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Chicago parish providing signs of hope on urban landscape

By David Skidmore
[Episcopal News Service]  The day after helping install Mark Hanson as the new presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold assisted in another beginning--the dedication of a refurbished apartment building for low-income families on Chicago's South Side.

In a visit to St. Edmund's Episcopal Church, the largest African-American parish of his former diocese, Griswold presided and preached at the Eucharist and then blessed one of the newly completed apartments of St. Edmund's Manor, a 31-unit apartment building being rehabbed by the parish's housing redevelopment corporation.

'I think of you as a congregation in a quite specific way giving yourselves to the community and having that become a blessing,' he said in his sermon. The ability of St. Edmund's to embrace a vision for a community renewal 'reveals hopefulness made concrete in human lives,' he said.

Recalling a passage from the 58th chapter of Isaiah, Griswold said he thought of the parish 'quite literally as a repairing, restoring community.' Not only is this work a model for other faith groups in Chicago, it is also a model for rest of the nation to follow, he said.

'When government and church and non-profit groups work together for the transformation of the neighborhood, then amazing and wonderful things happen,' he said.

Sign of hope

The presiding bishop's wife Phoebe echoed his praise, saying it was a privilege to see what the church has accomplished. 'To be here is a sign of hope and encouragement,' she said.

Hope has been in short supply for decades in Washington Park, a mile wide corridor between 51st and 63rd Streets on Chicago's South Side and considered one of the city's most economically and socially distressed communities. Here, just a few blocks west of Hanson's installation at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the litany of urban ills--drugs, gangs, crime, governmental disinterest--has left its mark in abandoned storefronts, burned out buildings, and potholed streets. Most who have stayed are there because they can't afford to leave. Others because they are unwilling to quit on a once vibrant community.

The core of this commitment is found at St. Edmund's which over the past 10 years has worked toward a neighborhood revival by starting a neighborhood block club, reopening its elementary school, partnering with the Chicago Police Department for a community police program, and, most significantly, rehabbing over a dozen town homes and apartment buildings.

The catalyst for this renaissance is the Rev. Richard Tolliver, rector of St. Edmunds, who has enlisted support from Mayor Richard Daley, the city housing commission, the banking community and non-profit foundations for rebuilding homes and the social service network. In the 10 years since his arrival, the parish--through the St. Edmund's Redevelopment Corporation--has rehabbed nearly 500 residential units and has 179 more on the drawing board.

The largest to date has been a 24-story apartment highrise--a neighborhood landmark that had fallen into disrepair in recent years. With $18.5 million in city and federal grants, and additional funding and technical help from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), St. Edmund's corporation purchased the high rise and did a full renovation, including refurbishing all 230 apartments, rebuilding the ground floor space, replacing windows, repainting, adding landscaping and a security system, and installing a parking garage.

Vision and dedication

Renamed St. Edmund's Village, the new centerpiece of the parish housing ministry was dedicated July 11 in a ceremony attended by Mayor Daley, local officials, representatives of the financing agencies, and diocesan officers.

In his remarks, Daley praised Tolliver for his vision and dedication. ''Everyone has dreams but do they become realities?' asked Daley. 'This man has made it a reality. He made a commitment as did the church and his followers.'

His sentiment was echoed by Andrew Mooney, program director of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) which provided seed money and technical advice for the $18.5 million rehab of St. Edmund's Tower. 'St. Edmund's is a leading example of what it means to be a faith-based organization that works for a neighborhood,' he said.

Key to the successful teamwork has been the technical assistance of LISC and financial backing from the city, federal and private agencies, proof that church and state can work together and not compromise either's integrity, pointed out the mayor. In Chicago where the need for affordable housing is so critical, there really is no other choice, he said.

'Who else is going into a community where the church and religious leaders have stayed and made a commitment to longtime residents,' he said. 'It is very powerful work that faith-based organizations have done here.'

Daley noted that 'government can't solve all the problems. I am the first one to admit that faith-based organizations can be partners with us.'

Commitment is key

Efforts like St. Edmund's Village are a key part of the city's five-year plan to build 25,000 affordable housing units for renters and homeowners, a project that will cost $1.5 billion when completed in 2003, say city officials.

Tolliver credits the commitment of church members as the real key to the ongoing rebirth of Washington Park. Shortly after he arrived in 1989 he asked the parish to take a more visible role in community outreach, and members responded. Within a few months a redevelopment corporation had been formed and by the end of the year an eight-flat apartment building had been rehabbed.

Since then the Redevelopment Corporation has engineered the remodeling and renewal of 12 other apartment buildings along a six-block corridor of South Michigan and South Indiana Avenues.

Asking members of his church to stand and be recognized, Tolliver told the gathering that 'without a strong team we wouldn't be here today. Everyone who shares our vision knows it's not a nine to five job. It's a seven-day a week job.'