By Bob Allen
Black and white churches in Louisville, Ky., announced a new working partnership Sept. 23 aimed at tackling urban poverty.
The Kentucky Baptist Fellowship joined historically black Simmons College of Kentucky in spearheading the new coalition of urban and suburban churches called Empower West Louisville.
“The past three months a group of urban and suburban church pastors, along with leadership from the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship, have engaged in a weekly dialogue on ways in which our various constituencies might use our collective strength to enhance hope and opportunity for residents of West Louisville,” Simmons College President Kevin Cosby said in a morning press conference.
Cosby, who also serves as pastor of predominantly African-American St. Stephen Church, said West Louisville is typical of too many urban areas in the United States. The neighborhood’s poverty rate is double the rest of metro Louisville, while median income and housing values are less than half of the rest of the city. Life expectancy in West Louisville is the lowest in the metropolitan area, and depopulation makes even more pronounced high unemployment and a dearth of basic services available to other residents.
“We as members of the church community feel this is not just a political issue but a moral one that is at the heart of what should concern the entire body of Christ,” said Cosby, a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary whose church recently joined the Kentucky affiliate of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“The sins of omission, or missed deeds, are as egregious to God as the sins of commission or misdeeds,” Cosby said. “Jesus said inasmuch has you have done it to the least of these, my people, you’ve done it also unto me.”
The coalition includes KBF-affiliated Broadway Baptist Church, Crescent Hill Baptist Church and Highland Baptist Church, along with St. Stephen Church and local Presbyterian and Episcopal congregations. Their objective is to work together with the frontline churches to empower citizens of West Louisville by patronizing and supporting locally owned businesses, creating urban/suburban church partnerships, encouraging people to purchase homes and move to West Louisville and to support and strengthen Simmons College of Kentucky.
A larger goal is to sensitize the entire community to challenges unique to West Louisville through sermons, Bible studies, corporate worship and annual summits.
“We come together because we care about all people in the city of Louisville, all of the citizens of Louisville,” said Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church. “As clergy we are united in our commitment to social justice, to leveling the playing field and empowering people to be all that they can be under God.”
Kentucky Baptist Fellowship Coordinator Rhonda Abbott Blevins said the way CBF operates in Kentucky and around the globe is “through developing capacity within communities.”
“It’s through finding out what people love to do, what people have skills and talents and capacity for, connecting the dots, and having them build communities from within,” she said. “A lot of missional effort in churches has been imperialistic and paternalistic: ‘Let us come and throw money at you. Let us come and throw resources at you.’”
“That’s not the approach that we like to take,” she said. “We like to take the approach of finding skilled, visionary, talented people within communities and doing what we can to help them become who they can be in their communities.”
Chris Caldwell, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church, said he thinks there are people outside of West Louisville who have long wanted to help the community.
“I think usually that has taken the form in our minds of charity,” Caldwell said. “Charity has its place, but it also has profound limits. This is not about assistance from the outside in. This is about empowering folks in West Louisville to grow from the inside out and to come alongside and to make a big difference over the long haul.”
Jason Crosby, pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, said the past three months have been some of the most profound ministerial associations of his career, because weekly meetings sometimes lasting three hours have brought about high levels of relationship and trust.
“I believe that is the model that brings forth some of these other initiatives and projects that we believe can make a difference not only in West Louisville but in our entire city,” Crosby said.
Chris Sanders, a seminary-educated layman who recently filled in as interim coordinator of Kentucky Baptist Fellowship between the retirement last year of John Lepper and the recent election of Blevins, described the way the partnership with Simmons College of Kentucky came about as “a God thing.”
“We felt the need to come together,” Sanders said. “I don’t know who called who, but we gathered earlier this year, just a few people, and said Simmons is important as a historically black college here in our community. Kentucky Baptist Fellowship, as a predominantly Caucasian organization, needs to be in relationship and be supportive and it kind of built from there.”
“It’s in its inception,” Sanders said. “I can’t see that we’ve come very far, but we’ve done some things along the way. We’ve had meetings here. We’ve had meetings there, and I think that we’re on our way to creating a lasting relationship that matters in this community and that matters to all the churches in the state.”