It takes a village, the saying goes. To raise a child, to raise a neighborhood, to raise a community. That’s what Apostle Vanessa Ward does in North Omaha and that’s the story I tell in this week’s issue of The Reader that comes out Wednesday. Saturday, Aug. 10 was the annual block party she organizes and it was as usual a peaceful, joyful gathering of hundreds in a neighborhood once known as Death Valley. The block party is just one manifestation of all the work she puts into raising up her block and surrounding neighborhood. For her, it’s all about building community. It starts with transforming lives. It’s her ministry and mission. Job well done, soul sister, job well done. But she’ll be the first to tell you that the work continues. She’s heartened that her neighbors are beginning to do some of that good work themselves so that the gains that have been made will not be lost but be passed on.
Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Builds Community and Strengthens Neighborhood in North Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Nearly 600 folks turned out Saturday for the 16th Annual Community Block Party hosted by Apostle Vanessa Ward and her husband Keith Ward. As usual this multi-generational celebration of community in a northeast Omaha neighborhood once known as Death Valley went off without any trouble.
During this street festival-reunion-revival Apostle, cordless mic in hand, is everywhere preaching her grassroots doctrine of community togetherness. It’s praise and worship in the guise of kickin’ it.
“Do you feel it?” Apostle likes to say.”C’mon, community, let’s celebrate, let’s do it…” she implores the crowd.
“Let’s celebrate,” rejoins her daughter Va’Chona Graves, aka the Holy Ghost Girl, who emcees from a makeshift DJ booth under a tent. The music ranges from hip hop to contemporary gospel to old school R&B and soul. At various points a dance line forms and little girls to adult women move in unison with the beat.
The laid-back event is held on the very block that Apostle and her husband live on. It’s a poor, working class area dotted by boarded up houses and vacant lots. Their home and yard serve as the hub for the party, whose activities stretch up and down the long block.
That block, from Fowler to Grand Ave., is part of a stretch of 38th St. starting at Ames Ave. that bears her name in recognition of the work she’s done transforming the neighborhood. Her 2008 book Somebody Do Something tells the story. She’s writing a new book about the evolution of her community building work and her vision for the future.
That vision is much bigger than the block party, which is just one expression of year-round efforts to keep the neighborhood clean and safe. It’s a mission for this community matriarch, organizer, builder, evangelical activist minster. She pastors. mothers and advises her neighbors. She often picks up trash and cooks for them, too.
“I’m trying to teach by example. People respect you when they see that you’re not leading from behind,” she says.
She started two community gardens on nearby vacant lots. The Peace Garden sits atop a tall bank. It overlooks a curbside memorial to a drive-by shooting victim. A corner Hope Garden adjacent to her home is where she conducts Sunday morning services for her charismatic Afresh Anointing Church congregation. Boxed flower beds and a nativity scene adorn it. Her message there is consistent with her exhortations at the party.
“Alright community, you have to be ready to fight for what you believe in, you have to battle for what’s right.”
This faith warrior and her holy roller faith friends conduct a two-hour call and response service that draws dozens. People walking or driving by take it slow and quiet. Some end up joining the service. The amplified preaching, singing and music can be heard for blocks.
“The neighbors are coming in greater numbers,” Apostle says. “People will wait to cut their grass till were done. The ice cream truck guy won’t even ring his bell. These are things that have evolved – the respect.”
That same respect and unity infuse the block party
“It just becomes this wonderful place,” she says. “Everybody in the neighborhood contributes. They manicure the block, they make sure every lot is clean. The young people set up and take down tables and chairs. People donate food.”
Many neighbors have been personally ministered to by her and that’s given her serious street cred with 21-year-old Andre “Right” Boyd.
“I really appreciate everything she does for the youth. Most of us have been raised up by her. I’ve been coming to her for awhile and she helps me out. i have that relationship with her that I can go to her for things. She’s like a mother, she’s like a helper…She means a lot.”
She’s an admired figure.
“I think everybody sees her as a icon. She’s definitely going to have a legend here,” says Tina Knight. “Everybody knows who she is, everybody knows what she’s about. She’s highly respected.”
During a recent neighborhood tour Apostle led she caught sight of some teen boys and, as is her habit, she chatted them up. After making intros one of the boys looked up at the street sign with her name on it and said, ‘Ain’t this your street?” “Well, that is my name up there, yes dear,” she said. “But it’s really our street.”
Getting people to take ownership of the neighborhood has been key.
Nettie Houston says she’s seen “big changes here,” adding, “There’s no problems, everybody trusts each other and we watch out for each other.” She credits Apostle with making the difference in getting “the neighborhood working together.”
Apostle says even little things like greeting people, picking up litter, cutting the grass, bringing homemade cookies to a new neighbor or decorating the street with balloons creates a sense of community.
“Keep Omaha Beautiful statistics show that when a neighborhood is clean crime is down. Are you feeling me? So what do you think happens when you take the time to decorate and serve food?”
The block party features plenty of decorations and food.
Balloon displays line both sides of the street, one in the shape of a cross. Young kids queue up for face painting, balloon animals and the bounce house. A portable basket attracts young fellas for spirited hoops minus the trash talking. Elders play dominos at a card table under shade trees. Grills fire the smoke for the pulled pork sandwiches and beans served at lunchtime.
The Marching Dragons drill team performs. A talent showcase gives kids and adults alike their neighborhood American Idol moments.
There’s no cursing, no drama. It all flows free and easy.
Apostle with Mayor Stothert and her husband
Bound up in this neighborhood’s story is her own saga of heeding the call to minister to an area “under siege” from open air dope dealers, gang members and drive-by shootings. A young man, Columbus Brown, was shot and killed in front of Apostle’s home. The mother of four feared for her own family’s safety.
A gang leader and his crew hung out up the street. “Their presence was very intimidating,” she says. “Corner boys on every corner sold drugs and you had to come through them like a gauntlet to get to your own home. They’d come right up to you and say, ‘You want some of this?’ When friends used to drive me home from church they’d say, ‘Hey, pastor, you sure enough live in the ghetto.'”
