the issues seem completely unrelated. After all, financial regulation has to do with billionaires on Wall Street. It’s about reigning in the bank bosses who single handedly drove the American economy off a cliff and caused the worst financial meltdown in recent history. While violence among the lowest economic ranks is clearly about desperation associated with a lack of financial resources. Since young African American and Latino people do not have access to jobs and other financial resources, they revert to illegal means of creating income; a drug industry that has violence as one of its primary byproducts.
Since I rarely expect things to actually be what they seem to be at first glance, I pondered these things further and read a little more. I surfaced a slightly more critical analysis that supposed that the fallout of corporate misconduct worsened conditions for the American poor and caused the spike in violence. It was clear to me that the issues were related, but a relationship of causality did not pass intellectual muster. If one caused the other, it would have had to precede it. Also, African Americans have never known a time in this country when they did not struggle for economic justice. Why is the violent response such a recent phenomenon?
Then I read in the recent Pew Center poll that most people in America are frustrated with government. It was clear that we are missing the big idea. What if there are not two groups and two crises? What if we really are one nation, experiencing one crisis? In America, from the wealthiest Wall Street banker to the most impoverished city dweller, we have a spiritual problem. But, what issue is there as pervasive and deadly as to be able to sneak into every level of society and bring it down so thoroughly?
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that misplaced values caused Vietnam and that those misplaced values threatened the very life of the nation. I believe Dr. King’s thought process is relevant to this current crisis.
We have allowed ourselves to come to the place where money is valued above everything else in our society. The relentless pursuit of money and the pleasure it can provide has led us into the kind of chaos and violence we now experience. Chaos among those who have more access to economic resources because we consume at rates faster than we can produce. Violence among those with less access because we compete over very little. The poor don’t mind killing one another or watching each other die because we have been taught (however indirectly) that a life without money is a life without meaning.
Dr. King’s words ring as true today as they did all those years ago, “There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities.” While we work to reform Wall Street and build economic opportunity into our inner-cities, we must realize that these are not the great solutions. We must have, as Dr. King suggested, a revolution of values; righteousness over pleasure, honor over power, life over money.
Amid the calls for finance reform in Washington and economic development in Chicago, I fear that we will not see peace until we see, across the socio-economic spectrum, values reform and character development.
Here we go again. From ChicagoBreakingNews.com:
Calling this weekend’s earthquake in Chile a divine precursor to his planned speech, controversial Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan predicted on Sunday that America will face its own imminent disaster and must prepare.
Delivering a message titled “The Time and What Must Be Done,” Farrakhan addressed thousands at Chicago’s United Center as part of an annual celebration of Saviours’ Day, marking the birth of W. Fard Muhammad, who founded the faith 80 years ago.
Derrion Albert did not die because of a lack of jobs or social programs. He died because we expect more righteousness and leadership from our government and civil institutions than we do from each other.
As I watched the video of Derrion Albert’s beating death, I couldn’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of anger or passion. From the voice of the young person filming the mayhem on his camera phone to the faces of the perpetrators of the violence; there was no hatred, no rage. This was simply a leisure activity. Derrion’s death was not the goal, just an unfortunate outcome.
Those young people were not doing something that they were forced to do; they were doing something they wanted to do.
As director of the Chicago Peace Campaign, an effort to fill the city with peace and drive out violence, I have worked in many neighborhoods across the city organizing and mobilizing churches and other Christian organizations. We have adopted schools, conducted all-night prayer-and-praise meetings on dangerous corners, beautified streets, and conducted activities for young people. But clearly we have not done enough.
I know that there are those who say the solution to our problems in America’s inner cities is that we need more jobs and more afterschool programs. I say not so. We have in this city more afterschool programs and jobs available to youth than we did in 1959. But we did not see young people beating each other to death in the streets back then.
Derrion died just outside the doors of a faith-based community center that would not have turned a single member of that mob away if they were looking for afterschool recreation. As I watched, I realized that it’s time for the church to come forth and lead. Allow me to explain.
In practically every generation prior to this one, the great problems in America had to do with civil rights. From the unjust system of taxation without representation which led to the Revolutionary War to the unjust Jim Crow laws that led to civil rights movement of the ’50’s and ’60’s, we have struggled as a nation to overcome problems that were a matter of public policy. Since those problems were emanating primarily from the halls of government, we struggled to shift public policy discussions, change laws, and elect men and women to national and local government who could make necessary changes and hold the line on previous victories. And as we did this, things improved.
I humbly submit to you that those days are over. Public policy and government statute are not the great source of our problems, and the methods of previous movements have been and will continue to prove ineffectual in our time. It is time for a new approach. I do not mean to assert that every law in this nation — or even in this city — is now just; this is certainly not the case. But the law and public policy discussions of our time are not the cause of our problems as they have been in the past.
In the past the law dictated that people of color could not vote. The accepted public policy held that people of color were somehow less human than white people. The clear solution for that kind of injustice is to change that law, to shift that public policy to something more just and humane. This is the basic ethos and methodology of civil rights. Civil rights can be demanded and won from the government.
But today we have laws against drug sales, we have laws against illegal drug possession, we have laws against murder. There is not a respectable public policy professional or organization anywhere in this nation that would make an argument against those laws.
So, why is Derrion Albert not alive today?
Perhaps, the answer is demonstrated better than it can be articulated by the radio DJ who plays endless hours of violence and debauchery, by the policeman who drives 70 m.p.h. the wrong way down a neighborhood street, by the crowd of misguided teens who dispassionately beat one of their peers to death with a piece of wood and their bare hands.
Imagine the impact that we could make if every believer in Chicago truly began to pray for peace in our city, then allowed that prayer to motivate and strengthen us toward action. What if every school in Chicago was adopted by a handful of churches? What if believers in every neighborhood began to take responsibility for a block, a train station, a bus route, and went out to meet the people there, serve them, and act as a presence for peace? What if we turned the power of protest onto the drug dealers by coming to the hottest spots at the hottest times (usually nighttime) and exposing their activities done in darkness with bright lights, singing, and prayer? What if there were a prophetic voice coming out of the church that, through both its words and actions, could consistently afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted? That would be an appropriate movement for Chicago — and for every urban community.
The great problems of our time — and, as such, the violence problem in Chicago — are not a matter of civil rights, but human rights. They are not caused by problems in our public policy and government structures; they are caused by great flaws in our values and cultural structures. The solutions cannot be demanded and won from the government; they must be demanded and won from one another. The challenge is not to turn an unjust government toward justice, but to turn an unrighteous culture toward righteousness.
And that’s precisely why it’s time for the church to come forth and lead.
Photo of Derrion Albert: Wikipedia.