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Front Porch Alliance Fosters Church-City Cooperation

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

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 1998



INDIANAPOLIS

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.

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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."

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.