Raucous music blared from car speakers. Unkept abandoned rental properties and vacant lots became breeding grounds for negative activities. Then and now the area includes young single mothers and retirees struggling to get by. Some residents are unemployed or underemployed, lacking education or skills to move up. It’s a microcosm of the woes that beset segments of northeast Omaha.
Apostle’s seen it over and over and it stands in stark contrast to when she came up there a half-century ago.
“In these very impoverished, transitional situations people come and go. There’s a high risk element of crime, isolation and desperation. People are not interested in knowing each other. It’s very unfriendly.
“When I was a little girl I came up in community. My mom would have talent shows and leaf raking parties in the backyard. She was one of the main organizers of block parties. I saw something that it did – it brought people out, it brought people together and it just forced community. When I grew older and moved into neighborhood after neighborhood that shared that heaviness, that separation I was never satisfied with it, although I found out you become very complacent to what you’re used to.”
Like her neighbors, she was conditioned by an urban code that says to look the other way and keep silent.
“I had been raised up with the main rules of living in the inner city – don’t get involved, mind your own business and don’t snitch.”
As things got worse she took her first action to address the chaos.
“I broke the rule that governs these neighborhoods and I called the police. That was big for me.”
But she wasn’t yet ready to take the next step.
“I was about to go out and give the facts of what I saw, what I heard but my husband wasn’t having it. We weren’t on the same page at that time for me to take a step that bold. So I backed down…”
A tragedy moved her farther down the path.
“When the young man was murdered in front of my house it just fired me on my journey. I just knew I was going to have to do something. But I didn’t know what.”
She faced an “inner struggle” living in that predatory environment.
“You become hard-hearted. You become angry. After a while you’re hating and hate can never change anything. I hated the gang members. I hated the loud noise. I hated the police helicopter hovering over me. I had become a victim of my own circumstances. The Lord began to show me how cold and callous I had become. Transformation starts inside yourself, so I had to go through a whole spiritual cleansing and healing because I was so hurt.”
That’s when the street became her church and its residents her flock as she intentionally went about softening hearts and reviving the community she knew growing up.
The memory of block parties from her childhood inspired her to recreate those times of “camaraderie and hope.” She’d come full circle.
The first block party she threw in 1995 marked the start of her neighborhood ministry. But to close off a street you must get everyone on the block to agree. That meant getting the gang leader’s OK. Before she could approach him she needed her husband’s approval.
“My husband was scared for my life.”
Keith Ward Sr. says while Vanessa went to talk to the gang’s top dog “I sat on the porch with my shotgun.”
Apostle recalls her anxious approach to the young man and his homies who ruled The Hood with fear.
“I said to him, ‘You know what guys, we’ve got a cloud of gloom hanging over us. Your homeboy’s dead. Everything is heavy. How about let’s have us a block party. We’ll do some dancing in the street and just move this heaviness.’ It got real silent and I waited and finally the answer came: ‘Cool.’ Then I said, ‘Three rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.’ I waited again for his answer: ‘That’s fine.’ I was shaking all the way home i was so nervous.”
Then she went about making it happen.
“I called on different churches and friends. They gave what they could.”
From the start, the family friendly event has held a nostalgic feel.
“All I could see was old-fashioned fun. Hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, relays, three-legged races, hopscotch, paper airplanes balloons. Kids running and playing. All the things that engage us.”
About 75 folks attended that first year. The no drugs, no alcohol, no violence mandate was abided by then and has been ever since.
She says, “It’s been made clear that is the standard.” “I know that everything was right because the gang leader came over and said, ‘What do we owe you for this?’ I told him nothing and he said, “Thank you for doing this for us.’ That took me some years to process. When does a person own something and believe it’s for him?”
As neighbors took ownership of the party the numbers grew. She estimates as many as 600 to 700 people have attended in peak years.
Apostle believes that buy-in speaks to how much people crave community.
“That’s what I found out it is. That’s why they come every year. That’s why nobody wants to leave. That’s why it’s been 16 times now and we’ve never had a violent outburst, not even a fight. We’ve never had to call the police to bring peace. How do you do that with that many people in the middle of a neighborhood that was called Death Valley if it’s not something we all hunger for and really want.
“What I see is that people want to get together in a safe environment, they want to connect in love, they yearn for that. That’s what it’s come to be. It’s kind of like a slice of heaven.”
When Apostle’s son, Keith Ward Jr., sees young adults at the party he’s reminded they were small children when his mother began this work. Many are now parents themselves and their babies are the next in line for this each one to teach one modeling.
“There isn’t hardly anyone here that hasn’t been touched by her or advised by her or grown up by her or looked out by her or prayed by her. Hopefully they’ll know there’s a better way for the future,” he says. “If there’s nobody out here like my mother to guide ’em or show ’em how we can come together as a community or what it is to be a community then we’re lost.”
He’s proud of her.
“It takes a special type of person to pull this off. It takes a lot of patience, it take a lot of love. She sees everything beautifully. She sees something better in you that you might not even see yourself.”
As the event grew and the area’s criminal activities subsided, her work there drew attention. Elected officials and community leaders have attended to sing her praises and to encourage neighbors to continue building community. Mayor Jean Stothert made an appearance on Saturday. Media covered the party.
Today, when you walk the block the tranquil setting is a far cry from what it used to be. Apostle can hardly believe the change herself.
“I can walk out here at 11 o’clock at night barefoot and go all the way up to the corner with no risk at all. Sometimes when I go out of my house at night I don’t want to slam my door because i don’t want to disturb the peace. This was not the case even 10 years ago. We have arrived and everybody knows i
Much of her best work there happened after she and her husband moved away for two years and then moved back.
“My husband’s health was failing. He had kidney failure. We were going through a time where we were just spiraling down. We got evicted from our house and ended up moving to the suburbs.”
But she still retained a presence on the block.
“I took time off only from living here because every Saturday I would come back to pray.”
She didn’t like what she found.
