Chicago church’s Greenlining Campaign works to reverse effects of racism in housing

Posted Aug 5, 2020

[Diocese of Chicago] On May 31, Pentecost Sunday, six days after George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 47 people at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Chicago, Illinois, attended an online evening prayer service to mourn him and other Black people killed by racist violence.

“We reflected on how people felt powerless in this moment,” said Elizabeth Moriarty, a member of the parish and volunteer leader with United Power for Action and Justice. “We all had stories of shame and grief. But the organizer in me said, Oh no, we don’t know our power.”

Two months later, the congregation announced that it had raised $232,600 to support Canaan Homes, a housing and community organizing initiative in Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood devastated historically by predatory lending and the discriminatory housing policies known as redlining. The fundraising effort, which All Saints’ called the Greenlining Campaign, was launched a few weeks after the Pentecost prayer service “with the idea that we would be leaven,” said the Rev. Stephen Applegate, the parish’s interim rector. “Leaven for the 1,000 homes Lawndale Christian Development Corporation hopes to build and leaven for others to join in this campaign.”

All Saints’, a North Side congregation with more than 600 members, moved beyond its initial sense of powerlessness using a community organizing ministry that began in 2018, Moriarty said. With the support of Bishop Bonnie Perry of the Diocese of Michigan, then rector of All Saints’, Moriarty established the ministry through one-on-one interviews with members of the congregation “to build relational power.”

In the language of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the community organizing network founded in Chicago by legendary organizer Saul Alinsky, the phrase “relational power” refers to the power that can be amassed through strategic, mutual relationships between people and organizations.

At All Saints’, the movement grew quickly. When the parish joined United Power in February 2019, 40 people from the congregation went to Lawndale to deliver the annual dues check. Seven months later, 142 All Saints’ members participated in a United Power meeting with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, during which more than a thousand people asked her to release a thousand vacant lots in Lawndale for affordable housing.

“This is what All Saints’ does through the power of the Holy Spirit. We take these kinds of risks and make these kinds of things happen,” Applegate said.

This spring, the organizing momentum was slowed by Perry’s departure and the pandemic. But shortly after the Pentecost prayer service, Moriarty received an email from Richard Townsell, executive director of Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, calling on United Power members to respond to systemic racism with “persistent and targeted action that is built on relational power.”

“Our goal,” wrote Townsell, “is to rebuild Lawndale with homes that working people can afford; to rebuild the public square with local leaders that care about the issues that affect us, and to not give in to fear or the market driven ideology that has taken over our country’s polity.”

The next day, Moriarty called Townsell and asked how much money he needed. He sent her a 50-page plan for Canaan Homes, she recalls, and she thought, “Oh, a church can raise money for the Promised Land. This is our chance!”

The All Saints’ vestry endorsed the project on June 16, and the Greenlining Campaign launched six days later with the goal of raising $215,000 in a month. On July 27, the campaign committee met with Townsell to announce that they had exceeded the goal by more than $17,000. Half of the gifts were for $100 or less, and 56% of donors are not members of All Saints’. Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee and five other Episcopal congregations—St. Mary’s, Park Ridge; St. Augustine’s, Wilmette; St. John’s, Irving Park; Church of the Atonement, Edgewater, and Grace Place Episcopal Church, South Loop—were among the donors, as were several ecumenical congregations.

All Saints’ co-warden Scottie Caldwell was one of the parish leaders who helped raise the funds. In a letter to the congregation, she wrote about her anger and sense of powerlessness on the night George Floyd was killed. But then, she wrote, she had a realization: “I know what to do. All Saints’ is with me. … Because we have been working with United Power for Action and Justice, because we have been talking about racism and power and organizing, and because I have seen, again and again, the transformative power of a community that believes in what’s possible and what makes the world new, I remembered that I am not alone.”

“The biggest thing I can say is that it is unprecedented,” Townsell said of the campaign. “I have had so much difficulty reaching into some of the big name white evangelical churches in Chicagoland trying to get them to support our work and I have struck out. They won’t even return my phone calls. It’s to All Saints’ credit that they are really willing and able to do the Gospel and to do something outside of their congregation.”

The money will pay to build the first model home in the development and three months of salary and benefits for a community organizer from North Lawndale. The organizer, Townsell said, will “get muscle politically to defend” the project.

“When we built the Ezra Project in the late 1990s, we had a lot of enemies,” Townsell said, referring to an affordable housing initiative in which the Diocese of Chicago invested a million dollars. “The street gangs weren’t happy, the banks weren’t happy because we went with one preferred bank, the developers weren’t happy because they wanted to build more market rate homes. We build 100 houses, and then the opposing forces shut us down.

“Now we’re starting with the organizing,” he said. He is counting on what he calls the “All Saints troublemakers” to be part of the organizing power. “The mayor should not just be hearing from our alderman.”

Applegate, who arrived at All Saints’ in February just three weeks before the pandemic forced the suspension of in-person worship and programs, said Perry’s legacy helped the congregation deliver such impressive results. “Bonnie’s ability to create and empower leaders means that she left behind a whole group of capable, committed, and energetic leaders,” he said. “When she left, she left them with a legacy of risk and risk and risk again. She was very successful in creating a DNA that has outlived her and will outlive her.”

To Moriarty, the Greenlining Project’s success can be measured not just by the money raised, but also by the relationship it has formed between All Saints’ and Lawndale Christian Development Corporation. “Part of our power at All Saints’ is our white privilege and our ability to leverage relationships across the city,” she said. “This project allowed us to move our money back to where it was taken from and say to Richard, ‘We believe in you, we’re following you.’ We’re learning the story of Lawndale.”