It takes a village to renew community and build healthy society

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WACO—On a corner lot in Shreveport, La., where dealers once sold drugs, flowers bloom and vegetables grow in a community garden. More significantly, a sense of community has blossomed in the Allendale neighborhood after neighbors recaptured an ancient idea—the village.

Mack McCarter, a Disciples of Christ minister, returned to his hometown in northern Louisiana about 15 years ago after 18 years serving churches in Texas. He wanted to see if he could help renew community, one neighborhood at a time.

Mack McCarter, founder of Community Renewal International, made friends in Shreveport’s Allendale neighborhood, enlisting some residents to become block leaders and designate their homes as Haven Houses. (PHOTOS/David Westerfield/Community Renewal International)

He did, and in the distressed neighborhoods where residents have adopted his approach to community renewal, crime has dropped more than 40 percent.

McCarter, founder of Community Renewal International, presented his systematic approach to neighborhood renewal at The Next Big Idea Conference, an event at Baylor University sponsored by Baylor’s School of Social Work , Truett Theological Seminary and the Leadership Network.

When he was still serving a church in the Texas Panhandle, McCarter began to think about community renewal by asking five questions:

• What kind of world does God want?

• What kind of society makes possible that kind of world?

• What kind of people makes possible that kind of society?

• What kind of environment makes possible that kind of person?

• What do we have to do to make that kind of environment possible?

The first question was the easiest, he decided. God wants a world where people love their neighbors as they love themselves. But in a society where many people don’t even know their neighbors, answers to the other questions proved more elusive.

Workers with Community Renewal International work alongside neighborhood residents in a Fuller Center for Housing “building blitz” in Shreveport’s Allendale area.

“People are disconnected, and that disconnection has opened the door to massive dysfunction,” McCarter said.

The kind of “others-centered” person who can nurture a loving society must be both competent and compassionate, he decided.

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“Competent people have the willingness and ability to access and appropriate resources outside themselves which enable them to grow—skillfully, socially, spiritually, physically, intellectually and emotionally,” he said. “Compassionate people live a lifestyle devoted to seeking the good of others as one seeks his or her own good.”

He began to study social systems, trying to discover what kind of society would make possible a world where people love their neighbors. Philosopher Elton Trueblood, historian Arnold Toynbee and social analyst Lewis Mumford shaped his understanding of how and why civilizations develop, decline and ultimately collapse.

As he studied the varied ways people have built civilizing structures, he discovered only one societal model has endured for millennia.

“Only the village has never failed,” he concluded.

McCarter sees the village as a caring community built on a foundation of mutually enhancing relationships. Once the relational foundation is in place, members of the village make sure other needs are met, such as safety, housing, meaningful work, health care and education.

Residents of a poor Shreveport neighborhood work in the Allendale Garden of Hope and Love, a community garden that occupies a vacant lot once frequented by drug dealers.

With his theoretical paradigm for community renewal in place, McCarter set developing structures to turn theory into reality. He began by going into one Shreveport neighborhood, looking for people who were willing to make friends with people in their block.

“I figured out of 300,000 people in Shreveport/Bossier City, about 1,000 want to hurt other people. The rest care about other people. But society won’t be saved by individual random acts of kindness. The key is connecting caring people,” he said.

McCarter began connecting the willing by enlisting them in his “We Care Renewal Team.”

Members of the team—who now number 39,000 in Shreveport/Bossier city—agree simply to identify themselves as caring people who want to develop friendships with their neighbors.

Community Renewal also designates Haven Houses—a private residence inhabited by a block leader who agrees to spend one hour a week, three weeks a month intentionally getting to know people and connecting them with each other through events such as block parties.

Finally, Community Renewal has developed Friendship Houses, also called “Internal Care Units,” in high-crime areas.

“We move in missionaries who live in these Friendship Houses. They go there to serve and win the trust of their neighbors, starting with children and youth,” McCarter explained.

The Friendship Houses serve as community centers where after-school tutoring programs, adult education classes and other programs are made available. In time, they also become places where neighbors care for each other’s needs.

From Shreveport/Bossier City, the community renewal program has been replicated in 20 other cities around the United States, as well as an international pilot project in Camaroon.

The Pew Partnership for Civic Change gave McCarter’s community renewal model its “Solution for America” designation, and the White House Conference on Community Renewal cited it as a “Best Practice Model.” Community Renewal International received the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative Award from the Manhattan Institute.

While Community Renewal leaders appreciate the national attention, they particularly value the opinions of people who have seen them up-close for years. The organization’s website includes an endorsement by Caddo Parrish Sheriff Steve Prator: “I applaud what you are doing and the pillars you stand on. There is now peace and quiet in areas that were once No-Man’s-Land, and that’s refreshing.”


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