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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Pryfogle

For Our Neighbors


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Dear Friends:


Before Arlington Presbyterian Church was razed in 2016 to make way for a six-story affordable housing community with space on the ground floor for the congregation, the demolition crew asked the church if it wanted to remove the copper cross atop the building or salvage it from the wreckage. Removing the cross would have cost another $8,000. “We’ll take our chances,” the church replied. They dragged the banged-up cross out of the heap, and it now hangs in the beautiful new space.


We’ll take our chances.


I want to live in the spirit of that decision. And I long to see more faith communities live with such faith.


I heard the story of the cross last month from the Rev. Ashley Goff and lay leader Jon Etherton on a field trip to the Washington, D.C., region to visit four churches that have repurposed property for social impact. I accompanied members of the Church & Community Placemaking Lab, a cohort sponsored by the Ormond Center at Duke Divinity School in partnership with Forward Impact and Sympara.


The four churches we visited gamble for the good of their neighbors. Three congregations built affordable housing on their properties; the fourth, Church of the Saviour, has created housing, a health clinic and a recovery center plus many community programs over its 75-year history to serve the people of D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood and the wider city.


The cohort itself is made up six North Carolina congregations who are reimagining how their properties can better serve their neighbors. They know the stakes are high. Midway through the seven-month peer learning experience, which brings together church members and community stakeholders, visions are emerging for affordable housing, mental health support, youth programs, healthy food and sustainable agriculture.


Here is what’s becoming clear as Sympara works with this cohort and with communities across the United States:


First, our neighbors require these properties. If the housing crisis is to be solved, if healthcare is to be accessible, if new ventures owned by women and people of color are to flourish, if equity is to be achieved and generational wealth created, religious properties must be put to better use.


Second, congregations need help letting go. The attachment to property is so strong, the sense of ownership rather than stewardship so ingrained. Sympara’s discernment processes, leadership formation and community engagement loosen the grip on property. More of this work is needed in many places — cohorts to support congregations, communities of practice to equip clergy, lay leaders and neighbors to be sacred/civic placemakers.


Finally, Sympara requires financial support. We have proven out our approach to repurposing over the past three years. It’s time to scale the work. Our programs and services will reach more neighborhoods as friends like you give. So please use our online option to make a contribution today.


People and places are banged up here in North Carolina and across the U.S. Our politics are broken. Our distrust of the other is so deep. Our tendency to turn inward for security and self-preservation is so instinctual. With all these profound challenges, will it truly make a difference to place religious properties in the service of the common good?


We’ll take our chances.


With gratitude and hope,


Daniel


Daniel Pryfogle is cofounder and CEO of Sympara.

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