ByLisa J. Locke , Diana Zahner
American religious institutions have a long history of supporting members of their communities. Churches distribute food and clothing to needy families, support the homeless with soup kitchens and overnight shelters, and play a critical role in distributing health care to those otherwise unable to afford such services.
While such programs remain vital, religious institutions nationwide are increasingly choosing to adopt a broader role as advocates for improved quality of life in their communities. Many are choosing to ally themselves with community development corporations (CDCs) and community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to help garner the resources needed to accomplish these new objectives. These institutions are generally nonprofit corporations and often involve multiple faith-based organizations, community groups and financial institutions.
Participating faith-based organizations can represent a broad range of religious backgrounds. Their common objective is to encourage home ownership and investment within their communities. CDCs and CDFIs use a range of tools and programs including community organizing, commercial development, affordable housing construction, job training and financial services.
In the Eighth Federal Reserve District, there are numerous faith-based organizations making inroads in their communities, including the St. Louis Reinvestment Corporation and Neighborhood Housing Opportunities in Memphis.
Three faith-based organizations joined forces in 1995 to form St. Louis Reinvestment Corporation (SLRC), which provides prepurchase homebuyer counseling, education and access to financial assistance to help ensure successful homeownership in the St. Louis area. The organization works with several local banks to secure mortgages for program participants. SLRC also provides low-to moderate- income homebuyers access to programs that cover downpayment and closing costs.
"The folks at SLRC are just good people," says Dean Keyes, senior vice president of community development at Firstar. "We have worked with them for a number of years."
Keyes says partnering with faith-based organizations like SLRC has many advantages. "They understand our guidelines and have a positive and nurturing way of explaining them to their clients," Keyes says. "They also help their clients improve their credit reports so that we are able to approve their loan applications."
Neighborhood Housing Opportunities (NHO) is just one of numerous community development programs provided by the Memphis Leadership Foundation (MLF), a 501(c)(3) nondenominational Christian ministry dedicated to the economic as well as spiritual stability of its community.
NHO provides its low-to moderate-income families with homeownership opportunities through two programs, Interim House and New Home Construction. Interim House is transitional housing, which empowers its clients to save money for the downpayment needed to purchase a home, and pre-purchase counseling, which includes family budgeting, goal setting, debt retirement and home-ownership skills.
When families are ready for homeownership, The New Home Construction program builds homes for low- to moderate- income families. The members of the cross-denominational congregations that comprise the program provide more than just spiritual support, they provide the labor to construct the housing as well.
"Our mission is to empower entire families to become both spiritually and economically stable through homeownership," says Elaine St. Clemmons, director of NHO. "Since 1988, we've helped 165 families become homeowners."
As many faith-based organizations have found, their missions do not stop with Sunday sermons. They have learned that they can play hands-on roles in developing communities by participating in CDCs.