“It was like suspended animation. Houses were vacant, nothing was moving forward. I set up a microphone at the top of the hill and prayed. I reminded the neighbors of where we came from and what we’ve been through. I’d say, ‘C’mon, we can do this, let’s keep showing love.’ Then I would walk and pray up and down the block, keeping the pot stirred so to speak. I had to leave my comfort zone and think of strategic ways to approach people. That took a lot of work.”
Then she decided she needed to move back to The Hood. That took some convincing of Keith, who didn’t like the idea of leaving the comfortable burbs for “the trouble land.” When she told him her work there wasn’t done he relented. Once they returned to 38th she wasn’t sure she’d do the block party that first year back but neighbors kept asking when she was having it. So she held it. She’s faced doubts about doing it since then, too. It’s a major undertaking.
“It’s hard work,” says Apostle, who dips into her own pocket to cover what donations don’t. “Every year I feel like I don’t know why I do this but I’ve found out this thing has become bigger than me.”
Despite the stability she’s brought to the neighborhood challenges persist. Unsavory persons and activities try slipping back in. But she sees more neighbors being vigilant.
“Every now and then the element still comes back and tests,” she says.
“At one time I thought it was just up to me. There’s other people involved now that want to protect and hold onto it. I get so happy when someone else steps up to call the police. Yeah, it’s more than me. That’s the whole point.”
She feels there’s no reason what’s being done there can’t be replicated.
“Can you imagine a block party here, a block party there, all promoting that love and connectedness? Where could the negative element run? It would only have to succumb.”
While she believes outside individuals and agencies have a role to play in reviving North O she says change must come from within.
“I do believe there are bridges that need to be laid but I do not believe you can bring change from the outside. You cannot come into my neighborhood and bring about change and correction if you’re not part of it. When you live out west and you come down here to preach you’re not connected. What do you know about it and where have you earned the people’s trust? I had to earn their trust.”
She’s sure she’s where she needs to be and she knows what she wants to do next there.
“I think this area is in dire need of a church and a community development center.”
When she looks at the empty lots around her she sees opportunities to offer programs that help people get out of poverty and off welfare.
“On all these empty lots we should be able to have something to help us connect or bridge to the various agencies we have in North Omaha.
We need to get people built up and ready to take advantage of the wonderful things we have. We’ve got to give people the ability to dream. You’ve got to get people to see beyond their circumstances.”
She realizes she may not live to see all her dreams fulfilled but she’s hopeful her children and others will see them through.
“I won’t always live here but I’m raising it to be able to go on beyond me.”
Her best takeaway from the 2013 block party is that the neighborhood has taken it on as their own. “They’re doing it now. If I wasn’t to do another one, it would live on. They’ve grown into it. It’s so rewarding.”
- Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival Celebrates a Diagonal Cultural Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Block party brings neighbors together (triblive.com)
- Omaha neighborhoods celebrate National Night Out with block parties (omaha.com)
- Celebrate the Block to Build Community (bmecommunity.wordpress.com)
- Pamela Jo Berry Brings Art Fest to North Omaha, Artist and Friends Engage Community in Diverse Work (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- No More Empty Pots Intent on Ending Food Desert in North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
If you have visited the site a few times in the last week or two then you’ve probably noticed I’ve been changing things up even more than normal by posting stories that cover an unusually broad range of topics. That diversity of content is one of the things that I think distinguishes this site from a lot of others. The following long story is actually a package of profiles I did for The Reader (www.thereader) of ministers and churches serving predominantly African American northeast Omaha. These good shepherds are in some cases at the forefront of large community-based initiatives attempting to engineer a turnaround of the area, which has great needs, and in other cases leading smaller grassroots efforts focused on changing one block, one neighborhood at a time. The story tries to convey the role of black ministers and churches today and yesterday and where they fit into the fabric of community engagement and redevelopment.
Good Shepherds of North Omaha: Ministers and Churches Making a Difference in Area of Great Need
©by Leo Adam Biga
A shorter version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
“Faith has always been the element that motivated us and allowed us to continue forward in perilous times,” says Salem Baptist Church pastor Selwyn Bachus. “When we didn’t have anything else the one thing we did have was faith and the one institution we had and still have is the African American church. Every major movement in the history of African Americans has been founded on faith and out of the church. It’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that.
“You can use the visual of a bicycle wheel. Faith is that hub and the other efforts are really spokes out of that hub, which is the thing that holds it together.”
He says church remains central but its “interaction with congregants is not as intense as it once was.” As blacks’ living patterns have grown more dispersed, many no longer live in the immediate area their church occupies. Bachus says Salem members come from all over. He reminds, however, Omaha remains segregated, thus blacks still predominately live on the north side of the inner city, where most black churches are located.
With worshipers’ lives more mobile, their time more pressed, the family structure more fractured and people’s needs more acute, he says church ministries have evolved to focus on youths, couples, families, seniors. Everything from financial to computer literacy to life skills training is offered. The church is meeting place, mobilization center, sanctuary, conscience, healer, forum, refuge. It’s where fellowship’s found, tradition preserved and ritual celebrated — where the cycle of life plays out.
The black minister is shepherd, counselor, confessor, educator, orator, leader, role model and, depending on who wears the collar and what the times call for, agitator, protester, witness, critic, community organizer and social activist.
Five preachers pastoring North O churches are profiled here. Each discusses ministering to their people in times that, if not perilous, are challenging.
Apostle Vanessa Ward, Afresh Anointing Church, 4757 No. 24th St.
From the front porch of her northeast Omaha home, Apostle Vanessa Ward describes the transformation her block’s undergone in a decade. Situated in an area called Death Valley for its frequent, sometimes fatal gun violence, the Omaha native no sooner states, “This is a high risk neighborhood,” when the crackle of gunfire interrupts the mid-summer afternoon quiet.
“We gotta pray. That was not good,” Ward says solemnly, head bowed in prayer.
An ugly reminder gang bangers still menace these streets. But not on her block. Not anymore. Not since this wife and mother of four began ministering right where she lives — not just from the Sunday isolation of the pulpit at the 75-member Afresh Anointing Church (Body of Christ) she pastors. She admits she was like everyone else. Too apathetic and afraid to do anything about the chaos around her.
