Front Porch Alliance Fosters Church-City Cooperation

In Indianapolis, city government connects with religious and community groups.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When does Richard Willoughby ever sleep? This big, gentle, ham-handed man works the third shift as a city electrician, leaving work at 6:30 a.m. just as most of Indianapolis is going to work.

At home, like a kind of innercity Superman, he changes clothes and direction, emerging again as the Rev. Richard Willoughby of the Beulah Missionary Baptist Church. He ministers to a congregation of about 400 people located in the drug-and-crime-saturated inner city.

Sleep? He laughs the slow, husky laugh of a man animated by urgent convictions. "Listen, we've got to get together for the kids and solve some problems," he says, "because if somebody doesn't do something, imagine what it will be like 15 years from now."

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Mr. Willoughby is part of the Front Porch Alliance (FPA), a city-government initiative that connects churches and synagogues with schools and businesses in new partnerships to address local problems.

The program was launched six months ago by Republican Mayor Stephen Goldsmith in an attempt to address social problems from the "inside out" instead of from the top down.

"This is not a money deal for the churches that will distort local leadership," says Mayor Goldsmith in an interview, "but a highly focused effort to leverage faith-based groups into the social equation."

Careful not to splice church and state together in some kind of a new amalgam, what FPA does is act like a civic switchboard connecting people with people, and needs with resources. It offers plenty of help, but goes only where it is invited. Churches in the past were more likely to organize their own social programs or initiatives, but seldom looked to other community institutions or government as partners.

Alliance propels projects

FPA makes modest sums of money available for programs and projects, or acts as an agent to facilitate connections and remove hurdles.

Along with a $2,250 grant to another church, the Psalms Missionary Baptist Church, FPA cut through the city's red tape on the church's behalf to acquire an abandoned lot to build a playground.

For the Black Firefighter's Association, FPA arranged for computer donations and redevelopment of a former fire station. A grant of $3,000 will allow youth training in computer repair at the new center.

And grants of up to $5,000 from FPA will go to churches and other organizations that provide positive programs for young children and teenagers this summer.

FPA can also help organizations obtain furniture, paint, streetlights, access to legal help, access to redevelopment funds.and volunteers for mentoring and tutoring.

Willoughby, for instance, has become a mentor at Elder Diggs School 42, a new, inner-city elementary school near his church. For years he has been organizing youth programs through his church.

Principal Minnetta Richardson identified four boys struggling at home and in school, and asked Willoughby to meet with them. "I have hundreds of kids who need help," she says, "but these four needed immediate help."

Willoughby now meets once a week with each boy, and another minister tutors them. "Two boys are doing okay," Willoughby says, "and the other two I'm not giving up on. I'm trying to get them and their parents into some kind of a program."

Mayor's approach

Goldsmith's social programs, including FPA, may become as well known as his nationally recognized government-privatization efforts.

When Goldsmith became mayor in 1992, he attracted the attention of urban experts by privatizing some 80 services of city government, including the Indianapolis International Airport, now managed by a British corporation. He slashed the cost of government while revitalizing the downtown area and creating one of the most favorable business climate in US cities, according to Fortune magazine.

But as a former prosecutor, Goldsmith described the Indianapolis police in the year of his election "as close to an occupational army" in the inner city. "I learned the importance of sanctioning and the limits of sanctioning" he says. To him law enforcement ultimately has to be a collaborative effort with communities to create hope and trust in government.

Some $100 million has been spent on improving law enforcement in the city since Goldsmith was elected. While the overall crime rate has dipped slightly, homicide remains a serious problem in Indianapolis, with 39 murders having occurred so far this year, down slightly from last year.

Goldsmith's programs like FPA, or Building Better Neighborhoods (infrastructure improvement), and the Faith and Family Initiative (churches helping individual families), are designed to help change the complex social dynamics that breed young criminals, warring gangs, teen pregnancies, and drug use.

Illustrating how the seeds of the problems are manifested at the elementary school level, Ms. Richardson says, "I'd say about 1 out of every 5 children here has a parent or close relative on drugs or has a relative that committed a drug-related crime."

Willoughby puts it plainly. "What these boys need to see is that somebody loves them," he says. "Do that and one of these kids will go miles for you."

Young black boys here, Richardson says, do not have enough positive role models like Willoughby. "Boys need good men to show them how to act," she says, "and instead, 'Dan' comes in their house for a month, then 'George' comes and goes. I know that a lot of single women have raised boys successfully. But now too many boys don't have consistent examples, and they emulate the older teenagers."

Active communities

To date, Bill Stanczykiewicz, the mayor's policy director for community renewal, says FPA has developed more than 500 partnerships between churches, nonprofit organizations, businesses, recreation centers and community groups. "The neighborhoods that have the least crime are the ones where community groups are the most active," he says. "The mayor is saying, you tell us what you need, and we'll help you."

What helped launch the idea of FPA occurred on Roache Street across from the Community Missionary Baptist Church. There a junk-strewn lot was used as a site for vicious, organized dog fights.

Church member Joyce Brown says the dead dogs would be thrown in the lot. "When they weren't fighting we would walk over as a congregation and pray on this lot, just stand here and pray," she says, hoping for some kind of answer.

An organization called Keep Indianapolis Beautiful offered to help, and extra police curtailed the dog fights. The church was told they could have the lot if they paid back taxes of a few hundred dollars.

Community groups stepped forward with offers to help the church transform the lot into a little playground for children with a vegetable garden at one end.

"A chain-link fence was donated," says Ms. Brown, pointing to the beautiful park today. Two wooden benches and playground equipment were also donated and are now surrounded by flowers and a walkway, and at the far end, the raised beds are waiting for summer planting.

On April 12 last year, the mayor officially opened the park, recognizing the success of the church's effort and announcing that Front Porch Alliance would be a full-fledged city program.

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