Bethel New Life, Chicago:
A case study of community transformation

by Joe Flower

This article was published as part of The Healthcare Forum's study, "Emerging Best Practices in Partnerships to Improve Health," funded by The California Wellness Foundation.
International Copyright 1996 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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It was a violent, scary, rundown, hopeless place. Then Mary Nelson came to stay. After thirty years, it's still violent, still scary, and now it's drug-ridden. But parts of it are not so rundown. And none of it is as hopeless as it was.

Nelson didn't mean to stay.
She just meant to help
her brother move.

Nelson didn't mean to stay. She just meant to help her brother move. He was a Lutheran minister, with a new assignment: the Bethel Lutheran Church in a neighborhood called West Garfield Park in Chicago. A map shows Garfield Park to be an expanse of greenery with two lakes and a grand botanical conservatory about four miles straight west from the Loop on the Eisenhower Expressway or the Lake/Dan Ryan El (the "Green Line"). Just beyond it, the 107 blocks of West Garfield Park can look deceptively genteel with their arches of trees. The numbers reveal some of what's under that leafy surface: 45 percent of the population on public assistance -- more than half of them for four years or more. Nearly 30 percent of the births are to teenage mothers, and 64 percent of the households are led by single parents, so perhaps it is not surprising that nearly 60 percent of the children live in poverty; Two thirds of all high-school students drop out, and 62 percent of adults have no high school diploma. In both 1992 and 1993, the police district that includes West Garfield Park counted 94 murders, the highest in all Chicago.

When David Nelson and his 25-year-old sister Mary arrived in 1965, the locals were throwing bricks at the National Guard and turning over police cars. The Nelsons had every reason to fear for their lives. After all, they were not only new to the area, they were white, like the police, the National Guard, and everyone in authority, almost without exception. The people throwing the bricks were African-American.

David and Mary Nelson decided to try again another day. But when they came back two days later the bricks were still flying. In fact, their car got hit with bricks as they came off the expressway. The heck with it, they decided, they might as well stay.

Mary felt she couldn't just help her brother unpack and then run off and leave him in such a volatile situation.

She would stay until
The tensions eased.
They didn't ease.

She would stay until the tensions eased. They didn't ease. There were five riots in the neighborhood over the next four years. By then Mary Nelson was deeply involved in the community.

It ran in the family. David's and Mary's father was a Lutheran minister in Washington, D.C. Her other brother was also a Lutheran minister. Her sister had married one. The guest room in their childhood home had always been full of strangers down on their luck, or just out of prison. Her parents had spent a lot of their time working with the poor of Washington. It came with the territory. After getting a master's degree in urban education from Brown University, Mary had gone off to build schools and teach in Tanzania for two years. Now, in West Garfield Park, she became a part of her brother's ministry, helping with "social action" such as starting an alternative high school for dropouts, and 17 daycare centers.

Bethel was part of a consortium of Westside Chicago churches called Westside Isaiah, named after a striking passage in the prophetic book:

If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon. And I will always guide you and satisfy you with good things. I will keep you strong and well. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry. Your people will rebuild what has long been in ruins, building again on the old foundations. You will be known as the people who rebuilt the walls, who restored the ruined houses.
(Isaiah 58: 9-12)

In 1979, the Nelsons and the people of Bethel Lutheran decided to take the passage literally. After all, it was pretty clear, especially the part about restoring the "ruined houses." There were plenty of ruined houses in West Garfield Park. The housing stock was rapidly deteriorating, some 200 units a year were boarded up and abandoned, decent places to live were scarce, and home ownership was increasingly out of reach of the residents. Somebody should rebuild the houses, and help the residents buy them. Who better than the church?

But the other Westside churches would have none of it. The housing business was too capital-intensive, they said, and it was far beyond their expertise. So Bethel did it alone. They passed the hat among themselves. David and Mary borrowed on their credit cards. All together they came up with $9600.

For $275, HUD gave them an old three-flat apartment building it had foreclosed, and the people of Bethel Lutheran rehabilitated it.

The $9600 has become
a $10 million budget.

