Changing the Community One House at a Time

April 13, 2018 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

Editor’s Note:

To celebrate the announcement of the 2018 Kaleidoscope Fund grant recipients, we are sharing the 2017 recipient’s stories over the next two months. See all 2017 stories here as they are published.

-LCEF Editorial Team

Most people have given up on East St. Louis (ESL). Once a bustling industrial city, the fourth largest in Illinois, ESL is now a shell of what it used to be. The streets are full of condemned homes, decrepit commercial buildings and deserted, overgrown lots. Shocking, if you consider that in 1959 the National Civic League named this metropolis across the Mississippi River from St. Louis an All-American City.

Its decline is a well-known story. As the industrial jobs moved out of the city so did its residents. As residents moved out so did the tax base. Without the tax base, the city struggled to provide basic services like garbage pickup and police protection. At one point the state loaned the city $35,000,000. The decline persisted. In 1990 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development deemed ESL “the most distressed small city in America.” Twenty-eight years later the situation has not improved.

True, it’s hard to recover from such a hole—but not impossible. Particularly if you tackle the problem one house at a time. And that’s the plan, says Rev. Dr. Willie Stallworth, pastor of Unity Lutheran Church, East St. Louis.

“We truly have mission-and-ministry opportunities right here in North America,” Stallworth said. One such ministry opportunity included the establishment of the Unity Lutheran Christian Elementary School in 2000. Formed through a partnership between the Southern Illinois District (SID) Mission Board, other SID congregations and Unity, the school currently educates 180 students in a renovated school building.

“In the same way the school transforms the lives of individual children, one child at a time,” Stallworth said, “Unity wants to transform an entire neighborhood, one home at a time.”

The vehicle to make this happen is the Lansdowne Community Initiative (LCI). This community revitalization initiative was designed to bring stakeholders from other neighborhoods together.

“This effort is based upon the conviction that the congregation must continue to take a leadership role not only in impacting lives of individuals through the transformative power of the Gospel,” Stallworth said, “but also work to transform the entire community.”

This effort is not the first of its kind for Unity. In spring 2016, through a Helping Hand Initiative grant from the LCMS National Housing Support Corporation (NHSC), LCI renovated eight ESL homes. Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s (LCEF) Laborers For Christ (LFC) provided high skill, low-cost labor.

Home repair focused on low-income, disabled or elderly residents near Unity. Laborers replaced broken fixtures and doors, installed new windows, built a wheelchair ramp and removed a rotting porch.

Funded in part by the Kaleidoscope Fund, a granting program established by LCEF, Unity will extend this initiative in 2018. Unity was a 2017 recipient of a Kaleidoscope Fund grant, which will be used to serve at least eight homeowners in ESL. A grant from the Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis will serve at least seven homeowners.

Since Stallworth worked with NHSC on the successful implementation of the 2016 renovations, he will rely on that experience for the 2018 initiative. NHSC will manage payroll and the relationship with LFC. LFC should arrive on May 1 and complete the work by June 15. Before work can begin, homeowners must meet Helping Hand requirements, including up-to-date property taxes and homeowner’s insurance. Participants also are expected to take part in financial education programs to be hosted this summer at Unity. At least 12 Lansdowne residents will participate in the LCI financial education classes.

“This will not only help to stabilize the residents in their home,” Stallworth said, “but also help to stabilize the neighborhood … thereby reducing the future number of vacant housing units in the community.”

Connecting, rebuilding and loving neighbors through a owner-occupied home renovation initiative is exactly the kind of ministry the Kaleidoscope Fund was intended to support.

Keep up the good work Rev. Stallworth and Unity Lutheran Church!

Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.