“This neighborhood used to be so bad there was no way you and I could be sitting outside like this,” she says to a visitor, “without filth in the street, loud music, prostitution, corner boys, as we call them, selling drugs on every corner. Oh, 10 years ago, you never would have been able to do what we’re doing now.
“I remember watching a 7-year-old in the back of my house selling drugs.”
She remembers consoling the mother of a young man killed in a driveby right in front of her house.
A large, now abandoned home she points to just up the block was a gang den.
“They would sit right there and throw dice in the daytime. Shoot, argue or do whatever they want because when the neighborhood’s disconnected nobody cares as long as it doesn’t hit my house or affect my child. And that’s a mistake.”
She says she was part of the culture of silence that prevails in North O, where “the rules of this kind of community are, don’t get involved, don’t call the law, mind your own business, pull the shade down.” Her own blind eye to it all bothered her. It led her to do some serious soul searching.
“I was praying. My main question was this: How can I be so powerful in my pulpit and powerless on my block? Why isn’t anything changing around me? Because it first had to change within me.” That revelation, she says, “took me on a journey.” She charts that journey in her new book, Somebody Do Something.
She felt called to organize a block party with food, music, information booths set up by community agencies, a police presence. It meant talking to gang members.
“The rules for a block party are that everybody on the block has to give their consent, so that forced me to have to go and approach what most would call undesirables. It took a lot of courage. It took a lot of stamina. But I just knew it needed to be done.”
She asked them to abide by three rules — no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons — and “they agreed.” From that first party in 1996 through the most recent one last July, she says, not a single incident’s occurred.
“No violence, no drug charges, nothing at any of these events that get as big as 600 people,” she says with pride and thanksgiving.
Apostle Vanessa Ward
The parties became the impetus for broader, long-term change or “healing.” She began doing cleanups — picking up litter. Others followed her lead. Pretty soon, homeowners were fixing up their properties and looking out for each other. It continues today. The negative elements faded away once residents interacted as concerned neighbors taking a collective stand in reclaiming their block.
“The neighbors started buying in,” she says “and now these neighbors do their own. The example was set.”
For Ward, being able to “bring a neighborhood together” is an expression of “signs and wonders” at work. That success, she says, validates what citizens can do “on a small ghetto block” and, she hopes, offers a model for doing it on a wider scale.
Neighbors maintain two community gardens on the block. The Peace Garden grows vegetables “that everybody in the neighborhood can glean,” she says, and the Hope Garden is a budding fruit-flower bed on one side of her house.
Ward envisions turning portions of the Hope Garden into a playground as well as a space for arts-craft activities, mentoring and job/trade training. She dreams of converting the vacant, former drug house into “a community center” for GED training, drug rehab and other services. She sees the home she now occupies one day being a mission house for those wishing to serve the neighborhood’s needs.
It’s all part of her belief that efforts to overturn social ills must be community-based, like her own “trench ministry.” Says Ward, “A lot of times if you don’t work it from the inside out what tends to happen is it doesn’t have longevity.” She realizes she needs to be right at ground zero to make the most impact. “The people need it,” she says. “They don’t know neighborhood, they don’t know community. We preach about it and we talk about it but people need to see a true evidence that Jesus is still alive. They need to touch it, it needs to be tangible.”
Just as Christ “met people where they were,” so does Ward, a highly visible figure in The Hood. Engaging people where they live, she says, requires change agents rid themselves of prejudices and resentments. She had to herself. Where before she wanted to tune out and cut off after a long day, she makes herself available 24/7. Her door always open — to anyone. She’s the block’s eyes, ears, voice, heart, soul.
“If you’re really looking to make a difference in people’s lives you’ve got to start with yourself,” she says. It’s about being authentic. “People can tell it. The street knows the street. They know if you’re faking, if you’re shaking, if you’re only going so far, if you don’t approve. It’s all over you.”
If we expect kids to leave gang life behind, she says, we need “to offer a better way.” Better options. Like real jobs. “That kind of encouragement is inclusive, it’s not exclusive.” She leads several youth ministries that attempt to do just that. The Omaha-based African American Empowerment Network she’s a part of has been working with gang members to get them to leave that life and placed in jobs. She co-chairs the Network’s crime prevention covenant with John Ewing.
Her outspoken Apostleship, she says, makes her “controversial.” Being a female minister, she says, makes her “unwelcome in some pulpits.” None of that stops her from proselytizing her concepts for building community as a speaker, panelist, trainer, facilitator and organizer. Her message is always the same: “Don’t just talk about it, don’t just preach about it, don’t just teach about it. Do something.”
Rev. Portia Cavitt, Clair Memorial United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave.
Newly installed Clair Memorial United Methodist Church pastor Rev. Portia Cavitt is still getting a feel for North Omaha. She was previously at Allen Chapel AME Church on the south side. She grew up in St. Louis and moved to Omaha for the first time in 2004 to pastor Allen. That followed years as “an itinerant Elder” serving churches in San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis and Hutchinson, Kan.
When Clair called on her this year, it meant changing denominations and geographic locales. She continues serving Allen until it finds a new pastor.
Pastor Portia Cavitt
She sees similarities between the two inner city sectors in terms of segregation, poverty, gang violence and education gaps. The needs in North O, she realizes, are even more pronounced. The STD-HIV/AIDS epidemic among African Americans is much on her mind. She’s active in efforts to raise awareness, promote testing and advocate safe sex. The high jobless rate found her asking employers at a Clair job fair tough questions — namely, why employers offer black applicants mostly entry level customer service-telemarketing posts that don’t pay a living wage.
Her first priority at Clair, an old-line church of 200 members atop an Ames Avenue hill, is getting to know her flock, one that’s old and weary. Members have drifted away. Her mantra to bring folks back is, “come get your hillside experience.” She wants Clair to be a “beacon of light” for an area beset by despair.