The effort grew from that thin beginning. They incorporated as Bethel New Life. Five times they put the church in hock to try the next project. But they did more than survive. Bethel has, at this point, built or re-habilitated over 1,000 units of housing and sold them to residents by underwriting no-down-payment "sweat equity" deals. The $9600 has become a $10 million annual budget.

And the mission has expanded. It became obvious very early that no level of housing is affordable to people who don't have jobs. The official level of unemployment among adults in West Garfield Park was 27 percent, the true level far higher. So Bethel started an Employment and Training Services initiative which by now has placed over 4,000 people in full employment.

In attempting to place people in full employment, Bethel ran up against another stark reality: people can't work if they are not healthy, or if they have to stay home to take care of a family member who is ill. So the organization developed, over time, a variety of healthcare services for children, teens, working-age people, and seniors.

In the mid-1990s, Bethel itself employs some 450 people, and the array of programs that Bethel has developed to meet specific needs is impressively broad. It includes:


Jobs and training: Economic redevelopment: Health: Seniors: Social action:

In 1994, in response to a federal program creating "Empowerment Zones," Bethel New Life led the creation of the West Garfield Park Empowerment Zones Collaborative. This collaborative brought together a number of coalitions and partnerships that had formed over the years, with Bethel taking the lead in many of them. Thirteen organizations committed as "core" groups, and 17 others participated in the planning and visioning, and give assistance in one form or another.

The Collaborative started with a series of open community meetings that mixed invited "experts" and stakeholders with anyone who wanted to come. The purpose of these meetings was simply to gather information about what different organizations were doing or planning in the community.

The next series of meetings, held at the "Gold Dome" in Garfield Park, had a different purpose: creating a wholistic vision of a healthy, sustainable community. Thirty to 50 people showed up for each session.

A "writing committee" took the results of the "Gold Dome" meetings and expressed that vision in a series of initiatives, most of them building on efforts that Bethel had started. They sent the results to anyone who wanted to see them, asking for input, making changes as a consensus emerged. As described in a Bethel document, the ten resulting initiatives are:

A different model

Bethel New Life is quite different from the other efforts that we have featured here. It has been described as a "grass-roots" effort, as opposed to "top down" efforts like those in Orlando and Aiken, which start with the most powerful local people (mayor, newspaper publisher, city manager) and proceed outward and downward. The differences are instructive:

  1. organic structure -- The "top-down" model involves gathering a sense of the entire community into an over-arching vision, and proceeding from that vision into specific projects. Bethel New Life began as one specific project -- affordable housing -- and grew organically to take up other challenges, such as jobs, health, senior services, and economic development, as a serious of specific, expanded answers to the knot of questions presented by this enormously challenged community

  2. overt basis in Christian faith -- Other efforts involve religion at one level or another. One of the roots of the Orlando effort was clearly the passionate belief in doing the right thing for the community, a belief held by most of the people who run Florida Hospital, an Adventist institution, as well as many of the others who were involved. But Bethel New Life, though organizationally separate from Bethel Lutheran and the churches of Westside Isaiah, carries its Christian message and motivation much closer to the surface. When the "Take Back The Streets" campaigners tell the young drug runners that "there is another way," they don't just mean job training programs and entrepreneurial training. In this context, they clearly also mean "the Way:" a life based in the church, personal responsibility, and commitment to family.

  3. slow evolution over time -- The "top-down" model starts all at once. It seemingly has to, since it is necessary for the community as a whole to grasp a new gestalt of itself, and proceed from this new vision to new actions. Bethel New Life evolved bit by bit.

Which is correct?

Which is the right model? Is the "top down" model, developed under the rubric of "Healthy Cities" or "Healthy Communities" by Len Duhl and Trevor Hancock, the World Health Organization, the National Civic League and The Healthcare Forum -- the "gather everyone and create a vision" model -- better? Or is the Bethel New Life "grow organically through faith and trial" model better?

The evidence at hand suggests that neither is right -- in the sense that neither is a magic wand that transforms communties overnight -- and that both are right, that both models can have enormous transformative power. Furthermore, the study of change in chaotic systems suggests that any transformation that works over the long haul must arise organically out of specific local circumstances -- every change that works will happen differently.

