The Congregation in High Poverty Areas: Distance and Isolation

Bronx Housing Project


Urban religious leaders often express a desire to bridge the social distance between their congregation and the surrounding neighborhood.  How can this be achieved?  First, it requires an accurate picture of the landscape.  In what follows, I will address a stark description:  churches and low-income residents in geographic proximity and yet worlds apart. 

To get an accurate picture of the state of how congregations related to their low income neighbors, the Leadership Center at Morehouse College studied four communities:  Indianapolis, Denver, Camden and Hartford. 

The study asked the following questions: 

  1. What connections already exist between congregations and high poverty communities?  
  2. What challenges still need to be overcome?

Those questions were the focus of the Faith Communities and Urban Families Project, directed by R. Drew Smith.  It paints a troubling picture of congregations and low-income residents living side by side in splendid isolation.

Context:  Resource-Starved Neighborhoods

It might be no surprise that, in the high poverty communities of many American cities today, income and educational levels are markedly lower than in surrounding areas.  Among the resources needed:

  1. High quality schools,
  2. Jobs with meaningful wages.  (In the Denver survey, employment rate was 60%; in the other three cities, average employment was 39%.)
  3. Banks that can provide lending at reasonable rates (not predatory, “payday lenders” found in storefront businesses)
  4. Supermarkets with adequate selection of fresh foods
  5. Social agencies that can teach life skills 
  6. Churches that can provide social support, emotional support and social services.

The Study’s Focus:  Housing Projects

Housing projects, the focus of the study, in many ways epitomize the challenges faced with the urban concentration of poverty.  The research project surveyed 1,206 residents in of low-income housing projects in the four cities.  How often and what type of interaction did housing project residents have with area churches?  In addition, 136 churches were surveyed to ask them about the involvement of residents in their ministries, and especially their outreach ministries.

No Lack of Churches

The researchers found that the church continues to be an enduring institutional presence in each of the communities studied.  “On average, there are about 40 churches within one mile of each of the housing complexes.  Within the Project neighborhoods, three-quarters or more of the churches are predominantly Black, and the majority of these churches have less than 500 members.”  (Beyond the Boundaries, p. 9)

Sunday Morning = Quiet Time @ the Project

Researchers spent several Sunday mornings observing activity in the outdoor areas of the Indianapolis housing projects.  The place was extremely still.  Few if any cars came and went.  No churches came to pick residents up for church.  There was little activity at all in the project’s common areas, which were laid out in a town house style. (Smith, 2001)

Social Distance and Isolation

This inactivity was borne out in the residential surveys in the four cities.  Between 70 and 92% of residents surveyed considered themselves Christian (except Hartford, where the number was 36%), yet only four out of ten were members of a church.  Fully two-thirds of residents told researchers that no church had contacted them in the previous year to ask them to be involved in church activities.

Lack of Bridges Across Class

The research project revealed a paradox:  lots of connections, yet not of the helpful kind for improving their life situation.  “Where poor people are concentrated together, they have extensive contact with other poor people.  But they don’t necessarily have contact with people who are not poor, or with institutions or organizations that serve as bridges into a broader world beyond their immediate poverty circumstances.”  (Beyond the Boundaries, p. 9)

Cultural Barriers Within Churches

Even though almost all of the churches in the study expressed a desire to connect with low-income neighbors, this study reported cultural barriers that churches still need to overcome.  One example of a barrier is what Barbara Ehrenreich has described as the middle class “fear of falling.”  One pastor at a roundtable said:

An attitude among some of my members is that theyve worked hard to escape the ghetto. And to erect bridges between our congregation and the housing projects across the street means there will be more social interaction between the kids, and our kids may come under the influence of some of the things weve tried to get away from.  (Beyond the Boundaries, p. 12)

This first part of the Morehouse College study, the research phase, paints a bleak picture of the challenge faced by congregations wanting to build bridges to high poverty communities.  In the second phase, the researchers gathered clergy and civic leaders with low-income residents to present their findings.  At that point they asked the participants to collaborate and take action based on what they learned.  Next time we will take a more hopeful look at the concrete steps they took and what bridging activities you can do in your own community.


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:  Dan DeLuca, “Soundview Projects the Bronx”   May 25, 2009.  Flickr Creative Commons.


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