Can a city street be a gospel issue? Is an abandoned lot central to God’s work in a city, or somehow less important than more traditionally conceived ministry concerns?
Every Parent’s Nightmare
In 2016, Heidi White, a Mom in the Jackson Neighborhood of Fresno, was walking her kids to school. One of her sons, Noah, who was three years old at the time, was riding his yellow tricycle by her side in the crosswalk, when a car came speeding around the corner and hit him. Noah lay motionless on the ground as she frantically dialed 911. She then called her husband Joseph who raced to the scene, arriving just as Noah’s unresponsive and limp body was being put into the ambulance. Joseph said he thought he had lost his son. Thankfully, Noah had been wearing his helmet, now with a deep gash in it. He reawakened in the hospital, and eventually recovered.
The following Sunday, Heidi and Joseph, who are co-pastors at Fresno’s Neighborhood Church, described to church members what had happened to Noah, and were asking for prayer for his full recovery. That’s when the hands began shooting up. “My cousin was hit there,” said one person. Another said, “My Mom was hit crossing the street near there.” It continued like that for several minutes and at the end, there were a collection of stories of accidents involving pedestrians or dangerous near-misses on that very stretch of road, often at that intersection.
It might have stayed at the level of simply praying for Noah’s recovery. But Neighborhood Church Fresno is a church organized around the well-being of People and Place. They take the nine-block-by-twelve block Jackson Neighborhood seriously as an area of spiritual responsibility. They not only have a theology of grace, but a theology of place, one that believes place matters because of how a neighborhood’s everyday quality of life impacts the very lives that Jesus came to love and serve. As historian & theologian Ray Bakke taught them, if place is so important in biblical history that Biblical & historical figures are known – literally hyphenated – by place (Jesus OF Nazareth, Paul OF Tarsus, Mary OF Bethany, etc.), and if biblical places themselves are given names of significance in the Bible (Bethel = house of God, Meribah = place of bitterness or strife) then perhaps we need to give priority to what happens in the places that so influence God’s people.
The Importance of a Neutral Convener To add action to their prayers, the pastors connected with the Center for Community Transformation at Fresno Pacific, and working together, crafted a survey and community meeting collecting resident experience to assess the degree to which the street and intersection were endangering families at Jackson Elementary and Rowell Elementary. In addition, they worked with Fresno Police Department and the City of Fresno to collect the empirical data they had on reported incidents. City leaders noted the impressive response rate and level of participation, far higher than typical, underscoring the high sense of urgency in the minds of residents. And the data amassed in the surveys were significant and compelling. Nearly 75% of residents were very concerned about Tulare, specifically, the speed of traffic, the lack of crosswalks and sidewalks, the lack of safety signage, no bike lane, and insufficient lighting to name a few. More than half stressed that cars routinely sped along at 20 MPH above the speed limit. One out of every three parents reported having had had a “close call” with speeding vehicles while walking their kids on that street or intersection. The police were able to document how many incidences had been reported in the last few years, but the residents had pieced together numbers that exceeded theirs. Then as recently as last month, an entire group of 12 students waiting at a bus stop on Tulare were hit by a driver.
Acting as a neutral convener, The Center for Community Transformation (CCT) worked alongside Neighborhood Church, and the Jackson Neighborhood Association to organize a community meeting between concerned parents and the City of Fresno’s planning department. At that meeting, parents put forward their concerns and offered potential solutions. At first, city staff seemed a little dubious about the possibility of change, given the overwhelming barriers to the kind of investment needed that would catalyze real solutions. Verbatim notes were kept by university student observers. As parents shared their stories, city staff listened. Following the meeting, leaders from Neighborhood church and the CCT met with city staff to follow up and a plan emerged that would require major grants, neighborhood consensus and Fresno City Council approval. The process progressed over the ensuing years at what seemed to neighbors like a snail’s pace. But city staff became more positive about what might be possible, if a number of things coalesced, including political will.
Finally! Lasting Change Takes Time and Collaborative Partners
Last Thursday, City Council unanimously approved and funded the Complete Streets initiative for Tulare Street between First and Cedar. This will mean that the road diet will be changed to accommodate sidewalks and bike lanes, and traffic will be reduced from four lanes to two, significantly reducing the speed limit. Signage, lighting and other safety concerns are being addressed as well.
All of this took six years, with faithful city staff, Neighborhood church pastors and CCT directors doing what they could to keep things moving. “When it comes to community change, you have to play the long game,” says Pastor White. “We are here for the long haul, as partners with residents, to walk together in faith for each other and our neighbors.” And they aren’t stopping there. During those six years, the church and their partners organizations were working to transform a neglected lot as well.
Park Yourself Here and Make a Park
Last month, standing in a neglected field at Tulare and 10,th Mayor Jerry Dyer along with Council Members Luis Chavez and Nelson Esparza held a press conference to announce the street project, and at the same time, announced some good news about the ground under their feet.
The proposal by residents of the Jackson Neighborhood to make this neglected, city-owned lot into a green space, community garden and park had been approved as well, and folded into the funding package that City Council approved. Jackson CDC had been helping coordinate several clean-ups of the site via the City’s Beautify Fresno effort. Jackson Neighborhood Association had held “tournament of wants” and several community meetings involving more than a hundred residents helping to clarify their priorities in the neighborhood. They had chosen to focus on making this abandoned lot, which had become an eyesore and magnet for illicit activity, into a place of beauty that would bless families in the neighborhood. Noah White, now 9 years old and doing well, was there to see the positive outcome for his friends and neighbors that had grown out of the trauma of having been hit.
Collaboration between Christ-centered agencies, community-based organizations, resident groups and the City of Fresno approved to be a powerful combination. And the consensus of so many that that God cares about place because of how place impacts people – this is proving to be a key perspective driving community change.
These changes will both save lives of children and families, as well as improve the quality of those lives. But just as important as the changes that will make the neighborhood better, the process itself will as well. The improvements all came from resident participation and initiative, and this is a huge step forward for the health of the neighborhood. Jesus said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40)
Noah now looks forward to riding his bike safely to the park one day.