YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (BP)–Finding the key to urban renewal and social reform in America is as easy as checking a Bible’s table of contents, said Dwight Dumas.
“Many letters which Paul wrote were directed to believers in specific geographic regions — Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi — not to one denomination or one church,” said Dumas, executive director of the Greater Youngstown Coalition of Christians in the Ohio city at the Pennsylvania border.
“The believers worked as one body to reach their area for Christ. That’s our model. We will no longer be separated by our racial, denominational or socio-economic differences. We are the church of Youngstown.”
Since 1994, dozens of churches among the Youngstown area’s 225,000 population have joined together to form the Greater Youngstown Coalition of Christians. Today, with more than 25,000 Christians in 60 churches involved in educational, social, economic, urban renewal and health-care programs, the GYCC has kindled a revitalization in town.
Like nearby Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Youngstown became heavily invested in the steel industry after World War II. But unlike its neighbors, in the late 1970s when the steel business declined, Youngstown’s lack of economic diversity led to a severe recession.
“It wasn’t long before organized crime took over,” said Gary Frost, a GYCC member who grew up in Youngstown and is pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation in urban Youngstown. Frost also is a former president of the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio and former Southern Baptist Convention second vice president.
“That influence, coupled with a high level of political corruption, hampered the development of the city,” Frost continued. “Companies, which could have brought jobs and economic stability to our town, didn’t want to relocate here. Sadly, our city had also been a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and ’50s, and the ‘us-versus-them’ mentality between the races still held. Those who could, fled to the suburbs, and the racial and socio-economic differences in Youngstown deepened.”
As people left the city, so did churches, and the Christians in Youngstown lost their effectiveness and influence in the urban setting. In the early 1990s, several local pastors realized that reconciliation between the diverse groups of Youngstown Christians was the only solution to the town’s troubles.
“A small group of us would meet every Friday morning to pray for renewal together,” Frost said. “We had a real burden for Youngstown and knew that Christian unity was the only answer.”
In July 1994, the pastors invited Tony Evans, a Dallas pastor and author who leads The Urban Alternative evangelical ministry, to hold a pastoral leadership conference for local church leaders. Evans challenged participants to join together to do something of significance through their commonality in Christ.
Soon after, the Greater Youngstown Coalition of Christians was born, with a mission of uniting as many Christians as possible “to work together, to communicate the life-changing message of Jesus Christ and to impact for good every sector and facet of our area.”
In four short years, led by nine pastors who form a board of spiritual overseers and nine laypeople who serve as the board of directors, the GYCC already has taken major steps toward fulfilling its mission. This diverse group of Christians — black and white, urban and suburban, encompassing 25 denominations — has established a school, developed plans for job training and a Christian health clinic, provided social service information for families and even encouraged the Federal Bureau of Investigation as it prosecuted organized crime members.
Working side by side for urban renewal strengthens churches’ Christian unity, which in turn increases their ministry’s power, Dumas said. “Our churches are beginning to understand that we need one another regardless of denominational and socio-economic differences,” he said. “Because of our inward oneness in Christ, we are more effective in reaching outward.”
By far, GYCC’s greatest impact has been within the home — literally. “Urban housing conditions are deplorable,” said Dumas, who has lived in Youngstown 22 years and is a Four Square Pentecostal associate pastor. “Absentee landlords don’t maintain their rental properties, and most inner-city families can’t afford to build their own home. There was a period of 18 months recently when not one new home building permit was issued in the city. It was generally looked upon as a bad investment. So GYCC decided to break the cycle.”
Through GYCC’s housing division, Jubilee Urban Renewal Corporation, 25 new homes have been built, 40 additional homes are under construction and plans have been developed for another 50 to be built this summer.
“There are major needs in Youngstown,” said Jay Alford, president of Jubilee Urban Renewal Corporation and pastor of Highway Tabernacle Church, a predominantly white, suburban Assemblies of God congregation. “The churches had to address those needs collectively.” Jubilee Urban Renewal, originally operated solely by Christian Fellowship Tabernacle, a nondenominational church in Youngstown, became part of GYCC in 1994 and, at first, only coordinated local volunteers and others, like the Southern Baptist World Changers, for small rehab projects.
