by Dan Carpenter
What does a $150 loan to a family in a fix have in common with a house of refuge for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth who’ve been kicked onto the street by their families?
Poverty—or, more precisely, the defiance of poverty, through initiatives that treat low-income communities and individuals as resources in themselves rather than simply passive objects of philanthropy and government aid.
“It’s getting back to our foundations,” says Dorothea Marks, a member of Broadway United Methodist Church, 609 E. 29th St. “We used to borrow sugar. Now we don’t even know our neighbor. We want neighbors to go out and say, ‘How can I help you?’ We want to let people showcase their talent.” Marks is a leader in a program based at Broadway that encourages family and neighborhood economic ascendancy through means as diverse as micro-lending and bartering personal skills.
A few blocks away at Trinity Episcopal Church, 3243 N. Meridian St., plans are developing to establish Indiana’s first transitional housing sanctuary, complete with a range of counseling and other services, for LGBTQ teenagers and young adults who otherwise might find themselves homeless—and susceptible to lives of poverty, or worse.
Broadway and Trinity are the Midtown contingent among six recipients of the first annual series of grants issued under the Faith & Action Project at Christian Theological Seminary. Launched in 2016 with a multimillion-dollar gift from the Michael L. Smith and Susan L. Smith Family Fund at CICF, and instigated by that noted social-activist philanthropic couple, the venture seeks new lines of attack against Indy’s chronically high poverty rate, marshalling every available supporter but emphasizing community self-determination.
The six grants awarded last fall range from $10,000 to $25,000, with Broadway and Trinity receiving $20,000 each. “Our hope was to connect, inspire, and empower faith communities and others to implement effective solutions for people confronting poverty,” says Lindsey Nell Rabinowitch, the project director. The solutions with “greatest potential for real and lasting change,” she adds, “were those involving individuals highlighting their own gifts. What we thought in the beginning—that great work is already under way—was totally affirmed.”
As with the other four grant recipients, Broadway and Trinity are not new to action on the ground to enhance both economic and social vitality. Broadway, guided by its pastor the Rev. Mike Mather and a legion of staff and volunteers, has been operating for years under the “asset-based” and “abundant communities” motifs, which essentially flip the traditional tell-us-what-you-need approach to tell-us-what-you’ve-got-to-share.
Trinity has a half dozen outreach missions going, including a very busy food pantry and legal aid clinic. The rector, Rev. Julia Whitworth, recalls discussions with staff and worshipers that shined a bright light on a new path. “We felt called to ministry to LGBTQ youth. It’s a rapidly growing group of young people who have been turned out of their homes, often on religious grounds,” she says. “We as an affirming church had to support them.”
The church forged a partnership with the Indiana Youth Group, the state’s preeminent service and advocacy organization for young people, and spent about a year incubating the idea of a transitional home, a use for which the IYG’s own building isn’t suitable.
“This will not be a drop-in center,” Rev. Whitworth stressed. “It is long-term transitional housing with a stable and loving program. A resident usually goes almost two years with this model, although they can achieve family reunification or independence before that.”
Trinity Haven will house about 10 young people at a time, but its launch is a ways off. At this point, the organizers are scouting for locations and recruiting donors for a purchase, and annual operating costs will vastly surpass the $20,000 in startup help from CTS.
The Broadway effort is in its developmental stages as well, but the dynamics are different. Block-by-block, household-by-household development is always in progress and can manifest itself no more dramatically than an exchange of artwork for homegrown produce in a food desert. Corey Marks, Dorothy’s husband, plays his role when he comes home from his job as a high school special-education aide and looks under neighbors’ hoods.
“The bottom line is, if I know how to fix cars and you know how to cook or make art, no money changes hands but we all gain,” he says. Sometimes cash does figure in, but whether its mini-capitalism or barter, Dorothy Marks declares, it’s vitality. “You make the community grow and thrive and not depend on a nonprofit that doesn’t pour the money back into the community.”
Broadway participants have been meeting monthly in small groups to assess needs, identify assets, and set specific goals for raising their economic status as families. In return for following formal procedures, including the completion of questionnaires documenting their progress, the groups receive stipends of up to $300 per quarter and $1,200 per year to apply to their aspirations as they see fit. The incentive process is derived from a model created by the national Families Independence Initiative (FII), which has achieved substantial growth in poor families’ incomes in other cities over two-year periods. The Broadway sessions got under way only last March, but the group already has established a micro-loan fund with a limit of $150 per lendee.
In the case of FII and Broadway, the concept of short-circuiting poverty couldn’t be much more direct: Putting money in the hands of people who lack money. For Trinity and the Indiana Youth Group, the economics lie beneath immediate distresses and dangers—but not too deeply to be readily perceived. LGBTQ young people turned out of their homes are “not completing their education and not gaining adult skills. That would call for intervention to prevent poverty,” says Rev. Whitworth. “And they are subject to exploitation, suicide, early death. It’s horrifying.”
Youths also figure prominently in the Broadway group’s undertaking. In concert with The Learning Tree, a community-based education and cultural center, artist and writer Januarie York facilitated a “pop-up coffee shop” last summer and hopes to arrange another soon with Faith & Action Project money. The center’s young entrepreneurs reaped roughly $500 in sales and donations serving coffee, cake, and lemonade on a vacant lot, York says. It all began during a workshop sponsored by Indiana University Health, when she asked the attendees what they would do if they had a piece of land at their disposal.
“We decided to take it off the page and give them space to create it,” York recalls. “It was wonderful for the kids. You can never undo that. We just have to have the adults to work with them.”
REAL CHANGE, REAL POWER
The many and tangled roots of poverty are recognized by the diversity of the six proposals rewarded with grants in 2017 and the 13 finalists chosen so far from 36 applicants this year. The selections result from a three-pronged strategy of the Faith & Action Project that entails public events and brainstorming sessions with dozens of organizations as well as the funding outlays. Factors ranging from incarceration to addiction to mental illness to the disruption of schooling wrought by constant home moves have been addressed.
The public events, held in the fall, have been noteworthy for their presentations by prominent voices. In 2016, New York Times columnist David Brooks and talk show host Tavis Smiley held forth. In 2017, it was Matthew Desmond, author of the acclaimed book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in America, along with education advocate Deborah Bial and family expert Valerie Maholmes. This coming Oct. 23 at Clowes Memorial Hall the guest will be Michelle Alexander, one of the leading critics of America’s prison system and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
The big names go with big plans for Faith & Action. But there won’t be grand solutions. That’s been tried and found wanting, and that’s why folks like those who gather in Dorothea Marks’ living room are being invited to try their hand. “Our hope is to expand in scale,” director Rabinowitch says. “Real change is happening in Marion County, and we’re not directing it. The real power is on the ground.”
Dan Carpenter is an Indianapolis native, longtime Midtown resident, a survivor of 36 years at The Indianapolis Star, and the author of four books.
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 2018 print edition of the magazine.