She wants believers to “come and hear a word that will encourage them, that will empower them to go out and make a difference.” That will give them a voice “to speak up and declare what is it that your community needs. I mean, is there a Neighborhood Association that would help you take pride back in your block, your home, your property, your community? That’s what I’m hoping to offer.”
For Clair or for any church to prosper, she says, there must be a multi-generational membership that includes intact families. The broken family syndrome in black culture puts a strain on community and church. Historically, she says, the black church has been an extension of the family.
Cavitt feels the black church is still the inspiration and anchor it’s always been but that as times have changed new leadership needs to emerge alongside the church.
“The people still hold their pastors in high esteem as a community leader, as a spokesman for them,” she says. “But I think people today have lost their own voice and need to find their voice. Back in the ‘60s, during the civil rights movement, yes, the black church was deemed being the center. That’s where the meetings or rallies were. The pastors spoke. But there were also community leaders. And they locked hands together and the people followed and participated.
“Now I think the people have gotten quiet and they want the leaders to do the leading. But I want my congregation to realize, yes, I might be your leader but I can only do so much as we lock hands together and go together. I’m not the only spokesperson. Some of you are more equipped and knowledgeable and outspoken than I am on some issues. We need to stand and support each other on all issues.”
Clair Memorial United Methodist Church
If the disparities are to be rectified, she believes the black church will be involved — if for no other reason than that’s where the majority of African Americans gather. It’s where pledges are made and coalitions built. “Because we still view the church as that power source,” she says. “On Sundays or during mid-week service I know the people are listening and you have an opportunity to encourage them. We try to address our violence and our unemployment issues. We’ve got to. The Bible speaks to all of that and so I have to make that come alive.”
The black church is where hope springs eternal. It’s where, she says, people “have an opportunity to band together to make a difference — as long as people can see that change is on the way. Sometimes change is slow. But as long as you’re working toward a goal, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to get to it.”
Cavitt, like her friend Apostle Vanessa Ward, sees black churches beginning to work more collaboratively but still having a ways to go. “It can get better,” Cavitt says. “We are not as cohesive as we can be.”
Again, like Ward, she feels being a strong female minister poses problems for some — making unity difficult. “We have to embrace each other and respect each other regardless if I’m a female or not. I don’t have time to play games. I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I mean, you don’t have to respect me for my sex but you should respect me for what I represent. I’m in a main line denomination at a major church. I can be a radical at times but after all of these years I have so much to offer that I can’t go backwards, I can only continue to move forward.”
The fact that Clair, which had a female minister once before, chose her is all the validation she needs. “For this church to lift my name and desire to have me says a lot about my ministry here in Omaha. They wanted a pastor like me.”
The single and childless Cavitt says “it would be nice to come home to someone who takes care of me but I don’t need that because my members are my family.”
Rev. Jeremiah McGhee, Mt. Sinai Church, 4504 Bedford Ave.
The core needs of Omaha’s black community have changed little since the civil rights era. The black church has been there for the whole ride. Since the ‘70s Rev. Jeremiah McGhee’s worked the front lines to address inequities. He says churches play a vital role in this work but have their limitations. He notes, pastors can’t be experts in everything and seldom can a problem be tackled in isolation from others.
Thus, any serious discussion of community needs must encompass multiple factors from a broad range of informed perspectives.
“We gotta find jobs, we gotta help people get better educated, we gotta help people with their health problems, we gotta help right down the line,” he says.
For churches or other organizations to face these matters alone, he says, “it gets overwhelming.” The best-intentioned efforts then tend to “fizzle out.” That’s why he’s encouraged by some new initiatives, especially the African American Empowerment Network, that target these issues through expert-based coalitions or covenants. “We’ve got our best and brightest leading,” he says. par
Ministers like himself and churches like his own, the non-denominational Mt. Sinai, a 70-member congregation he pastors, are part of the Network. The community-wide effort, he says, promotes public-private, religious-secular partnerships, thus taking the pressure off churches in an era when a shrinking social safety net finds churches offering services and programs far beyond what they once did.
Mt. Sinai’s typical of most churches today in providing things like an after-school program, a computer lab, a pantry or a homeless ministry, et cetera. It’s not like it was when he grew up, when “we were one big family — the neighborhood, the village. Because of that brokenness today, a lot more has fallen on the church.”
He says strengthening families is a must. He also says churches can be relieved of responses better suited to others as more community-based solutions develop.
“That makes it easy for us,” says McGhee, who’s married and a father of 10, “because we don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore.”
McGhee’s led Mt. Sinai to do “extensive outreach to the homeless.” It began with church volunteers feeding the homeless downtown. It expanded to sheltering people, first in members’ homes, then at the Colonial Hotel. It grew into New Creations, a five-building, 28-apartment complex converted to transitional housing for homeless men, women and families. New Creations operated from 1996 until earlier this year, when Mt. Sinai’s partnership with another non-profit failed. McGhee’s looking to restructure and reopen New Creations.
All along, he says, black churches “gave attention” to the very concerns the Empowerment Network focuses on “but we lacked experience, we lacked expertise.” Then there’s the question of time and resources and pastors spreading themselves or their churches too thin. Not to mention the resistance some put up to anything smacking of religion.
He says the black church’s traditional social justice mission has never wavered but is perhaps less visible or recognized now because its emissary may not wear a collar. “The church is there, it’s just not the pastor — it’s a member of the congregation that’s there,” he says. “As pastors we’re encouraging our people to get involved in politics, education, economics. We’ve got sophisticated, educated members of our congregations that go do those things.”
Wherever McGhee is involved he makes no bones where he’s coming from.
“We don’t want to be Bible-thumpers,” he says, “but I’m going to live my faith. You can’t expect me not to be who I am or to act the way I believe just because I’ve got a lot of people around me who maybe believe different or don’t believe at all.”
In the end, any coalition must put aside competing egos, agendas and philosophies and attend to what needs doing.
“The street’s dirty, let’s sweep. We need houses built, let’s build ‘em. We’ve got kids that are undereducated, what are going to do about that? And so as we approach those things in that way across the board we’re finding a greater acceptance,” McGhee says.