Seventeen years into the attempt, Bethel New Life seems to be succeeding wonderfully. A more fruitful question than whether it is using the correct model might be: what are the specific local circumstances that allow this model to work so well?

More than any of the other communities that we have studied, West Garfield Park is a homogenous community, almost a monoculture, an urban African-American culture undergirded by Protestant Christian churches. By and large, proposing a specifically Christian vision of community renewal is not divisive, but unifying. It calls people back to their roots and their family.

On the other hand, West Garfield Park is at war with itself. The community is still trying to answer the basic question of how to survive, at the very bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and there are two starkly different, competing answers to that question available locally. One is crime, especially drugs. The other is getting a job, getting an education, taking personal responsibility, and making a commitment to family. This divided consciousness is not helped by the fragmented and too often corrupt ethnic-based political leadership of Chicago. An attempt to gather a consensus in all of West Garfield -- or in all of Chicago -- might awaken many competing demons, and ultimately fail. It might be more fruitful in such circumstances to start with one small project, sink deep roots, and grow slowly.

West Garfield Park is a place of scarce resources. In Bethel New Life, this is coupled with a ferocious focus on being home-grown. In John McKnight's terms, the effort arises out of the "gifts and capacities" of the community itself, and the control, management, and benefits of the effort stay in the community. Bethel is not at all bashful about using government money, or assistance from foundations and corporations -- in fact a great deal of its effort could be described as various ways to seek out, manage, and leverage that help. But in order to have the ability to attract and use these outside resources without being controlled from the outside, Bethel had to grow the infrastructure -- the staff, the expertise, the track record. It is questionable whether it could have done any of that quickly.

Finally, West Garfield Park has strong local leadership, apparently dedicated to the community, patient, indefatigable, skillful, whose rewards seem to come from the work itself, not from any results of the work. Mildred Wiley, Bethel's director of community organizing, says of this need for very special leadership: "You can do it. If you don't do it, who will?" We each have the necessary leadership in ourselves, she says, "because you recognize that there's something wrong." If such leadership had not come forward in the community, the only hope for renewal would come from the outside, from the "top down."

Bethel's method seems to fit the ground from which it grew. Could it have grown faster if it had employed what was later developed as the "Healthy Cities/Healthy Communities" model? We have no way of knowing. This is not a laboratory experiment. We have no parallel universe in which we can try it the other way. But it is possible. It is also possible that such an effort, with shallower roots and a more rapidly-built infrastructure, may have run into serious problems, or simply died off, without reaching the longevity and success that this effort has. This certainly was the fate of many grandiose efforts of the `60s and `70s.

Now that it is well-established, Bethel is using the the "top-down" model in certain targeted neighborhoods. These "Focused Area Development" initiatives begin at the very beginning, with volunteers going dor-to-door, asking people what they thought the opportunities, assets, and needs of the neighborhood are, and asking whether people were willing to come to a meeting. Bethel has at least one part-time staff attached to the project member living in the targeted area. Bethel convenes the community, seeks input, helps them shape it into a vision, brings in architects to render that vision into architectural sketches and renderings, then provides the neighborhood with the help, access to capital, and experience it needs to make the changes.

To students of community development, Bethel's methods seem sharply reminiscent of the "asset-based" development ideas advocated by John McKnight and John Kretzmann of Northwestern University. This is no coincidence: it was in studying Bethel (among other places) that they developed many of those ideas.

"Academics have to come
with a kind of humility,"
says Nelson.

"Academics have to come with a kind of humility," says Nelson, "knowing that the answers come out of an honest-to-goodness collaborative process. The ideas have to come out the people who struggle with it every day. Your study won't be any good unless it's action research, where you're in process all the time. Too often people in academic settings have a mindset that says, `We studied all these years, so we have these answers.' The mindset blocks hearing what people in non-academic settings have to say. The reason our collaboration with Argonne National Laboratories works so well is that they have a genuine feeling that we are in this together, that they don't have all the answers. For them, the work is a process of scientific discovery, and the answers could come out of either one of us. It's the quality of the leadership there, they are looking for that `Aha!' feeling. When they call themselves our `partners,' they really mean it."

