Bridging the Class Divide: Lessons From Four Cities

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Last week we looked at a Morehouse College project in Indianapolis, Denver, Camden and Hartford that studied the relationship between congregations and high poverty urban communities.  The Faith Communities and Urban Families Project, directed by R. Drew Smith, was sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  The questions they asked: 

  1. What connections exist between congregations and the urban poor? 
  2. What challenges need to be overcome?  

Stark Picture, Yet Signs of Hope

The research team painted a bleak picture of the challenge that faces well-meaning middle class congregations.  In most cases, they found, churches and their economically challenged neighborhoods stand in stark isolation from each other. 

The research phase was only the beginning, however.  After gathering their information, the team called together clergy, civic leaders and residents in roundtable discussions and concluded by asking them to take concrete action based on what they had learned.  Here are the action steps the communities pursued. 

Here’s What Worked in 4 Cities

In addition to surveys and interviews with clergy and residents, the project sponsored roundtables for clergy, civic leaders and residents to discuss the findings.  Though the purpose of the roundtables themselves was information sharing and analysis, participants were expected to use the results of their discussions to implement concrete steps to bridge the divide between congregations and their low-income neighborhoods.  It’s hoped that their actions will offer ideas to churches looking for concrete steps to bridging.

  • A forum of church leaders and other civic leaders and residents allowed to talk about security in the neighborhood (Indianapolis)
  • Several neighborhood festivals were held in parks and focused on youth, with music, games and free food (Indianapolis)
  • Foot tours of the neighborhood guided by local residents were suggested as part of a campaign to familiarize congregation members with the neighborhood. (Hartford)
  • A symposium on counseling services was offered by churches and led by the Ministerial Alliance was successful in building a coalition between clergy and social service providers, but did not draw as many area residents as hoped (Denver)
  • A Sister-To-Sister Campaign pairing women church members with female residents of the community, to foster dialogue and provide social service support for residents, was launched (Hartford)
  • A faith-based summer camp was suggested by a committee to supplement the city’s summer camp programs, but did not materialize (Camden)

Five Steps You Can Take to Bridge the Divide

1.  Use a Research-Dialogue-Action Sequence

The research project followed a research-dialogue-action sequence that began with research about the neighborhood, gathered a diverse group to discuss the findings, and then empowered the participants with financial support to take action on the results.  This sequence could be used in other communities where churches are isolated from high poverty neighborhoods.  

2.  Educate Yourselves About Policy

Churches need to become better educated on the policy issues surrounding long term and generational poverty in their neighborhoods, ideally with the help of an expert such as a social worker, local university professor or pastor to interpret the policies that generate policy in urban neighborhoods.  Importantly, religious leaders and congregations need to be thoughtfully self aware, placing themselves on the socio-economic map and understanding the privileges that come with their middle class economic position.  This policy education is best achieved in classes and small group discussions. 

3.  Strengthen the Faith-Based Infrastructure

On the whole, congregations are less well suited than councils of churches and interfaith organizations for bridging activities with the poor.  One reason for the Camden site’s failure to gain traction was that, despite the city being one of the most racially diverse, it lacked a citywide council of churches or interfaith organization that could initiate bridge building activities such as forums and festivals.  By contrast, Indianapolis has a long tradition of interdenominational work, an infrastructure that proved vital when it came time to implement solutions to the congregation’s social isolation. 

4.  Increase Opportunities For Cross Cultural Exposure

It helps to create dialogue-based initiatives where church members and residents can get to know one another.  The term “dialogue-based” is crucial.  Simply inviting people to work together is not enough.  Will they have an opportunity to debrief afterwards?

Examples include:

  • Neighborhood forums for discussion or small, informal study circles
  • Recreational activities such as the park festivals in Indianapolis
  • Service learning opportunities, projects where residents and church members can work together on a project to improve the neighborhood.  This helps to build friendships, as long as they include an opportunity for dialogue or debriefing. 

5.  Expand Faith-Based Advocacy

Beyond the neighborhood forums mentioned above—whose main purpose is to create dialogue—think about gathering a group to assess their awareness of public policy related to urban poverty.  Are they aware of local, state and federal laws surrounding employment, social services and health care?  Beyond simple awareness, leadership training for clergy and residents would give them the tools to advocate for better policies.

A Final Word:  Listen!

The research-dialogue-action sequence outlined here is a good first step toward building coalitions with poor people in the neighborhood.  Perhaps the most challenging part is ensuring participation of residents themselves.  Of the many concrete steps described above, the common element to success is quite simple:  let people know you care about them by asking them to show up and make their opinions heard.  Listening goes a long way.


R. Drew Smith, 2001, “Churches and the Urban Poor:  Interaction and Social Distance,” Sociology of Religion 62 (3): 301-13.

Smith, R. Drew.  2003. “Beyond the Boundaries: Low-Income Residents, Faith-Based Organizations and Neighborhood Coalition Building.” Faith Communities and Urban Families Project, The Leadership Center at Morehouse College.  Found at:

Photo:  Aaron Knox, “Church/Man” Flickr Creative Commons


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