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Thinking small

Thinking small

But North Lawndale's Wayne Gordon goes deep

Chicago-Over the past eight years I've been occasionally writing columns about church-based poverty-fighting successes. I've tried to describe programs accurately, praise the unknown heroes who are God's instruments in changing lives, and maybe inspire others to go and do likewise.

Presenting good news, though, can backfire among those immersed in bad. A pastor friend of mine said he liked reading about successes in WORLD but, despite effort, did not see many in his own backyard. Was he doing something wrong?

Maybe not. Iain Murray's praise for God-given revival but critique of man's technique-see his book Revival and Revivalism (Banner of Truth, 1994)-is applicable here. If poverty-fighting were just about transferring money to poor people, arriving at a success formula would be easy. Even if it were primarily about training people for new or better jobs, probability charts could predict the likely distribution of outcomes.

Yet, when the primary need of some poor people is not for spare change but deep change through God's grace, no technique, no matter how clever, suffices. A minister or a poverty-fighter can do everything right, and God may not send the spiritual revival that first transforms souls and then alters habits.

Maybe, though, some pastors could do better. Some, like many urban planners, do one thing wrong-they think big. It's fine to learn from Jabez and pray for our territory to be enlarged, but ambitious poverty-fighters generally need to pray the reverse: "Lord, shrink my territory." Successful programs most often work intensively in one small area.

For example, years ago I was impressed with the work of Voice of Hope, a Christian group that claimed only nine blocks of West Dallas for its makeover opportunity-but it really worked that area. Last month I was impressed by folks at Lawndale Community Church on Chicago's westside: They know their neighborhood very well, even to the extent of color-coding aerial photographs of the terrain so that no tenement goes unnoted.

Government money during recent decades has sometimes poured, sometimes trickled into North Lawndale, and it is still one of the poorest areas of America. But as I walked near the church with Wayne Gordon, the man who was God's instrument in getting it going 22 years ago, the benefit of targeting one small area and digging in was apparent.

Mr. Gordon, a white graduate of Wheaton College in Chicago's affluent suburbs, moved to almost entirely black North Lawndale in 1975 as a coach and history teacher at Farragut High School. That sounds like an abrupt choice, but God normally prepares people for what He calls them to, and that's how it worked here: Wayne as a child wanted to help poor black kids, and as a college student he volunteered at the notorious Cabrini Green housing project.

When Mr. Gordon and his new bride Ann started a Bible study for high-school kids that turned into a church, they stuck with it, even after their apartment was broken into 10 times during their first three years together in North Lawndale. The church now has 500 worshipping families and a variety of programs-Hope House, Lazarus House-for men coming out of addiction or prison.

Mr. Gordon was the founding president of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation (LCDC), which rehabs abandoned housing and has helped over 100 families to buy homes. He helped to found the Lawndale Christian Health Center and similar organizations for dental and vision care. He has been instrumental in setting up sports programs and a computer lab for kids.

The variety of organizations is impressive, but their proximity to each other is key. Programs are not scattered over a vast metropolitan expanse but are all in a two-block area with mauve banners fluttering overhead: Lawndale Community. And that's important: We talk these days of "virtual communities" via the Internet, but building community is difficult without geography in common and the people within a community seeing each other daily.

Proximity allows a pastor to cover his pasture. Mr. Gordon is a shepherd who knows and hugs his sheep. As he walks his neighborhood he hails most folks by name and asks a question related to their activities: He learns how they're doing, and they see that he cares. Just as the television program Cheers celebrated a Boston bar "where everybody knows your name," so people rich and poor alike tend to look for a community of caring.

That may mean thinking small rather than big, parish rather than metropolis. That's hard in a society that venerates size and numbers, but it's the way to move toward depth rather than mere breadth.