All elements present

Despite the different shape of the model, all the elements that we have presented as part of our model show up in Bethel's model also, though sometimes in a form that better fits the local circumstances.

Convening The Community: Though Bethel New Life did not grow out of any grand convention of all West Garfield Park, there is no question that it continually takes the temperature of the neighborhoods. Besides the specific convening of targeted neighborhoods, Bethel regularly does formal surveys about specific questions. And situated as it is, arising out of the local churches, with all of its 400 staff members living in the community, there is little separation between what "the public" wants and what Bethel hears. In this respect, it is of great importance that few of the staff have much, if any, training in such things as large-scale real estate rehabilitation, equity financing, and economic development -- and that they see their inexperience as an asset. They are forced to turn outward, to seek the opinions of the neighborhood, and the guidance of their Advisory Board members.

Creating A Shared Vision: Similarly, Bethel New Life has never attempted to help all of West Garfield Park articulate a shared vision expressed in concrete goals. Yet the shared vision is there, precisely because it is not a heterogenous, fractionated culture, but a single culture split between two ways of surviving. Those who are advocating the path represented by Bethel already have a shared vision, articulated in the passage from Isaiah. They have developed the concrete expressions of that vision as they have moved forward: first affordable housing, then decent jobs, then health, and on to community development, neighborhood revitalization, and safe streets.

In its "Focused Area Developments," and specific projects, Bethel goes to great extremes to create a truly shared vision. "In one area, for instance," says Nelson, "we started with the public school, American National Bank, and a local church. We went through eight neighborhood meetings to identify the assets of the area. The vision that came out of that process included traffic calming circles, play spaces for the kids, and a lot of other things. We got the park district involved. The local school council was very suspicious for the first few meetings. Trying to get them bought in it took some private meetings."

Assessing Current Reality And Trends: The information that Bethel needs to decide what the community needs is not scarce. It is all around them -- since almost all of the staff live in the community. Usually there is little necessity to do further research to establish a specific need for a specific program. More often it is a question of doing something about a problem that is glaringly obvious and has been for years. "Because we are church-based," says Nelson, "every Sunday morning people are pulling on your sleeve to say `Hey, we have to do this.' You have to do this in a neighborly way, instead of saying that you have all the answers. This neighborhood is a live being, it takes all of us to make it work. Folks in the neighborhood may not say things the right way. When you start really interacting with people who are living with it every day, the first thing you're going to get is a lot of negativism You have to be tough enough to live through that, then pose some possibilities and opportunities. I'm action-oriented, I don't pause enough to listen. It's when you start hearing things coming through in different words that you know people are really interested in it. They're telling you, `We gotta do something about this.'"

In addition to this constant informal conversation, Bethel does gather an enormous amount of data. It combines the data that is available from government and other sources with its own surveys, door-to-door "outreach," and data from its wellness programs, with participation in block clubs, community forums, business organizations, and churches.

Action Planning: One of the advantages of a slow evolution is that involves a lot of trial-and-error, which is a slower but surer method of communal learning. "In collective planning," says Nelson, "you have to have someone who virtually stays on the telephone making sure that all the key actors are kept informed, the principal of the school, the police liaison, the alderman's office, coaxing, letting people know that people feel their ideas are important, getting back to everyone, typing up the notes from the meeting, sending them out to everyone that came. That intense organizing function is messy, but it's the key to success, for us."

Doing the Job: Wiley points out that, once you get people involved in a project, "You've got to have something that you can finish, something visually different, whether it's a building demolished, or a more visible police presence, within six months to a year, or you'll lose them."

The projects planned by Bethel have certain qualities in common besides being good for the community. They often have some immediate, visible benefit. They actually employ people from the community. And they have a "multiplier effect:" they produce goods and services that go on to draw more money and stability into the community.

