Cultivating Community Beyond Church Walls in Indianapolis

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Englewood is a tiny swatch of a place within the larger Near Eastside neighborhood of Indianapolis. It’s been home to Englewood Christian Church starting in 1895, and since then, the rise of the Suburban Experiment took its toll on the community, as many of its residents left to live elsewhere. The congregation shrunk in turn, but nevertheless became more engaged in the life of the neighborhood after realizing that some of its own people lived in very poor housing situations. Rallying its members, some of whom had skills in the building trades, the church starting fixing up houses in the neighborhood for congregation members who needed them.

This organic work of care for their own spurred the congregation’s collective imagination about how they could be more deeply engaged with the broader community. Church members realized that they could do similar work to make affordable housing available for their neighbors, too, and so they began to lean into this work. They launched Englewood Community Development Corporation (ECDC), a separate, though related, non-profit organization. ECDC facilitated the congregation’s work in affordable housing and gave it a presence in larger, city-wide conversations about community development. Although initial efforts in affordable housing were oriented toward home ownership, ECDC learned over time that not all neighbors were ready to own a home, so they began working on affordable rental housing, including converting the long-defunct Indianapolis Public School Number 3, located next door to the church building, into 32 units of rental housing.

The past decade has found ECDC working alongside neighbors in a wide-ranging array of projects, including quality of life planning for the Near Eastside; economic development; prisoner re-entry; hydroponic agriculture; the launching of neighborhood-focused public elementary, middle, and high schools; solar energy development; health and recreation; and more. In all of these efforts, their aim has been to work in a manner that reflects their faith, and to be learning and growing at each step along the way. Over the course of this journey, ECDC has formed three particular convictions that are rooted in the group’s shared Christian faith and that give a distinctive shape to their place-based work.

First, and perhaps foremost, of these convictions is that ECDC aims to be involved in community development work from within the neighborhood. The vast majority of ECDC’s employees live in the neighborhood, and those who do not have other connections to the neighborhood, including being part of the church congregation. Over the last thirty years, the number of church members living  in the Englewood neighborhood steadily increased. Today, roughly 75% of the congregation lives within a half-mile radius of the church building. The work that ECDC does is not merely an act of benevolence for their neighbors, but rather is an act of solidarity with neighbors, integrated with their own lives and rooted in the community.

This way of doing community development emphasizes practices of presence and conversation. ECDC strives to receive every neighbor —regardless of the challenges that they might have—as a human being. Listening to neighbors is not just one item on a development project checklist; it is a way of life. Flourishing places, ECDC has found, are ones in which all neighbors feel a significant sense of belonging, in which they are seen, heard, and known.

Conversation is the primary path toward this sort of flourishing, as it creates a space in which neighbors can be seen and heard, and in which they are invited to share their hopes and dreams for the place. These hopes of neighbors are intertwined over time into an emerging and shared vision for how the neighborhood can move forward. Over the last couple of decades, ECDC has empowered neighbors and helped set their dreams into motion, launching an award-winning Mexican restaurant, a nature playspace for children, a rooftop hockey rink, a coffee shop, and a book review magazine, among dozens of other neighbor-driven initiatives.

Conversation also provides space for hearing and examining conflicts and differences of vision among neighbors. Such conflicts are no less messy or painful than elsewhere in our polarized society, but commitments to the place and to receiving neighbors in the fullness of their humanity, allow conversation, and ultimately work, to continue despite disagreements.

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