Updated: Nov 5, 2022
No matter what city or area you live in, you can probably name a few neighborhoods that are known more for problems than prosperity. Two questions typically come to mind when you think of such places - how did things get this way and how might things be turned around? The focus of this post is on the second question, and more specifically, what is the key to neighborhood transformation?
The type of transformation I am referring to goes beyond changes in the appearance, buildings, or infrastructure of a neighborhood - with time, money, and skill any place can be redeveloped. I am talking about transformation in the hearts and minds of neighborhood residents that leads to positive changes in the neighborhood. And since these changes almost always require outside investment and support of some kind, I'm also talking about changes in the hearts and minds of those who come to invest and support.
This type of change requires an inspirational vision which is the key to neighborhood transformation. The vision has to be something that you can see in your mind's eye, something that a painter could paint or that a videographer could capture. It needs to draw you in, to compel you to say - "I want to be there." And if it's going to bring lasting positive change in the lives of the residents, it has to emanate from their hopes and dreams, or at the very least, resonate deeply with them.
The first place that I intentionally sought such a vision was in a trailer park in Orlando, Florida. It was a place well known for problems. Serious problems. For one, there was an average of two of violent incidents per month being reported (many more were happening). I was an outsider, a recent seminary grad equipped with a few ideas about how people and places might change but little else - hardly any money, influence, or experience.
I also had a question on my mind that stemmed from some things I had learned in seminary. Growing up, I was taught that heaven was the place that you go to when you die if you're good and have faith in God. Scripture paints a broader picture of a "new heavens and new earth" that God is promising to create as he renews the face of the earth. Heaven is coming here. The question I had on my mind and began asking the residents was, "How can this place be more like heaven?"
The most common answer, by far, can be summarized like this - "This place would be more like heaven if people saw kids playing as they drove by." Both parts of the answer were important to the residents - making the place safe enough for kids to play and showing the rest of the city that the people that live there cared about those kids.
When I was hearing these answers, very few children lived there but within a few years, on any given day, you would've seen kids playing as you drove by. And if you looked deeper into the changes that supported an environment in which kids played freely and often, you would've learned that the violent crime rate went from two incidents a month to zero incidents for thirty months. That's two and half years!
The particulars of how that happened will be described in another post but the key to that transformation was the inspirational vision - children playing. The vision guided resident choices regarding what projects to do and what not to do. It helped them work through conflict that arose along the way. It gave partners a clear sense of what was most important.
If you want to know what heaven on earth looks like, read verses 17 to 25 in the book of Isaiah, the 65th chapter (Isaiah 65:17-25). There are about a dozen qualities listed which can be summarized as - people enjoying the fruit of their labor in long and healthy lives. I had the opportunity to see this come to life and to befriend the people who worked so hard to make it happen. I've since worked in many of neighborhoods in some capacity and I've seen this kind of vision emerge every time it's been sought.
The God who is making all things new has a particular vision for every neighborhood. A vision that aligns with his ultimate promises. The very best we can do is to align our plans with his vision and get to work, trusting that he will make a way. I've come to call this the ambient vision of God. It's in the air, everywhere, and as we slow down enough and listen to hopes and dreams of the people who call these places home, it will emerge and will guide the way to lasting transformation.