Poverty & Progress

The Next Louisville: The Role Of Churches In Struggling Communities

Photos by J. Tyler Franklin

For generations, houses of worship across all denominations have played a prominent role in helping those in need in struggling neighborhoods and beyond.

That not only includes providing food, clothing and shelter, but offering programs that address the underlying issues that contribute to social problems such as violence and drug abuse. Government leaders, including Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, have been calling on religious groups to take a more prominent role in battling these problems.

In this installment of the Next Louisville: Poverty and Progress, I visited some neighborhood church groups to talk about the challenges they face, and some of their success stories.

While a visiting organist rehearsed nearby, Pastor Willa Fae Williams showed me around the Portland Avenue Presbyterian Church. It’s housed in a former Kroger store in the west Louisville neighborhood of Portland, one of the city’s poorest. The original church next door was destroyed by fire in 2009.  Williams’ church shares the newer facility with another congregation.

Williams is 81, and has been the church pastor for some two decades.   She also oversees the Portland Avenue Community Trust, which, among other things, operates the church’s food pantry and clothing distribution center.

At the food pantry, Williams introduced Tori Mack, who was behind the counter serving a steady stream of clients.

“Everything here is donated to the pantry,” Mack said. “We do receive food from Dare to Care, of course, and we partner with Kentucky Harvest as well, to get food. But most everything else, the clothing, the household items, all of that is strictly donated.”

Last year, in response to a spate of shootings in west Louisville, Gov. Bevin called on people in troubled neighborhoods to organize prayer walks on their blocks, as part of a larger engagement effort to deal with issues such as violence, drugs and poverty.

“And over the course of a year, here’s what’s going to happen,” Bevin said at the time. “They’re going to get to know the people on that block.  Some of the people on that block already live on that block. They’re going to get to know other people on that block. Other people are going to be grateful for the fact that people have come out.”

Rev. Williams said she gets it when politicians call on her church and other houses of worship to step up to help people, especially in areas of concentrated poverty,  but it’s always been a part of their mission.

“I think churches by and large are helping,” Williams said. “We don’t see this as a mandate for the governor, we see what we do as a mandate from Jesus Christ. And so, we’re going to do our thing.” 

For Williams, that means addressing not only the effects, but the causes of poverty. She said her ministry includes engaging children and their parents and stressing the importance of structure in the home.

“I don’t think it’s just the church, I think anybody who gives a damn about anybody else needs to be working on this issue of family,” said Williams.  “The family unit needs to get back together. There needs to be some role models.”

Across town, Donna Young and her staff lead a tour around the St. Vincent de Paul campus in the Shelby Park neighborhood. The campus takes up an entire city block and includes a shelter, housing for people in recovery, a cafeteria that serves free hot meals and a family success center.

Young is director of Conference Affairs and Volunteer Services for the Catholic organization, founded more than a century ago. There are more than 40 churches, or conferences, in the Metro area that carry out their work — with the help of an army of more than a thousand volunteers. She said there’s still a constant need for resources on every front.

“You can always use more, because the problem is not going away, it seems to be increasing,” said Young. “But I do think that most of the faiths in Louisville are aware of it and are doing what they can to help.”

Director of Programs Beth White said drugs, alcohol and mental illness are the chief contributors to the plight of many homeless people who turn to them for help. And that’s why the non-profit focuses on comprehensive solutions to address poverty and addiction in the community.

“I think that lack of social support, the lack of family member support, the lack of …. just really being down at their bottom and really having lost everything,” White said. “They come here, and our goal is to help build them back up to the person they used to be, if not even better.”

Twenty-four year old Amber Scott knows what it’s like to lose everything.   A heroin addiction cost her the custody of her two children, now two and three years old, and left her homeless. St. Vincent de Paul helped get her into a recovery program after she nearly died from an overdose.

“I know if I was out there and I did it again, that that’s where I would be,” Scott said. “I’d be in a grave or in jail. I wouldn’t have my kids, I wouldn’t be getting my kids back like I am now.”

Scott just marked 90 days of sobriety.

While religious groups continue their mission to fight hunger, homelessness, addiction and other problems, Rev. Joe Phelps said it’s also important that they carry on the battle against the sometimes less obvious issues like racism and xenophobia. Over the years, these issues have helped to create some of today’s economic inequality.

“Mercy has to lead to justice,” Phelps said. “Not only just feeling sorry for people, but making it right.”

Phelps recently retired after a long tenure as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, which is not in an area of concentrated poverty. But even so, Phelps said his church and similar congregations are trying to become more honest and self-reflective about the responsibilities that go with privilege.

“And as we become more aware of that, we’re not pushing toward guilt, we’re pushing toward growth, toward awakening,” he said.

The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville. For more work from the project, click here.

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