This summer, after a string of shootings in the city, Sheray Wallace, founder of Meadowood Neighborhood Connectors, and local television show Club TNT organized a march on Madison's west side as a demonstration of neighborhood unity.
The “Walk Against Violence, Save the Children March” started at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on the corner of Raymond Road and Whitney Way and ended at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church on McKee Boulevard, just north of Raymond. Other area churches helped make the march possible, Wallace said.
“The congregations came out in numbers,” Wallace said. “And it was just a beautiful thing.”
That support wasn't unusual, Wallace said, especially for Good Shepherd and Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ.
“Whenever I come to them and say, ‘I want to do this for the community,’ they open their facility up for me to make it possible,” she said. “They really mean a lot to me.”
Faith leaders in the Meadowood community are emphasizing a relationship-first approach to serving their neighbors. It's leading to more collaboration among churches and gaining respect among community leaders like Wallace.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD CHURCH
The Meadowood area is home to several faith communities, including Good Shepherd, Our Redeemer, ORUCC, Madison Mennonite Church and St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church.
The congregations have been around for decades and were started as neighborhood churches, said Rev. Winton Boyd of ORUCC, with members living nearby.
But as the demographics in the area shifted and a growing contingent of church-goers started choosing their church based on merits other than proximity, what it meant to be a “neighborhood church” changed, Boyd said.
It took public health nurses sent in by the city to help the churches realize that the neighborhood had evolved and needed to connect with the community in new ways, Boyd said. He gives those nurses a lot of credit for “bringing folks from all walks of life together.”
“I think what often happens with individuals, organizations, schools and churches is we get in our own silo and we’re doing things that matter to us,” he said. “It takes effort to move out of our silos.”
“If you had churches like that in every community who felt like it was important to … engage with the community where their church is located, it would make a difference all across Madison,” Wallace said.
Joe Brosious, an associate pastor at Good Shepherd, also said his church was trying to get back to its roots as a neighborhood church, partly in response to the national political climate.
“I just think there’s a little bit of a new spirit in the church,” Brosious said. “What you hear about the church nationwide has really taken a turn in a direction that really scares a lot of us … a lot of what Christianity (is about) has been co-opted by extremely right-wing groups.”
RELATIONSHIPS, NOT PROGRAMS
Brosious and Boyd emphasized that being a good neighborhood church doesn't mean foisting programs on the community, but supporting community leaders who are already doing the work.
Brosious pointed to Wallace and Tutankhamun “Coach” Assad, founder of the Mellowhood Foundation, an organization that aims to empower area youth.
Assad echoed the idea that their partnership isn’t about programs.
“Programs only program people, these are initiatives that allow people to take the initiative,” he said.
The relationship is based on trust and years of experience, Boyd said.
“We like each other. We hurt when each other hurts.”
Assad said he was grateful to Boyd and Brosious, “two of the most conscientious, most conscious white men I’ve ever bumped into in my life.”
“I feel incredibly blessed to be around this group of people who challenge me to be a better human,” Assad said.
“There are no words to describe those two pastors,” Wallace said. “A lot of white people always want to help, and they just want to give you money. But these white people get it. They try to help you grow.”
This spring, Justified Anger hosted a five-week cultural competency course for Good Shepherd, Madison Mennonite and ORUCC. The class looked at past ministries in the Meadowood area, analyzed which were successful and whether race played a role in that success. Good Shepherd also hosted a one-week Justified Anger leadership class.
Good Shepherd and ORUCC have partnerships with and support nearby Toki Middle, Orchard Ridge Elementary and Falk Elementary schools, providing tutoring, snacks and mentorships.
Wallace worked with ORUCC last year to help the congregation understand the housing crisis in the area, and is working with Good Shepherd to head up some community engagement teams.
ORUCC has supported Mellowhood by partnering to provide employment to kids and financially supporting the organization. This summer, Good Shepherd hosted Mellowhood programming in its building.
“Do you realize how much money that would have cost if we had to rent (or buy)?” Assad said.
Assad said Good Shepherd’s support has helped his program grown from eight youth for two hours a day last year to 18 youth for eight hours a day this summer.
“Our church was busy and alive with kids and families from the neighborhood all summer, which was a good thing,” Brosious said.
Good Shepherd has purchased a food cart that its hoping to get running by the spring. The cart — named the “Holy Cow” — would not sell food, but distribute it for free at community events.
ORUCC is a partner with Common Wealth and Joining Forces for Families to form the Southwest Partnership, which puts on a short-term employment program known as STEP. STEP volunteers help with resumes, interview prep, tutoring and transportation to and from jobs and interviews, with a goal to leverage temporary positions into full-time work.
Now, the congregations are coming together in a new way, Boyd said.
Several of the congregations provide small rental assistance funds, Brosious said, but they’ve been talking about joining their funds to really invest in few families to “get them on a different track” instead of “doing some monthly small, band-aid fixes for an individual here and there.” They’re looking towards a housing-first, case management approach.
“I’ve been at Orchard Ridge for 19 years, and I feel a greater sense of collaboration and cooperation among the neighborhood congregations today more than I’ve ever felt before,” Boyd said.