Fresno fights poverty

Two USMB churches partner with Vision 22

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Employees work in the wood shop at Neighborhood Jobs, a small business run by Neighborhood Church to employ those with barriers to employment. Photo: Neighborhood Church

What does it look like when churches partner together to impact a struggling city? This is the question being asked by a collection of churches in Fresno, California, involved with a movement known as Vision 22.

The name‚ “Vision 22‚” refers to the 22 neighborhoods in Fresno in which there is concentrated poverty, meaning that 40 percent or more of the residents are living below the poverty line.

Two USMB churches are currently committed to being Vision 22 partner churches: North Fresno MB Church and Neighborhood Church. Their dream is to build relationships that will help Fresno’s neighborhoods flourish.

It started with Katrina

In 2005, the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington D.C., published a report highlighting the way that low-income families in New Orleans were disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina because of concentrated poverty. The report included a list of large U.S. cities with the highest rates of concentrated poverty, with Fresno topping the list at 43.5 percent. Ten years later, follow-up reports showed that New Orleans had dropped out of the top 10, while Fresno only dropped one spot.

This information prompted leaders at several Fresno churches to form the consortium Vision 22 with the purpose of deepening relationships between churches across the city, believing these partnerships will help bridge socioeconomic and racial and ethnic divides.

Joe White, pastor of Neighborhood Church, explains that the founders of Vision 22 discovered that there were churches in the impoverished neighborhoods in Fresno that were “under-equipped, under-resourced, struggling churches but were gospel-centered and vibrant.”

The goal is to create “triads” of three churches in different areas of the city both inside and outside of the 22 pinpointed neighborhoods of extreme poverty, so that these churches can share resources and knowledge.

“We’re trying to change the nature of the conversation and response [to poverty] by being in relationship,” says James Bergen, pastor of North Fresno Church (NFC).

Every three months, pastors as well as leaders of key agencies meet for lunch and conversation to continue to foster the mission of the Vision 22 movement. At the April 30 gathering, hosted by North Fresno Church, Kathy McIlhargey, Vision 22 prayer leader, lead participants in a time of prayer. Photo: North Fresno Church

A Vision 22 partner church commits to participate in the movement in six ways, including delivering a curriculum to its congregation, daily prayer and meaningful connection with partner churches several times a year.

“It’s less about tackling issues of poverty than it is about acknowledging that part of the holistic solution is to make sure the church is vibrant and doing its job or fulfilling its calling in these neighborhoods,” Bergen says. The hope is that each partner church will “discern a way for their relationships to result in lasting impact upon our most deteriorated neighborhoods.”

Neighborhood focused

Both NFC and Neighborhood Church have been serving their respective Fresno neighborhoods in unique ways, even before the Vision 22 movement materialized.

“Over the years our church has been very engaged in citywide issues in general,” Bergen says.

NFC is located in the Robinson neighborhood, where both the unemployment rate and crime rate are higher than the citywide average.

About eight years ago, NFC launched Fresno Area Community Enterprises (FACE), a nonprofit resource and training center for families, churches, agencies and businesses that are collaborating for community transformation through a holistic approach of caring, resourcing and developing.

The holistic approach of FACE includes after-school tutoring, mentoring and discipleship programs, a GED study group, a financial literacy course and an Auto Service Day that provides under-resourced families with the opportunity for free vehicle maintenance.

FACE also includes two micro-businesses that provide employment in landscaping and moving services for people with barriers to employment.

Bergen says that one big way that NFC aligns with the Vision 22 movement is the idea that relationships and connection between people matter more than simply throwing resources at a problem like poverty.

Taking responsibility

Neighborhood Church is located in the Jackson neighborhood, which has high poverty and crime rates as well.

According to White, 71 percent of the residents do not have a high school education.

Neighborhood Church views Jackson as “an 8- by 12-block geographical area of spiritual responsibility,” says White, who was born in Fresno and grew-up in one of the highest-crime, lowest income neighborhoods in the city.

After living in a wealthy neighborhood in Canada for a time, White and his wife moved back to Fresno in 2015 and planted Neighborhood Church that same year.

Neighborhood Church consists of three elements: a weekly gathering, a non-profit and a small business.

The weekly gathering takes place at Jackson Elementary School on Sunday afternoons. Currently, White says 2.89 percent of the neighborhood attends these gatherings, and their goal is 10 percent. Nearly everyone who attends did not have a church family before they began attending Neighborhood Church.

The non-profit arm of the church looks to meet specialized needs in the neighborhood. Over the course of a year, the church has worked with the city of Fresno on creating a new safety infrastructure on one of the most dangerous local streets that includes new sidewalks, bike lanes, lighting and signage.

Similarly to FACE, Neighborhood Church meets the practical need of employment by offering young people ages 16 to 24 with employment barriers the chance to work at Neighborhood Jobs. The church renovated a workshop to create an artisan space where young adults can learn job-transferable skills. Currently, they employ five workers making small wooden libraries that can be put up on streets for people to take or leave books for free.

“We have more orders than we know what to do with,” White says.

Neighborhood Church lists on its website 21 ongoing ministry initiatives, each one focused on further developing the community using Christian principles. Examples include prayer walks, Bible studies, sports programs and literacy mentoring at the elementary school.

White compares the relationship between meeting the practical and spiritual needs of a community to the two blades of a scissors. “You can only actually make a difference if you’re operating both blades,” he says.

White believes that progress and impact can be measured over time in more ways than simply anecdotally. Neighborhood Church plans to operate by looking at statistics over time regarding areas such as educational attainment, affordable housing, employment, crime rates, community engagement and conversion and baptism.

“We really believe that Jesus can make a lasting impact in people’s lives,” White says.

Although the format of NFC and Neighborhood Church may look different, in many ways they’re working toward the same goal.

“We have a similar vision that the flourishing of our neighborhood is at the core of who we are as a church,” Bergen says. “To be vitally engaged in neighborhood issues is just part of our calling.”

Jessica Vix Allen
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Meade, Kansas. She and her husband, Joel, have one daughter.

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