One example is the daycare program. Bethel's staff observed two linked problems: many women could not take a job because they had young children or aged parents at home, and there was no affordable daycare -- and many women had no training or licensing necessary for a job. The solution? Train some women to be daycare providers, and help them get their licenses, turning the skills they had into something marketable. Help them upgrade their homes (and in several dozen cases, help them buy the home) to be licensed as small daycare centers. The result: entrepreneurial opportunities, income and home ownership for some women, affordable daycare and the opportunity to work for many others.

Monitoring Progress: Because they are specific, targeted efforts, most of Bethel's initiatives require no special monitoring or re-surveys. It is easy to keep track of the number of people moved into permanent jobs, the number of new homeowners, a drop in infant mortality. Still, Bethel staff articulates explicit goals for most of them. The Argonne partnership, for instance, will be measured primarily by the number of jobs it produces. Other measurements will include the number of young people who successfully navigate the training/internship program through college to a career in engineering; the number of housing units renovated using the Argonne technology; and the number of area residents trained in site assessment and remediation.

The success of other efforts, such as the "Take Back The Streets" campaign, is not so easy to track, and have no clear method for monitoring progress.

Is this a problem? Could be. But there are reasons to believe that it is not that much of a problem. We monitor progress for two reasons: one is to check how we are doing. Do we need mid-course corrections? The other reason is to be able to report back your successes to people who have given money, effort, or political support, to be able to say, "See? It made a difference."

If you are doing something like cleaning up a river, you will need some numbers and scientific tests to monitor your progress -- so many parts per million of this pollutant, so many of that one. If you are cleaning up a street corner, such numbers are a lot harder to come by. Is it more effective to set up an ice cream stand on the corner, or to have choir practice there? Are any of the young men coming in for job training actually drug runners? Yet numbers may be less relevant than educated personal observations. A street that is a drug haven is not hard to spot-- no families hanging out on the street, just young males, even on a hot summer evening; the young men not playing basketball or talking loudly, just hanging; cars cruising slowly; whispered conversations; guys draped over the public phone, as if waiting for it to ring. When the organization, like Bethel, has a tight, intermeshed relationship with the community it is trying to transform, simply noticing the effect of their actions is often sufficient feedback for mid-course corrections.

The primary reason that we need to report back successes in most community initiatives is that the people who are working together have little experience of each other. An organization that has grown up organically, building a long track record with the community, with sponsors and advisors, has built a level of trust that makes it less necessary to be able to report successes on each initiative in quantifiable measures.

Still, Bethel would like to be able to report its successes in deeper, more accurate and more comprehensive numbers, mainly so that they can influence public policy and help other groups get started. "In order to heighten the opportunity," says Nelson, "we need to have a research and evaluation arm that collects data and looks at the impact that we are having. We have done always done `Lessons Learned' on troubled programs, but we haven't always done it on the ones that worked." A recent grant will allow Bethel to hire consultants to study the problem of quantifying Bethel's affect on its community.

Organizing the Effort: Because of the way it has grown, the Bethel New Life effort has taken a variety of organizational structures to fit different needs. The main structure is permanent and formal: a not-for-profit community development corporation, independent of its founding church, with a board of trustees and a board of advisors. That, in turn is part of several other consortia, including Westside Isaiah and the West Garfield Empowerment Zone Collaborative. A number of Bethel New Life's projects, such as the recycling business, are set up as subsidiaries. Others are joint ventures with other organizations, or straight contractual relationships. Some relationships, such as those with the organizations that provide healthcare to the people in Bethel's senior programs, have no formal shape at all.

Bethel has evolved away from "trying to do everything ourselves," as Nelson puts it, and toward partnerships. Experiences with attempting to be a healthcare provider in the late 1980s and early 1990s convinced Bethel that there are some things that are better left to others.

Bethel New Life allows us to see how the fight to rebuild community can take many different shapes -- in fact, it must take a different shape for every community. And yet while the shape on the surface may be different, there is much about the work that is deep and constant -- a reaching back to roots for the true values of the community, gathering the strengths of the whole community, and creating a future together based on those strengths and values. "That's how Bethel evolved," says Nelson, "but it doesn't have to take that long. I tell people to just start somewhere. The next steps will come. The evolution will happen. If you try to be global and wait until you can do everything at once, you can end up waiting too long."

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