CONFERENCE ON "SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE"
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
UNITED NATIONS ---- When the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, the City Summit, meets in Istanbul June 3-14, one of the community development projects offered as an example of study will be an effort initiated and led by the religious community in Newark, N.J.
Msgr. William J. Linder, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newark, told a conference on the religious contribution to urban development about the difference a supemarket had made.
He established and chairs the executive committee of New Community Corporation, an agency that has Protestant and Jewish as well as Catholic board members. In an inner city area of 98,000 people without a major supermarket, the agency brought in a Pathmark store in an unusual collaborative arrangement.
New Community Corporation owns two-thirds of the store, which not only brings the agency profits for use in other community projects but also enables it to use the store itself for services such as educating people about nutrition and setting up cash machines in a safe space.
"We were accused of driving out small food businesses," Linder said. "But we reduced the price of food by 38 per cent, and the quality of food rose immensely. And we brought in many jobs with union wages and health benefits."
Linder was part of an interreligious panel at a conference on "Bricks Without Straw: The Spiritual Challenge of the City" held February 12 at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
The conference, which drew some 200 participants, was held in connection with the meeting at the U.N. of PrepCom III, the third meeting--February 5-16--of the committee preparing for the City Summit. Also on February 12, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Henry G. Cisneros announced the 25 United States winners of the National Excellence Awards for the City Summit.
New Community Corporation, which also had a project converting some HUD-owned housing to resident-owned, was one of the 25 and one of 500 projects being selected worldwide.
"Bricks Without Straw" was sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCC) and the Urban Assembly, an independent agency based in New York that coordinates the efforts of specialists dealing with urban issues. They set up an Interreligious Planning Committee to work out the design, and the Rev. Patricia A. Reeberg, a minister at St. Paul Baptist Church in Harlem, was named coordinator.
The Rev. Charles W. Rawlings, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister and the NCC's Coordinator of Urban Initiatives, explained that the "Bricks Without Straw" theme drew a connection with the biblical story (Exodus 5) of Pharaoh requiring the Israelites to produce bricks but saying in effect, "Let them find their own resources."
He said the conference originated in the desire of Wally N'Dow, a Gambian who is secretary general of Habitat II, to "include the spiritual dimension as one of the elements in the international chemistry."
In an opening address, N'Dow noted that the U.N. charter contained nothing specific about religion, but he said it affirmed "what is at the heart of all the major religions," recognizing "the dignity and worth of the human person." He said that "the twenty-first century will be the century of the city," and called for new efforts to make cities livable.
Those serving on the panel with Linder reflected much of the diversity of the New York area, and the capacity of many of its religious leaders to collaborate with each other and with civic leaders for the benefit of the community, especially its neediest members.
A rabbi sat by an imam on the panel, and other seats were filled by clergy and lay leaders from various parts of the city. Deborah Wright, Commissioner of the the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, chaired the panel and, in introducing the Rev. Gary Simpson of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, noted that she belonged to a Baptist church near his.
She also reported on cooperation between her city agency and a Harlem mosque, Masjid Malcolm Shabazz, where panelist Karim Abdel-Shakur is assistant imam. Together, they have worked out ways for street vendors removed from sidewalks of the main Harlem street to operate in another area. The imam said the mosque was developing a site with permanent facilities for vendors and 150 units of housing.
Rabbi Morris Shmidman, who heads a Council of Jewish Organizations, said religious bodies had recognized their spiritual mission to improve the overall welfare of the people. "The pulpit has come down into the streets," he said. His own organization, for example, had started a Business Outreach Center Network to assist small businesses and thereby contribute to the stability of neighborhoods.
Canon Frederick Williams, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Intercession in Harlem, said an organization he leads, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, had brought together 60 churches of various denominations for work on such projects as producing 1000 housing units and providing social services to occupants.
Their success was made possible, he said, by "suppression of ego" and by belief in God and the people. "You have to start out believing that God will make a way out of no way," he said. And "you've got to have a belief in the people."
Dalma De La Rosa, a panelist from the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, said lay leaders, and lay women most prominently, had filled key roles in her organization. It began 20 years ago, she said, out of an awareness that the Northwest Bronx was deteriorating, and could become like the devastated areas of the South Bronx if no corrective action were taken.
The Rev. James C. Kelly of the Southeast Queens Clergy for Community Empowerment said his agency had become a conduit for new housing funds, and this brought a new sense of community pride.
Over lunch, conference participants heard from Techeste Ahederom, senior U.N. representative of the Baha'i International Community. He reported that a key issue at the PrepCom was whether housing would be declared a human right. While some people favored such a declaration, others said it was not an enforceable right, and housing for all should only be declared a social goal. He noted that the declaration in constitutions of some counties of a right to housing had not in fact produced housing.
Ahederom also reported that some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) thought Istanbul should be called a Settlement Summit rather than a City Summit. More attention should go to improving conditions in rural areas so fewer people will feel pressed to crowd into cities, he said.
Cisneros, after making the awards, returned to the interreligious conference in the afternoon to participate in a guided panel discussion of the style often seen on PBS. Marty Linsky, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of government, served as moderator and prodded participants to debate the proper reaction to the hypothetical example of a public hospital in a poor area facing possible closure for lack of funds.
Acting the part of the mayor he formerly was, in San Antonio, Cisneros declared that he would not consider closing the hospital, but would bring all interested parties together to find ways of keeping it in service to the community.
Sally Hernandez Pinero, a lawyer in a firm dealing with health care, responded that the "mayor's" declaration blocked full and open consideration of alternative possibilities.
Mary Healey Sedutto, director of the health and hospitals office of the New York Catholic Archdiocese, said a mayor could properly make a commitment to the continuation of health care, but not necessarily through a particular institution.
Paul S. Grogan, president of a non-profit group, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, investing in the inner city, took the part of hospital union workers, and insisted they should not bear the brunt of whatever financial pressures the mayor felt.
Roger Starr, president of the Manhattan Institute, said he had two sons who were doctors, and he objected to seeing other forces trying to displace doctors from the central decision-making role about what was required for the welfare of their patients. The Rev. Floyd Flake, who as pastor of Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Queens, a church carrying out many community ministries, and as a U.S. representative, spoke from his multiple perspectives. Community groups should understand that some hospitals have empty beds and could be smaller, unions should recognize the need for improving productivity and administrators of public hospitals should consider possible economies from privatizing parts of their work, he said. Flake also observed that more federal dollars could not be realistically expected in the near future.
From the standpoint of John Gutfreund, former CEO of Salomon Brothers investment firm, many business corporations had faced up to the need for "downsizing" and for breaking up into more efficient units in order to compete in the global economy. The health care industry should learn something from the example of their willingness to change, he said.
In the end, after debate of the various interest groups represented, Cisneros observed that one important element had been overlooked: the need of a community to take some responsibility for its own health. He cited the immense costs that are imposed when a shooting victim is brought into an emergency room or when a baby is born addicted to crack. "There has to be a community piece in here," the HUD secretary insisted.
©Copyright 1996, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the