By Terry Goodrich
A new model of ministry that empowers residents in an at-risk neighborhood of Dallas to transform their communities has resulted in crime reduction, better meeting of health needs, more jobs and improved student academic performance, according to research by Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
A report on the two-year case study of a new, collaborative approach to urban blight — “Community Transformation in West Dallas: A Sustained Collective Among Churches, Faith-based Organizations, Nonprofits and Governments” — was presented to community, government and business leaders Nov. 6 at Communities Foundation of Texas.
The research on the 11.5-square-mile area is based on a return-of-investment analysis and measurement of outcome-driven efforts of Serve West Dallas, a nonprofit collaborative organization founded in 2009 and including faith-based nonprofits, urban and suburban churches, residents, community nonprofits, private enterprises and governments.
“The idea of a backbone organization to support a collaborative of nonprofits is a stroke of genius and is what tends to be missing in so many efforts around the country to transform blighted communities,” said lead researcher Byron Johnson, co-director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Since its founding, Serve West Dallas has achieved what one ministry partner calls a “more holistic, less piecemeal approach to ministry.”
Aside from changing lives for the better, “the economic impact alone of the SWD collaborative is a finding that is of significant interest to government and business leaders, as well as other community stakeholders,” Johnson said.
The “logic model” of the approach — which tracks resources, activities and outcomes of ministry partners’ efforts — is “an important step for us, individually as ministry partners and collectively,” said Scott Hanson, executive director of SWD. “It helps us communicate what we’re about and provides a road map for future data collection activity.”
The motto of visionary community leaders in West Dallas — “More could be accomplished if we work together than apart’’ — in practical terms translates to regular meetings of partners, collective goal-setting, coordination to ensure efforts are not overlapping or competitive and tracking progress through spiritual, social, physical and economic impact.
Today, 13 ministry partners that compose SWD are working jointly to transform West Dallas. Some of their success stories include:
Safer neighborhoods. This effort educates citizens about their rights to live in a safe neighborhood and connects them with volunteer lawyers. Using the justice system, lawyers representing 20 families in two West Dallas neighborhoods shut down 17 “drug houses” from 2009-2012 through court order or settlement. Offending properties were demolished, rehabilitated, sold or forced to evict criminal tenants. During that period:
• Index crime rates dropped 49 percent.
• Estimated savings totaled more than $2 million, based on improved tax revenues, improved property values, reduced crime and reduced maintenance costs.
• 83 percent of diabetics who attended healthy living classes successfully managed their blood sugar levels, compared with 36 percent of those who did not attend classes.
• 40 percent of those attending exercise classes lowered their body mass index so that they were no longer overweight or obese, compared with 6 percent of those who did so without the exercise class.
• Extrapolated savings totaled more than $2 million, based on savings from diabetes management, hypertension management, prevention of flu cases and otherwise improved health status.
A faith-based community clinic for the uninsured. This clinic sees an average of 72 unique visitors weekly for a total of about 110 encounters. It offers flu shots, diagnoses for diabetes and hypertension and nutritious free meals on a weekly or monthly basis. A random sampling from August 2013 to August 2014 showed that:
• A number of unemployed residents in West Dallas have obtained jobs through joint efforts of SWD church and ministry partners with a community restoration entity and several Dallas area employers.
• A mentoring program for youths pairs Christian mentors with youths in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, focusing on mentoring, sports and vocational/educational training. Researchers obtained data for students in about one-third of the mentor relationships, determining which students were at or above grade level in reading and math and which had been designated as “at risk” for graduating high school.
SWD projects on the horizon range from mentoring expectant teens to training future seminarians in how to plant churches.
“This collective effort has not always been easy,” Johnson said. “The challenges and obstacles to community transformation are so formidable in impoverished and disadvantaged areas.”
He added that partnerships are needed not only between local ministries but also with secular organizations and businesses.
“But SWD is a reminder that alliances between urban and suburban congregations can be a catalyst to build and sustain community transformation.”