But today, three distinct corporations under Jubilee Urban Renewal Corporation’s umbrella help inner-city residents locate and rehab an existing home, build their own new home or move to a new block established entirely by Christians.
Through one entity, Jubilee Partners Corporation, a needy family who cannot even qualify for a bank loan is able to move into a better home and have thousands of dollars of rehabilitation work done for free. The family is recommended to Jubilee through their church. Their name and financial information is submitted to a local bank in case they qualify for a loan. Most do not.
“That’s when we take over,” said Jim Leone, executive director of Jubilee Urban Renewal Corporation. “Jubilee’s board reviews the family’s information and most often they are approved for assistance. Then we tell them to find a home anywhere in the city for a maximum of $30,000 including any rehabilitation. Jubilee borrows the money, buys the home and sells it to the family on a three-year land contract basis. At the end of three years, most families have established a good credit history and payment record, so they can qualify for their own loan and purchase the home back from Jubilee.”
All rehabilitation work for the Jubilee Partners home is sponsored financially and physically by the family’s urban church and a Youngstown suburban church.
“When people work together as volunteers on the rehab project, they grow in respect and love for each other,” Frost said. “Walls of separation crumble, and relationships, based on our common love for Christ, are built in a unique and powerful way.”
Last June, GYCC partnered with World Changers, groups of Southern Baptist students who serve as volunteer construction crews.
“At one site, the homeowner was treating the kids pretty badly,” Dumas recounted. “He wouldn’t talk to them or cooperate. Later that evening, the students suspected that he was a drug dealer. The very next day, while the students were working on his home, a group of men drove by and threatened, ‘If you come here tomorrow, we’re going to kill all of you.’ That night the students prayed and decided to continue their work. The gang never returned, and a few days later, the suspected drug dealer gave his life to Christ.” By the summer of 1999, more than 115 families will have found a fresh start in their own new home.
Jubilee Homes Corporation, meanwhile, builds low-income tax credit homes with funds from American companies, which receive a tax deduction in exchange for their investment. Potential homeowners must comply with strict state guidelines including income qualifications, background checks, rent histories and credit references. Once accepted, they sign “lease to own” agreements with a compliance period of 15 years. “After that time, the people living in the house have the option to buy it,” Leone said. “The house may have cost $80,000 to build, but they’ll be able to buy it for $12,000-$18,000.”
GYCC’s third housing arm, Jubilee Christian Community Development Corporation, acts as a community housing development organization to purchase whole blocks of the city at a time for rehabilitation and renewal. “We believe we’re beginning to see a change in Youngstown,” Dumas said. But it’s been a long road, often hampered by the very people GYCC hopes to reach.
“Some people here don’t trust Christians,” Dumas said. “They see you as just a ‘do-gooder,’ so we have to overcome that barrier. Plus, there have been so many swindlers who have come through Youngstown, so many housing initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s which were started but never finished.”
World Changers learned firsthand about homeowners’ suspicions last summer when they volunteered at the home of a woman who strongly opposed GYCC building low-income tax credit homes in her neighborhood. “She voiced her opinion loudly and often,” Leone said. “Basically, she didn’t want us to develop the wooded lots next to her home. In addition, when we surveyed the area, we found out she had misdrawn her property line and was 15 feet onto a lot we were going to develop.
“So instead of building six homes near hers, we redesigned the area to construct only five and let her have the extra land. At the same time, the World Changers volunteered to work on her house, painting, fixing her front porch and banisters, and replacing her gutters. That really changed her. She said later that when she realized someone would help her even when she had voiced such strong opposition, she gave her life to Christ.”
American Christians are hungry for these success stories. Dumas regularly travels the nation sharing Youngstown’s vision with other communities. He recently spoke at a Tony Evans Urban Alternative conference in Dallas and a community mobilization conference for pastors in Toledo, Ohio.
“For too long, division has kept Christians from having the influence we could have had,” Frost said. “Now, through prayer and working together as churches and communities across racial, denominational and socio-economic lines, we’ve seen God do larger things in our city, supernatural things. Christians are supposed to be the salt and light to our world. In Youngstown, we’ve found that we’re saltier and brighter together.”
Williams is a freelance writer from Cape Carteret, N.C.