|Mary Nelson, President Emeritus of Bethel New Life in Chicago|
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way
Or Never Give Up Just Because We’re Older and Just a Small Group
By the Rev. Connie Yost
April 5, 2017
It began in Denver, in July of 2016, when Southwest Airline computers crashed and my flight home to Portland was cancelled. An hour and a half wait in line had me rebooked on a flight out the next evening, and an apologetic $200 voucher was issued, good only on a future, Southwest Airline flight.
Never one to turn down a good coupon, discount or voucher, that $200 weighed heavily on me. Where to go? Finally, I decided to tour parts of the Midwest I had skipped over (or flown over) in previous trips. My trip began in Detroit, wound through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, ending in Chicago.
Between booking the trip and taking the trip, I had gotten more involved with the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty in Portland, specifically researching programs that have effectively moved people and communities out of poverty. I remembered studying the Chicago-based work of Bethel New Life when I was in seminary some years back. I was in luck – Mary Nelson, one of Bethel’s founders and executive director for many years was still living in the community, and she would be happy to talk with me and show me around.
Mary’s email said that I should take the “L”, Chicago’s elevated subway, green line west to Cicero, where I would transfer to the #54 bus going north 7 stops to Thomas. Then, it would be a short walk to Bethel at 4950 W. Thomas. It’s complicated, she said. No worries, I replied.
I was on the green line headed west when I began to worry. A man sat down across from me and started trying to put a dollar bill in the pocket of the young man next to him. The young man looked straight ahead and never said a word while all of this was going on. When the Pulaski stop came up, the older man told the younger man, “This is your stop.” Again, the young man looked straight ahead and said nothing. The next stop was Cicero, and as I got up to get off, both of the men also got up. Uh oh, I thought, what if they follow me?
As it turned out, they weren’t interested in me. I felt pretty conspicuous though, as I noticed I was the only white person around. Me, a little old white lady in big ole bad Chicago! I thought that if it was truly dangerous for me to be doing this trip on public transportation, Mary would have said so, right? I hope?
I had some time so I popped into the corner Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee, which was run by a cheery Hispanic man playing Mexican music. The patrons there were mostly black, but there was one young white man as well as a couple of Hispanic folks ordering coffee and donuts. This sure ain’t Portland!
I arrived at Bethel, flabbergasted at the size of it! I had no idea that their offices were in a former 465-bed hospital and nursing school, now a senior independent and assisted living facility they purchased and rehabbed. Mary, having retired as Bethel’s executive director in 2006, lived in an apartment there, and still had an office in the old nursing school section. She was nimble and jaunty in her clogs and patterned loose pants, not nearly as old looking as I thought she would be. She had come out of retirement to be the volunteer executive director of the World Parliament of Religions, organizing their last world conference in 2015. Still vibrant, she also serves on a number of national boards.
Mary told me the story of Bethel New Life, which was born out of Bethel Lutheran Church where her brother became Pastor in 1965. Three days later, riots broke out.
In 1965, Bethel Lutheran Church had 35 elderly white members. By then, the surrounding community was overwhelmingly black. White flight had accelerated over the years, but with the riots, the community shut down completely. Businesses left, banks left, landlords stopped maintaining buildings. Residents found there were few jobs nearby, and even those with a good income couldn’t get a home loan in this “risky” neighborhood. By 1979, the area was losing 200 housing units to demolition each year. There was no major grocery store, few good doctors, no local bank and too few jobs. West Garfield was in a tailspin, and almost no one from the outside seemed interested in saving it.
Yet a new community organization found that there were plenty of resources available within this worn-out neighborhood. There were local people willing to put abandoned buildings back together again, families who pitched in to start a food co-op, older men who would comb parks and alleys for aluminum cans worth a penny or two each. There were church members and neighbors who couldn’t spare much, but who were willing to give a little to see their community grow again. There was hope, the will to rebuild. And that was enough to start.
I am sure that those 35 members of Bethel New Life never imagined what their faith and hope would start in motion. With a commitment to be of service in their community, they opened their doors to the neighborhood. Pastor Nelson went door to door and invited people to come in. They opened the church to black groups, started an afterschool program, and provided a convocation for their local teachers, most of whom did not live in the neighborhood, teaching them the realities of the people’s lives.
By 1979, it was clear that there was a housing crisis. By then, Bethel Lutheran had 70 members who voted to do a housing ministry, though no one knew how to do it. They just knew it needed to be done. “All we knew about housing,” said one church member, “was that it was long and hard and complicated.”
They went to the bank and applied for their first loan, and when the bank asked for collateral, they voted to mortgage the church building. And when they ran out of money, they used their personal credit cards to buy the things they needed to rehab the buildings.
Fast forward 10 years, and they had grown into a $4.5 million per year organization with 350 employees.
In their first three decades, Bethel built 1,200 affordable homes, advocated for social reforms, provided in-home care to the elderly, welcomed people home from prison to find legal employment, provided programs for neighborhood youth, were instrumental in the development of community investment vehicles such as the New Market Tax Credit program and led efforts at the local and national level in community development and transformation.
Today, Bethel is focused on connecting the economy of the West Side to the larger region, improving the capacity of the West Side to benefit from investment, and creating opportunities to bring individuals and families out of poverty through a focus on education and jobs creation.
Mary drove me around the neighborhood in her Prius, showing me that first 3-flat building that the church members risked their church building and personal credit for. Can you imagine doing that for your community? It was the risk that solidified the commitment. Everyone was “all in,” and after that first success the neighbors started asking how it was done, and people started to want to live in their buildings. On every block, Mary showed me apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes, and single family homes that they had rehabbed or built new. She showed me the parks they had built and the very large park they reclaimed from drug dealers. In segregated Chicago, this black community still struggles with poverty, crime, poor schools, drugs and lack of services, but Bethel New Life has literally brought hope and healing to the community.
The Bethel approach centers on three fundamental concepts:
Self Help – Bethel doesn’t give anything away; it offers opportunities and a helping hand. All participants earn their way forward. Some invest “sweat equity” to earn the down payment on a house; others put effort into job training, personal development, or community activities.
Partnerships – The scope of Bethel’s work is too broad for the organization to work alone. Its partners in the endeavor include neighborhood residents, church members, government officials, citywide coalitions, local businesses, foundations, and major corporations.
Wholistic Development – Bethel pursues progress on many levels at once, working to develop whole persons, whole families, whole communities. Good housing and well-paid jobs are central to building a healthy community, but so are healthcare, good libraries and schools, and even such intangibles as good parks and a sense of local history. By addressing root causes in a comprehensive way, the wholistic approach creates a foundation on which to build a stronger community.
Even when they first started out in 1979, it was clear that housing wasn’t enough. “We came to realize that just providing affordable housing wasn’t enough – that you couldn’t pay your rent if you didn’t have a job, and that you couldn’t hold a job if you were sick or had a sick mother or father at home,” says Mary Nelson.
Take a look at Bethel’s website to see everything they are currently doing. Although their housing now focuses on seniors only, they are doing plenty in community development and education.
 Barry, Patrick, Rebuilding the Walls: A Nuts and Bolts Guide to the Community Development Methods of Bethel New Life, Inc. in Chicago, 1989, 5.
 Ibid, 6.
 Ibid, 49.
 Barry, 6-7.
 Ibid, 22.
Copyright 2019 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.