If your next-door neighbor’s house caught on fire, would you be concerned? Pastor John Girton of Christ Missionary Baptist Church is teaching community members how to weaken the “flames” destroying our city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods, including violence, unstable family situations, health inequality and unemployment.
“Where I live, everyone’s house might include people from different cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities, but if a house catches on fire, that is everybody’s issue, no matter how many fences you put up separating one house from the next,” said Girton. The pastor founded Unite For Change in 2015 with the goal of equipping leaders from urban communities with the platform, skills and resources needed to turn their neighborhoods around.
Earlier this month, with the help of more than 60 volunteers, Girton camped out in a tent on the corner of 30th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets for 30 days, spending time in prayer and offering resources to the community, such as health and fitness workshops, job readiness training, movie nights, a memorial for lives lost and an awards ceremony to recognize individuals committed to making Indianapolis a better community for all. Though the tent campaign is over, Unite for Change’s goal of strengthening the city is still going strong. Girton is currently planning his bi-annual Urban Servant Leadership Un-Conference, an event designed to inspire and empower current and future leadership in urban centers around the world, and taking part in the Indianapolis Eastside Community Conversations at the East 38th Street Library.
Earlier this month, with the help of more than 60 volunteers, Pastor John Girton of Christ Missionary Baptist Church camped out in a tent on the corner of 30th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets for 30 days, spending time in prayer and offering resources to the community.
A city divided
Girton grew up on the far-east side of Indianapolis and witnessed the issues he is now tackling firsthand. The difficulties he experienced in his own life made him want to be an agent for change in the community.
“My own personal journey led me to unemployment, contemplation of suicide, rejection from my family, rejection from the religious community, and it took all of that to get me to where I am now,” said Girton. “Unite for Change is about rejecting the idea that we are going to experience positive change without people taking on their own roles and responsibilities in what that change needs to look like. There is no other way to achieve progress without being on the same page.”
However, Girton says getting Indianapolis on the “same page” has proven difficult. He describes Indianapolis as a city divided, one part reflective of the polished images he views on advertisements, and the other full of vacant and boarded up homes, crime, unemployment and people without hope. He says it is difficult to find resources for the people he aims to serve.
“There is a climate in the city that’s not interested in the people we are attempting to help. I feel that way because of the level of support we receive from the institutions. When two little (white) girls in Delphi, Indiana, are murdered and we can raise over a quarter million dollars for them, but four little (Black) girls died in a fire less than an hour away, and we can’t raise $10,000, it says we don’t want to help those people,” said Girton. “The problem we are having is that there are people who are going to stand on the sidelines because I am a Black Baptist pastor. They think that means my end goal will not impact a white United Methodist pastor. When we do that, we diminish our impact.”
Bridging the gap
Local couple Jim and Nancy Cotterill would likely agree with the notion that our city’s potential for improvement is being demolished because of division. The couple aims to address one of the biggest walls that divide individuals: money. They founded a nonprofit by the name of Unite Indy with the goal of mobilizing funding and volunteers from across Indianapolis to support the ministries and organizations working in urban areas. They were inspired to launch Unite Indy after Jim had an eye-opening conversation with a pastor of a small urban church.
“Jim was part of a group that got together to pray for the city. He was talking to a pastor from one of the difficult areas of the city who said, ‘Jim, you can sit up there and pray all day long, but we have houses on fire down here.’ And he was talking about people who need help. You can’t always wait till things are perfect to help them. So Jim said, ‘This has to happen now,’ and we decided this is what we are going to devote ourselves to,” said Nancy Cotterill.
Cotterill says urban ministries are often underfunded because organizations that fund nonprofits, such as the United Way, are hesitant to donate to faith-based institutions.
“We have ministries doing fabulous work with people in our city, feeding people, clothing people, helping them with money for housing, but they die on the vine. They have no support, and to do anything it takes some money,” said Cotterill.
In addition to providing funding and volunteers for urban ministry initiatives, Unite Indy is seeking to engage our city in critical conversations about the things that keep it divided. They recently hosted a panel at Crossroads Bible College titled “Building Race Relationships.” At the event, a former gang member, a Black businessman and a panel of other Indianapolis residents discussed how race has impacted their lives.
Unite Indy is seeking to engage our city in critical conversations about the things that keep it divided. They recently hosted a panel at Crossroads Bible College titled “Building Race Relationships.”
“I think people see race as a dividing line. In many cities, the areas of highest poverty are not necessarily Black. In Indianapolis though, it’s generally a situation where there are Black people living in those areas,” said Cotterill. “There are all types of things that happen in situations of poverty. You can talk about homelessness, the fact that more Blacks are incarcerated than whites, then they can’t get a job. When a man goes to jail, the whole family who did nothing is affected. A lot of the time they are in a food desert and cannot easily get to a grocery store, and if you don’t have a car, it’s hard.”
Unite Indy’s staff members are not the only individuals working to have critical conversations with the community. Two miles were all that separated the location where a group of men gathered last Tuesday to promote peace in Indianapolis and the site where three people were shot during a funeral procession. Pastor Denell Howard of Hovey Street Church of Christ was among the men who gathered at the juvenile detention center at 25th Street and Keystone Avenue to talk to residents of Indianapolis about the importance of standing against violence. He feels that in order to achieve peace, all hands need to be on deck.
“We are pulling together men from all walks of life, pastors, comedians, organizers and everybody who is fighting for a change. We want a peace campaign,” said Howard. “Start with your block, start with your neighborhood, your group, your organization. If you are not a Christian, talk to a Muslim, if you are not a Muslim, talk to an activist. If you are a college student, we want you to stand for peace.”
The leaders involved in these efforts feel that their faith is the guiding force behind their work, and it impacts the ways in which they tackle these systematic problems. In addition to addressing the community’s physical needs, they hope their efforts help heal the soul.
“People are wounded. When you know who you are, you are not what the world says you are, you are what God says you are, and he says you are a victor and not a victim, you are a survivor, you are an overcomer,” said Cotterill.
For more information on Unite for Change, visit uniteforchange.org. To learn more about Unite Indy, visit uniteindy.org.
“Jim was part of a group that got together to pray for the city. He was talking to a pastor from one of the difficult areas of the city who said ‘Jim, you can sit up there and pray all day long, but we have houses on fire down here.’” — Nancy Cotterill