Chicago church puts faith into action

The Rev. Robert Biekman has a way of simplifying complex issues. He is even known as Pastor B. - just one example of his preference for keeping things simple and to the point. For five years, he has served as senior pastor of Chicago's Southlawn United Methodist Church on the city's South Side.

For five years, Biekman has taken a hands-on approach to dealing with the many social issues endangering his church's neighborhood. His dedication links directly to his theology. "John Wesley said that the world is my parish," Biekman explained. "And if you think about the world as our parish, then we need to begin in the neighborhood."

Chicago has seen its share of violent crimes in 2012 and is desperately trying to reverse a recent 38 percent increase in murders since 2011. Some of the murder victims have lived in close proximity to Southlawn. It would be easy to focus on delivering a message on Sunday mornings and letting residents and parishioners solve the neighborhood's problems, but that is not Pastor B.'s style.

"I'm a firm believer that when God appoints a pastor, or when our church is put in an area," he said, "it's there to serve not just the needs of the members, but also the needs of that community. We have to be a light in that community. We ought to be able to shout on Sunday morning and still be relevant from Monday through Saturday."

Pastor B. chooses to be relevant by being active. Members collaborate with groups in their Calumet Heights neighborhood, including the Chicago Police Department, local government and businesses. This partnership resulted in the Neighborhood Intern Project, which seeks to engage young people and allows them to determine how their community could improve.

Bridging the generational gap

"We saw it as an opportunity to be able to provide some positive influence in the lives of young people," said Pastor B. "But the part that really grabbed me was that they would take ownership and leadership in this program, and the young people would connect with older adults and seniors. It was a way to bridge that generational gap in an effective way."

Like many older U.S. neighborhoods, the Calumet Heights demographics have changed significantly in the past 10 to 20 years. As original homeowners move or die, homes become rental property to a younger, transitional population.

"We suffer from what I call 'generational tribalism,'" said Pastor B. "What that refers to is having this kind of polarity of young people versus old people. Young people don't necessarily respect older people, and older people fear young people. A program like the Neighborhood Intern Project gives an opportunity for young people to be involved with positive things. It gives older people an opportunity to see young people doing positive things and to &ellipsis; connect around these community projects."

Rather than telling the youth what to do, organizers of the Neighborhood Intern Project ask the teens to survey the community, photograph areas that concern them and develop a plan to make a change.

Ethnic Local Church grant makes difference

"Maybe the project is to clean up a yard or a vacant lot," said Pastor B. "Maybe it's planting flowers on a corner." Older adults also help with the community projects and work alongside some of the youth.

"We don't limit the terms of what the project is," Pastor B. said. "The only thing that limits the project is the resources in terms of people and money."

Thanks to a $6,000 Ethnic Local Church grant from the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the program can expand its community projects and have a greater impact in Calumet Heights. The goal of the grants is to strengthen the ethnic local church through education, advocacy, or leadership training and development as congregations engage in social justice.

When the Neighborhood Intern Project teams are working, it sends a powerful message to other young people. "The others passing by will see our kids cleaning up, and they'll become interested," said Pastor B.

"It's been a blessing because officers with the Chicago Police Department will come out and grill hot dogs, and they'll give us some special attention because we are in the inner city."

Participants wear blue T-shirts that read, "Neighborhood Intern Project."

"Instead of identifying with a gang, with a white or red or black T-shirt, they're identifying with this positive program," Pastor B. said.

Pastor B. sees Southlawn's involvement as a way of building relationships within the community and the church. He believes churches cannot just occupy space but also must be relevant to areas where they are established.

"You have to scratch folk where they itch," he said. "What's important is to reach people at their point of need. Most of the time that takes place outside of the four walls of the church."

One of seven apportioned funds, World Service is the financial lifeline to a long list of Christian mission and ministry throughout the denomination. Ethnic Local Church grants are funded by World Service. By supporting the World Service Fund, congregations play a part in making sure God's work in the world is done.

*Giles is a freelance writer and producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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