He said he and pastors of different faiths are getting better at “building relationships.” Fewer turf wars. More cooperation. More compromise.
“They listen to me, I listen to them, and we manage to work at it a lot stronger and to keep focused on the prize.”
He says it’s no accident the Network, for example, made faith the first of its 13 covenants or that members work hard at building alliances. Many steering committee-leadership team members “are very strong in faith,” he says. “They’re believers.” Some are clergy, some are not.
“We have decided we will be solutions-oriented. I have never been more impressed with African Americans that have come together who want to work together, who like each other,” he says.
All this partnering is bringing black churches in closer contact. His church was one of several on the north side to collaborate on a summer youth program at Adams Park Recreation Center. McGhee heads the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA) and says that group and other black faith-based groups are increasingly “coming together. We’re talking about things regularly. We’re keeping each other informed. We’ve got good relationships and out of those grow commitments. Now when we hear anything about what’s going on, we’re connecting.”
“Before we’d seem to come together and we’d kind of spin our wheels awhile and in the end a little got done but not as hard-hitting as today,” he says. “We’re determined. This group of pastors is working together. We share the same interests. We live in the same community. We’re pastoring the same class of folk — that are struggling. Divided we fall. We can’t make it if we don’t begin to put our heads together and work smart and that’s what we’re doing now.”
He says it’s vital churches fulfill their historical leadership mission. If churches are to lead by example, he says, they must be open. The same with the IMA, which he acknowledges has been resistant to women members.
“We’re learning to get past that,” he says, because a welcoming church excludes no one. “It’s men, it’s women, it’s interracial, its intergenerational, its interdenominational. As pastors we need to lead the way. We need the congregations and the community to see us leading and taking charge in that.”
Rev. LeRoy Adams, Morning Star Baptist Church, 2019 Burdette St.
Morning Star Baptist Church represents the dichotomy of Omaha’s black community. Its magnificent, multi-million dollar facility bespeaks a place of worship that’s well attended and supported. With 1,500 members and growing, Morning Star is a success story. Its pastor, Rev. LeRoy Adams, a rising star in the Baptist Church nationally, in demand as an inspirational speaker and leader.
The 83-year-old institution’s a neighborhood anchor flanked by two more community stalwarts — Conestoga Magnet Center and the Hope Center. Nice new homes on North 20th Street are nearby.
Morning Star Baptist Church
Like most of North O, the area’s basically safe. The normal rhythms of daily life unwind in well-kept neighborhoods with families, businesses, schools, churches. It’s also true that routine is interrupted at times by gun violence. An illicit drug-sex trade operates openly. The perception from the outside looking in is that all of North O’s a war zone or wasteland. Not so. However, the reality is that gun violence and other social ills are persistent problems. While not unique to that area they are predominantly centered there due to a high concentration of conditions — poverty, unemployment, gang activity — that cultivate them.
Adams, a Buffalo, N.Y. native who’s married with two kids, dislikes how the media disproportionately highlights problems over success stories in his community.
“Sometimes I get very perturbed about that because we know what’s happening here. There’s the good and there’s the bad. But we get this stereotypical negative view that North Omaha is a place of reproach. That it’s a mission field for the churches in West Omaha to come. There’s no balance. There’s no appreciation for this being a very large area that’s also doing great things.”
Like it or not, shootings on the north side get reported. He and his church hardly ignore the violence there. He’s made the issue a priority of Concerned Clergy of North Omaha, which he heads. He advises Mayor Mike Fahey on ways to intervene in the gun culture. Morning Star provides youths positive alternatives to street life. His church organized the summer sleepover program at the Adams Park rec center. The rev leads prayer marches and vigils. It’s through efforts like these black churches act as stabilizing forces every day — a fact he feels gets overlooked.
As he’s well aware, solidarity and indignation only go so far. Public-private responses that give kids alternatives to gang-street life are needed.
He agrees with friend and fellow clergyman Rev. Jeremiah McGhee that the black church has much help in the social justice struggle today. “That particular burden is not just upon us anymore,” says Adams, “it is shared by many.” Rather than diminish the church, he contends sharing the load with other institutions enhances the church’s work and increases its reach.
He says collaboration’s healthy as long as “we don’t forget and ignore the influence of the church. Our history will remind us our church has always been the foundation of change in America.” Whether a local effort like the Empowerment Network or a national one, he adds, “it comes right back to the church. Our history has always been the church. Our hope has been inspired by the church.”
An institution the size of Morning Star can also afford to extend its reach in ways little imagined in the past. For example, Adams says his church is planning to build a family life or wellness center with a range of programs, activities and services for black seniors. Additionally, he says, Morning Star’s looking “to be a little bit more entrepreneurial by creating jobs in our community” through such church-owned businesses as a book store, a restaurant and a beauty/barbershop.
This kind of economic reinvestment in the community, he says, “provides us a foothold beyond the norm” for Omaha but common among large churches in other cities. “That’s kind of where we want to lead our congregation, so that we can be a dominant presence in our community. I’m kind of excited about it.”
Adams sees the black church enjoying a renaissance today. “Not only are we growing numerically but we’re seeing this diversity,” he says. Morning Star, which he describes as “progressive,” is an illustration of these trends. It’s more than doubled its rolls since he arrived nine years ago and attracts a mixed house of worshipers by race, ethnicity, income, affiliation — from a wide geographic area.
Pastor LeRoy Adams with wife Traci
The black church is also a model for other faith groups.
“We’re seeing many other denominations taking some of our culture” — gospel music, praise and worship, call-and-response — “and adopting it to their style of worship, and that’s gratifying to see that,” says Adams.
Omaha has many black churches but he feels the bigger ones like Morning Star and Salem Baptist Church too often overshadow their smaller counterparts.
“There are several others that are doing a great job. Every church and every minister that serves in some capacity is important.”
