By Kim Plummer Krull
In the early 1980s, a member of St. Peter Lutheran Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., was bound, gagged, raped, doused in gasoline and left for dead as her house burned in an area infamous for crime and devastation.
Today, that tragic inner-city setting is dramatically transformed and includes what St. Peter’s current president, Sonia Holder, calls “a beautiful and growing community.”
“People take pride in their homes, and the streets are really clean,” said Holder, who moved 25 years ago into the affordable-housing development known as “Nehemiah.”
Over the past three decades, the faith-based program has blossomed into nearly 4,000 homes where children play in tidy yards and adults take part in neighborhood associations.
As residents begin living in the development’s fourth and newest “Spring Creek” Nehemiah community, Holder says she is proud that her LCMS church body was the first denomination to commit financially to this opportunity for low-income families to become first-time homeowners.
Nehemiah demonstrates that “the church is involved in not only spiritual growth but also cares about people’s safety and well-being,” Holder said. “The church wants people to have an opportunity for a better life.”
To make the Nehemiah plan a reality, the LCMS made an initial $1 million commitment in 1983 to help build an interest-free loan pool with other funding partners, including the Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) and the LCMS Atlantic District.
To build the Spring Creek development, Lutheran Housing Support — the Synod’s housing and community revitalization arm — committed to raise funds for the interest portion of an LCEF loan to East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC), the multi-denominational association that launched the Nehemiah plan.
The LCMS Atlantic District also is a longtime supporter of the development that has become a national model for affordable housing. Atlantic District Treasurer John Mesloh served as trustee of the funds lent for the Spring Creek development.
The Rev. Dr. David Benke, Atlantic District president, says Nehemiah combined “Word and deed in a way that probably hadn’t been heard of before.”
The affordable housing plan “connected Christian witness and mercy and gave us the opportunity for mission work on a broader scale,” said Benke, who also serves as St. Peter’s pastor. “It was an opportunity to put people where there are churches.”
St. Peter and Risen Christ Lutheran Church are LCMS congregations located in or near Nehemiah communities. Both are veteran EBC members.
Named for Nehemiah
In a telephone interview, Benke recalled visiting his badly burned parishioner in the hospital some three decades ago. “It was like visiting someone who had been in hell,” Benke said of the woman, who died two months later. “Since then, I have dedicated my efforts [with Nehemiah] to her and to all people who have been injured in inner-city settings.”
Named for the Old Testament prophet who led the rebuilding of Jerusalem, Nehemiah housing has led people to both St. Peter and Risen Christ, Benke said. In addition to Sonia Holder, Frank Barnes, Risen Christ’s longtime deacon, and his wife, Minnie, live in a Nehemiah home.
“Our Lutheran presence in the midst of new home building is a reality,” Benke said.
The transformation of these once-blighted neighborhoods also has spurred educational and economic growth. The new Spring Creek Nehemiah sits on a former landfill site where bodies once were dumped. Now a huge, bustling Target store operates nearby. Plans are in the works to open more retail shops.
This fall, three schools will open in Spring Creek, including the Academy for Young Writers, a high school that’s moving from Williamsburg, Va.
‘Nationally recognized leader’
The church’s successful pioneering role in Nehemiah has made the LCMS “a nationally recognized leader in urban and special housing needs of all sorts,” Benke said.
Lutheran Housing Support’s mission (www.lcms.org/lhs) is to provide assistance to promote improvement of economic conditions, housing and other services to revitalize and prevent deteriorated communities.
“Congregations are the anchors and the one constant in a community,” said Nicole Ridley, Lutheran Housing Support chief executive. “When they serve as a catalyst for change, they can bring hope and the saving Word of Jesus Christ to the lost and hurting. When acts of mercy prompt people to ask ‘Why?’ we can say, ‘Because Jesus loves you, and we are called as Christians to love our neighbors.'”
Today, the Nehemiah plan is a model that has been used in other struggling communities. One is the College Hill neighborhood of North St. Louis, where Lutheran Housing Support works with St. Paul Lutheran Church, residents and civic leaders.
“While every community and its needs are different, we have taken a variety of best practices from the Nehemiah model and created a development strategy for this neighborhood,” Ridley said, referring to College Hill, where Lutheran Housing Support’s technical expertise and access to financial assistance has helped rehab or repair nearly 70 homes.
In Spring Creek, first-time homeowners won the right to live at Nehemiah in a lottery sponsored by Brooklyn’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. When completed, the new Nehemiah also will include more than 1,525 homes and apartments, a supermarket and several parks.
“Look at what has happened, and it started with housing,” Benke said. “Mercy and witness combined with this housing effort has produced comprehensive social change in ways we couldn’t even have imagined 30 years ago.”
Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
Posted Aug. 23, 2012