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Where is the church? [Commentary]

The "state of the city" is a hot topic right now. In this paper and many social media sites, there's a lot of talk about Baltimore — Are we OK? Should we move? Should we dig in? The discussion eventually comes back to concern about crime and murder rates in our fair city. Reading all of this, one question kept coming to me: Where is the church?

For the record, I'm aware that there are many churches doing great things in this town. And the church has always been a leader in providing charitable support for the less fortunate. But we're not talking about caring for individuals here, we're talking about trying to solve a deeply entrenched societal issue in a major American city. So I ask again, where is the church?

I worship at an old line, tall steeple church in a well-to-do neighborhood. It's in the city, but not in the 'hood. We're blessed at this old slate roof house of God. We've got an endowment. Not a big one, but it's a number with two commas, and the first digit isn't a one. And like all good, main line, tall steeple churches, we protect that endowment. We invest it with a reputable firm and get a good return, and we try really hard to spend the interest and not the principal. Good, prudent stewardship. Funny thing is, we practice that good prudent stewardship within a mile of some of the most notorious drug corners in the city.

Oh yeah, we've got a building too. Big one. Lots of wings. It sits on a lot that takes up an entire city block. In a nice neighborhood. So, all told, we're holding onto some major assets worth probably north of $10 million. And we do our best to be good, prudent stewards of that big pile of assets. A mile away, there's some serious traffic. Sex traffic. Drug traffic. Gun traffic.

So, I asked around. Turns out that there are probably six or eight churches in our denomination with similar assets, and probably five or six other denominations with similar profiles. So, there's probably somewhere between 35 and 45 congregations in my hometown sitting on between $200 million and $400 million in assets. A city that, last year, saw 235 murders (a per capita rate 9.5 times higher than New York). And in all that, you have to wonder, where is he church?

Not in the healing of those affected. The church is good at that, great even. But when it comes to prevention, where is the church? When it comes to investing in neighborhoods — really investing — where is the church?

In charitable circles, investing is often code for "make a bigger donation." That's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about real investing. Investing that expects a modest return, but a return in real dollars. Investing in things like a cafe that needs $50,000 to outfit new space, a barber who needs $5,000 to add another chair, a corner store that could use $25,000 to increase its line of healthy food choices. The evidence solidly points to small, local enterprise as a key to stabilizing a neighborhood.

The evidence also points to a link between poverty and rage, particularly in communities that have been disenfranchised for far too long. So, lowering poverty can also lower violence, crime and even the murder rate. And community investment is a proven tool for lowering poverty.

Now some might say that we should sell these assets and give the money to the poor. But that's probably a bridge too far for many. And, given what we've learned about how to deploy capital to create growth, it may no longer be the best answer, anyway. But even a small portion of this huge untapped asset, put to work as in investment in our most challenged neighborhoods, could make a huge difference.

And just in case you think that this is nothing more than some crazy vision, you should know that there is a small group of lay and ordained representatives from some of these congregations meeting regularly to figure out how to make this real in Baltimore. And that conversation is one of about a dozen that are happening across the country. If you want to be part of the effort, drop me a line.

It's time to talk . And what I want to know is, where is the church?

J. Howard Kucher is the founder and managing director Income for Outcomes, which advises mission oriented enterprises. His email is jim@incomeforoutcomes.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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