Unlike McGhee, he sees Omaha churches “yet divided” denominationally and geographically. “There is a splinterization that exists in many ways, in many forms, in many fashions and Omaha is too small of a city to be that way,” he says. “Whether it has to do with race, reconciliation or dealing with poverty we have the persons and resources here to invest in making Omaha what she can be.” Now it’s just a matter of getting those stakeholders “involved in changing Omaha.”
Selwyn Bachus, Salem Baptist Church, 3131 Lake St.
Salem Baptist Church is a rock in northeast Omaha. The landmark owns the largest membership, more than 3,000, and most glorious worship center of any black church in the state. In a metaphorical sense African American leaders here hope to build upon its solid foundation and that of other institutions and organizations in the area by implementing strategies that, if successful there, will revive an area smack dab in the heart of the black community.
Rev. Selwyn Bachus has pastored Salem only since 2005 but he owns a long history with the 86-year-old church dating back to his childhood in Kansas City, Mo., where his minister father was a friend of then-Salem pastor J.C. Wade. Bachus accompanied his parents on visits to Omaha and Salem, which became like a second home. That background gives Bachus, who’s married with two children, a deep appreciation for Salem’s legacy.
Pastor Selwyn Bachus
He came here after stints in Virginia and Ohio. The challenges and opportunities posed by Omaha’s inner city are similar to those of urban black communities elsewhere. When the head of Omaha’s most prosperous, influential black institution talks, people listen, and what Bachus says bodes well for a community that’s struggled to find sustainable economic development. Decades of instability have marked the area since the late ‘60s. But Bachus sees a turnaround in the offing and attributes the promise of better times ahead to a confluence of shared interests.
“I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never been able to see the community unified in such a way. And so that excites me to see that people can bring to the table their efforts and say clearly that we want to do what’s best for the community as a whole.”
He refers to Omaha’s African American Empowerment Network and to parallel initiatives underway here whose leaders “bring expertise and experience” to focused efforts aimed at raising the black community.
Bachus is active in the Network, whose Empower Omaha covenants encompass everything from improving educational achievement to spurring economic development to creating affordable homes to supporting black businesses. The Network looks to apply all 13 covenants to the area Salem resides in.
That section is slated as a target or test site because there are anchors in place in Salem and in the neighboring Urban League of Nebraska, Charles Drew Health Center, Salem Village senior residential community and Aframerican Book Store, among others, and in the stately Miami Heights homes. A planned redevelopment of the Pleasantview projects is on the drawing board.
Even with these stabilizers, residents experience poverty, unemployment, violence, health issues and a myriad of other problems in disproportionate numbers. The Network seeks to use existing anchors as building blocks to strengthen the area overall and impact those specific inequities. Success there could be replicated throughout the community to realize the larger revival of North O envisioned.
Salem’s already made huge commitments. In 2000 its $7.5 million worship-education center opened and that’s spurred added redevelopment in the neighborhood. Its multiple ministries reach out to people across the board. It’s planning a community development center. Still only in the conceptual stages, the facility may include an early childhood development program, a gym, a stage, classrooms and a pantry. Bachus is encouraged that fellow stakeholders in the community have expressed support for the center and the various programs and activities it can host.
The synergy Bachus sees is not a moment too soon in his opinion.
“African Americans in Omaha are at a crisis point,” he says. “We’re at a crossroads. There’s extreme possibilities. There’s great possibility for greatness in our community but we have to do it now.”
The World-Herald’s reporting on the extent of poverty in Omaha’s black community, he says, “gave us a dose of reality that was not very palatable. I think it really awakened something within us.” For Bachus it’s unconscionable “a city as wealthy as Omaha” can allow the hypocrisy of “five Fortune 500 companies almost literally within a stone’s throw of a poverty stricken community.”
He expresses dismay “at seeing some of the progress made over the past 40 years begin to erode.” He says that loss, too, has been a wake up call to action. “If not now, never,” is the mantra. The time for rhetoric, he says, is over. It’s time to act.
“No longer will we talk about the problem without seeking to alleviate the problem,” he says. “If we don’t fix the problem we’re a part of the problem itself. Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Don’t protest or criticize if you’re not part of the solution.”
Salem Baptist Church
Bachus says coming out of the civil rights experience blacks “looked for a leader to motivate us and give us a vision,” ala a King or Jackson, “and I think what we’ve come to realize is there’s no one leader at this point that’s going to be able to do that. And so as a result we’ve seen the effectiveness of collaborating as leaders.”
Barack Obama may prove a catalyst for sweeping change but there’s a sense African Americans are more diffused politically-socially-religiously than assumed. Even someone as dynamic as Obama may only get the support of a segment of blacks when it comes to social policies or programs.
The days when a single figure, elected or unelected, can marshal a nationwide movement may be over. The days when the black church can be out front leading the charge may be past. But Bachus echoes his colleagues in saying the church is still a bastion of black culture, it just operates in a more collegial, cooperative, community-oriented way. That’s why Bachus and his fellow ministers now partner with a broad coalition of public and private sector figures and entities.\par
“It’s a collaborative effort that brings persons and expertise to the table to allow us to do what we do even more effectively.”
He’s optimistic about progress being made behind the scenes by the Empowerment Network and other efforts. He says the strength of these approaches is that clergy, activists and social service professionals are working with strategically-placed public-private lay leaders in key indicators like education, employment, economic development, housing. The church is not taking a back seat but walking hand in hand with change agents, many of whom are leaders at their churches.
Clergy or not, Bachus says the blacks taking the lead in Omaha “have a sense of calling, a sense of direction. It doesn’t come from the world, it comes from God.”
If the black community is to arise, he’s sure it will be a faith-inspired resurrection.
More Shepherds for the Faith and the Cause
©by Leo Adam Biga
Fr. Ken Vavrina, St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant St.
African American Catholics comprise a minority within a minority. Historically. Omaha’s home base for this small but persistent segment has been St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, whose black namesake and gospel music-infused services reflect black culture.
After decades serving the poorest of the poor on Native American reservations, in India and in Africa, Father Ken Vavrina ministers to Omaha’s most disadvantaged residents as St. Benedict’s pastor. He knows The Hood well. He pastored at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the late ‘60s-early ‘70s. He knew Black Panthers. He was on Nprth 24th Street when it burned during the riots.
