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They relocate to befriend poor.

Middle-class couples meet gospel challenge by living in inner city

LOS ANGELES - Far from the Republican convention or well-publicized campaigns against gay rights, far from suburban megachurches and school board debates over creationism, some evangelical Christians are quietly moving into America's inner cities.

Calling themselves "relocators," more than 5,000 white, African-American and Latino middle-class evangelical Christians, most of whom are couples with children, have moved into some of the poorest inner-city communities, according to the Christian Community Development Association, CCDA, which includes some 100 such ministries.

Rejecting the upwardly mobile path pursued by many evangelicals who find the gospel triumphalistic, an inspiration and justification for the "good life," the urban relocators remain true to their evangelical roots. They adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible and believe that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone.

"We feel called to give up the luxuries, comfort and safety of the suburbs and share in the risk, vulnerabilities and hazards of the people," says Steve Scharf, one of five white professional men and women who live and work among the poor of Los Angeles' Pico Union district.

John and Birgit Shorack, who also live in Pico Union with their two young daughters, describe their work as an incarnational ministry, following Christ's example to give up privilege to live among the poor.

Somewhat like their Roman Catholic counterparts who espouse liberation theology, the Protestant relocators are well-aware they are not just tending to spiritual lives. "We see ourselves as countering the white stampede from the inner city, which has all but destroyed the inner-city tax base," points out Jude Tiersma. "We want to show that some whites care."

John Perkins, an African American and a minister-at-large, is a key figure in the relocation movement. The "three Rs' that give his movement direction, Perkins says, are "relocation, redistribution and reconciliation."

Once people have made the choice to relocate, Perkins explains, the work of redistribution begins. Those who move in bring with them not only their paychecks and college-level skills but a whole network of family and friends who donate services, are volunteer tutors, or who offer job leads for the relocators' neighbors.

Richard Townsell and his family left a small town in Indiana to settle in Chicago's black neighborhood of Lawndale where he directs a neighborhood development organization. On Avers Avenue, once a notoriously violent drug-dealing area near his home, members of his church have pooled their resources to purchase and rehabilitate a former crack house where they have helped resettle several local families. "We want to build community and neighborhoods, not just work with the fragments," he says.

After relocation and redistribution comes the movement's last goal, reconciliation. "Being able to talk honestly with someone from another race about what separates you requires a great deal of trust," says Perkins. "But if you are already my neighbor and are serving my community, there are some things in place that make dialogue possible at a deep and real level."

In most communities where relocators settle they have to overcome initial suspicion and hostility. "When I first saw these white people move in I thought they were weird," says 21-year-old Valerie Vasquez, a Latina living in Pico Union. "|What they want?' we wondered."

At the time, Vasquez was 16 and pregnant, had dropped out of school, and was in a severe depression. After a few months, she and Birgit Shorack struck up a friendship that for her was to prove life-changing. As a result of counseling, she married her boyfriend and is now completing studies for her high school diploma.

Others view the movement with skepticism. In north Pasadena, an unemployed black man points at Perkin's Harambee Center and complains that a white out-of-towner was recently hired to do a job the black man had applied for.

Hector Lopez, a Protestant minister who works with Orange County Together, a coalition formed in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, calls the relocation movement a form of "soul gentrification. It's turning people into clones of ourselves - the worst form of paternalism."

But Lopez also endorses the redistribution aims of the movement because "we can't afford segregated barriers anymore." For the movement to work, he says, "relocators must come in as peers, show, deference to community leadership and work in partnership with them."

Not all relocators who make the move into the inner city find the transition easy. Zeal prompted John Shorack to relocate but it didn't take long for his idealism "to be crushed as I dealt with the urban realities that lead to failure, disappointment and death." Over a two-year period, Shorack lost seven neighbors to murder, suicide and AIDS. Others went to jail or simply disappeared.

"The longer we stay, the harder it gets," admits Birgit Shorack. "You understand the complexity and hurt more and that nothing can be fixed fast. It was difficult to realize that even with all our education and commitment, there was a lot we couldn't do anything about."

Nonetheless, the transplanted evangelicals are spreading their gospel of downward mobility and identification with the poor through seminars, classes, books and publications. CCDA claims there is growing interest among evangelical Protestants who want lives of greater sacrifice.

"Living in Lawndale has been the greatest thing in the world, making us a richer family, learning Christian things just by being here," says Wayne Gordon, a founder of the Lawndale Community Church. "My children pray for the homeless - by name. That benefit far exceeds the sacrifice."
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Title Annotation:Christian Community Development Association
Author:Tapia, Andres
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 29, 1993
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