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Local Religious Ecology

Arthur E. Farnsley II
The Polis Center

Descriptions of urban ministry or of the social services delivered by urban congregations are frequently painted with much too broad a brush. Congregations or their programs are usually offered as models without enough thought for how specific contextual details make them what they are.

In the course of our research in Indianapolis, our attention was drawn early to the Mid-North Church Council of the Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood. The Council is a coalition of churches providing some extensive health, recreation, and basic needs ministries to a poor neighborhood. Not only did civic leaders point to this as the model program for urban ministry, but then-Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros, highlighted the Council in his booklet, Higher Ground: Faith Communities and Community Building.

The Mid-North Church Council is a commendable effort. But a closer look at this neighborhood and its churches reveals what a poor model it is for most others. Mapleton-Fall Creek is today a poor neighborhood. Roughly 90% of its 16,000 residents are African-American. Median income is well below the city average, and around a third of residents live below the poverty line. About half of live births are to unwed mothers.

Sixty years ago this was a very prosperous white neighborhood with the highest status churches from the mainline Protestant denominations and the best public schools. Only thirty years ago it was still a middle-class, integrated neighborhood. "White flight" decimated Mapleton-Fall Creek in the space of three decades.

Today there are 19 churches in Mapleton-Fall Creek. About half of those are the old mainline churches that have stayed put despite the fact their members moved to the suburbs. The average congregation in this neighborhood has more than 500 members. Most of the members of the big churches populating the Mid-North Council are white, relatively well off, and residents of the city’s northern suburbs.

There are historically specific reasons why the churches of the Council remained in the neighborhood despite "white flight." For one thing, many are located on the Meridian Street corridor, the city’s main thoroughfare despite urban decay in the neighborhood. Other important institutions like Lilly Endowment and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum have addresses on this stretch of Meridian Street.

Another reason might be that these churches occupy expensive buildings not easily sold or abandoned.

The churches of the Mid-North Church Council doubtless deserve all the praise they get for their urban ministries, but they make a poor model for others. On the neighborhood’s eastern border is a very similar neighborhood. Martindale-Brightwood is nearly the same demographically as Mapleton-Fall Creek. Its residents are African-American, poorer than average, more likely to grow up in single-parent households, and less well educated than people in the city as a whole.

But Martindale-Brightwood, a neighborhood of 5,000 fewer residents, has more than 85 congregations. Most of these are small, with an average membership below 100. Their members are mostly African-American; few live in the city’s northern suburbs.

Martindale-Brightwood churches recently began their own coalition, the Community Resurrection Partnership. We would all wish them well, but surely no one would hold up the Mid-North Council as the model for their activities. Unlikely to find a sudden infusion of well-off mainline congregations whose suburban members have both financial resources and a historic commitment to the neighborhood, these churches will need to find models and strategies that work for them.

Every case is unique in its own way, but some are more unique than others. It is important to be suspicious of anecdotal cases offered as evidence and crucial to recognize the risks inherent in offering models. We all need to generalize to some degree and models can be very useful, but we do well to put down our broad brushes and learn to paint details.

There has been a lot of talk recently about religious organizations, especially urban congregations, getting more involved in social service delivery. At the same time, many churches and synagogues are looking for ways to engage their neighbors in innovative kinds of urban ministry. Both kinds of efforts would benefit from systematic contextual analysis of the local religious environment.

Figure 1

Contemporary Demographic Comparison of Mapleton-Fall Creek and Martindale-Brightwood Neighborhoods*

*1990 U.S. Census
**non-census data




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