“It has not come back since then,” he says.
After serving St. Richard Church he took over St. Ben’s in 2007 at his request. Before him, assigned priests lived off-site for years, leaving a void and disconnect with parishioners and neighbors. Vavrina, a Clarkson, Neb. native, insisted he reside at the rectory. “You gotta live here. You gotta live in your community,” he says.
A service at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church
His small parish today is at “ground zero.” Yes, there are pockets of stability and revitalization but this zone’s depressed by poverty, prostitution, drugs, gangs, gun violence and scant economic development. Within view of his rectory is an open market for crack cocaine and human trafficking. On one side you buy dope. On the other, sex. Whatever your fix, suppliers stand ready. Walking a visitor outside, Vavrina points to “the girls” working the streets down the block. Parish members counsel some of these young women in the hope they’ll make better choices.
“A lot of our young boys and some girls are being sucked into the street, and they’re good kids,” he says, “but they have to develop the discipline to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits. We need to be able to help these kids have that discipline.”
He’s sending a message that we “won’t be intimidated by the violence” and he’s putting in place mentoring programs that impact young people where they live.
An Adopt-a-Family program matches at-risk families headed by single mothers with volunteers from metro area churches. With the right advice and support, the goal is to turn clients’ lives around. The program grew out of St. Ben’s ongoing support of a neighborhood family impacted by gun violence. The church has also rededicated the Bryant Center, a once popular recreation facility on its grounds whose outdoor basketball courts had grown largely dormant and run down until recent efforts to refurbish them. A new summer/fall hoops league with coaches, referees, strict supervision and police security has taken off.
For projects like these to work Vavrina knows ecumenical partnerships are needed and therefore he’s formed broad alliances across the public-private-Christian spectrum. For example, he often works with clergy from area Protestant churches.
Fr. Tom Fangman, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 2207 Wirt St.
The Sacred Heart Catholic Church congregation is marked by racial, ethnic, socioeconomic diversity. Like St. Ben’s, Sacred Heart embraces gospel music and black religious iconography to reflect the predominant culture it inhabits.
The church operates one of a dwindling number of inner city private schools. Sacred Heart Elementary School serves African American students from largely low income families. Few of the students are Catholic but their parents prize “a faith-based education,” says church pastor and school president Father Tom Fangman. The school’s much-copied Life Skills, Building Blocks for Success Program aims to prepare students for real world experiences.
Support comes from CUES or Christian Urban Education Services, a nonprofit whose board members of different races and faiths endorse the school’s mission and track record. Fangman says 98 percent of Sacred Heart grads complete high school compared to 72 percent of students on average from other area schools.
Sacred Heart Church
The church also serves the community via its Heart Ministry Center, which provides needy residents with clothes, household goods and food. Its pantry allows clients to self-select their own groceries. Education programs are also offered. Youth-adult ed classes cover everything from nutrition to early pregnancy to literacy.
“It’s a hub for outreach,” Fangman says. “I mean, things are just constantly happening there. We’re forming all these great relationships with the community. I would put this up with just about any social service agency in North Omaha.”
Partnerships abound, including cooperative ventures with other churches, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Fangman says Sacred Heart provides a consistent presence in a neighborhood sorely lacking stability. “I believe we’re an anchor,” he says. “We’ve been here a long time and so we have a history. And the people in the community know the school’s making a big difference in lots of kids’ lives, which I think brings hope.”
The Omaha native’s exactly where he wants to be. “I always wanted to do inner city ministry,” he says. “It’s a ministry I find fulfilling every day.”
Rev. Johnice Orduna, New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt St.
“I’m one of those born-and-bred called-to people, because I never knew anything but the church,” says Rev. Johnice Orduna, an Omaha native whose life’s been one long faith journey.
Orduna, a licensed/certified missionary, started out a Baptist. She’s ministered in Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian churches on the north side. One of her Nebraska Synod assignments was at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, where she brought the perspective of “a crusader” and the reputation of “a dangerous black woman” to a congregation once resistant to interracial fellowship. She did formal anti-racism training for the Lutheran Church.
As a mission developer she formed a congregation that became Fontenelle Community Church. Her ministry reached out to youths and families in crisis.
Semi-retired today, she’s now filling a temporary post at New Life Presbyterian Church, which lost its pastor. She’s doing “supply preaching” until a new pastor’s found. New Life’s a blending of the former Calvin and Fairview Presbyterian Churches, whose congregations were all-black and all-white, respectively. When the inner city parishes faced closure due to declining membership they merged, and a mixed race church was born.
Racial diversity in the pews is a rarity. She says, “We gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the year. If we can put our barriers down and not operate in our little heresies that say, ‘My way’s the only way to get to God,’ then we really could enrich each other.
“We haven’t gotten there. It’s too safe to do it the other way.”
New Life Presbyterian Church
She admires New Life, saying it’s a congregation “where people just come in and be who they are. I mean, they have their tiffs. We all do. But it’s never a gamebreaker. These folks have made a decision — We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this, regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes. If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts. There would be so much that we could empower ourselves to do.”
In her opinion, churches get bogged down in a survival mode of maintaining the status quo. She advocates getting outside the four walls to do evangelization.
“Our neighborhoods are lost. We’ve got kids killing each other in the street who have no clue what the inside of a church looks like,” she says. “That’s where you have to be — literally out on the streets. There’s a fearlessness required. You can’t go in your house and lock the door and keep yourself safe. You gotta be willing to go to the 7-Eleven parking lot where the kids are and greet them with dignity and respect and then begin to let them know who you are and who Jesus is.
“I think Jesus is as transforming as ever but it’s how you deliver the message. You cannot assume anymore that kids are going to have heard any of that.”
Orduna rues the loss of intimacy that once permeated the black community. She believes the black church is not as unified as it was in the civil rights struggle but remains critical for instilling or restoring a “sense of community” in neighborhoods.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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