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Church comes to defense of inner city


President Clinton’s recent tour of poverty areas in the United States called attention to the millions of Americans, many of them in increasingly deserted inner cities, who have not been able to cash in on the booming economy.

The Cleveland diocese was ahead of its time. More than five years ago, the diocese, recognizing the growing plight of those left behind, undertook a plan envisioned by Bishop Anthony M. Pilla that aimed at engaging the church as a kind of moral defender of the inner city.

At the time, Pilla openly wondered whether the split between suburban haves and inner city have-nots was so great that the church could still be called “one church, one family.”

The plan advanced to deal with that split, “The Church in the City,” seeks to involve as many as possible in increasing the quality of life of all throughout the diocese. That means a home for the homeless, a job for the jobless and a good educational start to life for the millions of Americans currently deprived of that central advantage. It also means an experience of mutual care, compassion and creativity: the Godlike dimension and meaning of all truly human life.

For more than a decade, sociologists like Robert Bellah have been warning us that an experience of this dimension is increasingly under threat. Pilla’s plan is about joining with people of all churches and faiths, together with business and government, to reverse that tide.

I had seen in earlier visits to Cleveland much enthusiasm for the plan. But five years down the road, is it beginning to achieve its goals? That is the question I put last year to some leading Catholics during a visit to Cleveland.

Mark Stefanski is owner of the Third Savings Bank, with assets worth $6 billion and profits in 1997 of $60 million. The bank is located in a rundown area in the near east side of the city. Even before the Pilla plan, Stefanski had decided not to join the exodus of firms out of the city to the suburbs. Instead, he decided to reinforce the bank’s involvement in the area by erecting a new building.

Then on a Sunday in 1993, at a parish Mass, the pastor read Pilla’s letter announcing the plan. “As I sat there,” Stefanski told me, “I realized that in essence it’s exactly what we were doing: restoring a certain part of the city by building and creating jobs. What a wonderful opportunity to sit down with him and see what he thinks of our plans!”

As with others I met, Stefanski spoke of a certain chemistry that took hold when people became involved in a plan that appeared to be able to make a difference in the inner city.

One element of this chemistry was a better focus on the size, nature and threat of the problems. “The cities are getting worse,” Stefanski told me. “The gap between the well-off and those not [well-off] is getting wider. And when that occurs, history shows there’s devastation. I think it’s a real threat.” Becoming part of a city plan makes you more conscious of the longer and wider context.

Stefanski, for one, increased his personal involvement and the commitment of his business to developing the surrounding area.

His involvement also broadened to include the mayor, other city leaders, community leaders and smaller church groups.

Those interviewed stressed that Pilla offered not a battle plan but a vision that, once understood, most found wise and inspiring. As the plan moved on and more people became involved, Cleveland began to demonstrate how the church can operate a long way from the traditional role of an American bishop working predominantly with priests on an agenda that can be narrowly sectarian.

Tom Perciak, president of the Strongsville Savings Bank, has a similar experience of Pilla’s plan. Before the plan he had wanted to get the bank involved in some kind of community development project. Pilla’s plan, he said, “identified that we have to maintain the nucleus in the inner city. If the trunk of a city is dying, your branches will eventually fall off.”

In his view, the plan has become a rallying point for cooperation among agencies, religious and civic. Perciak’s parish, St. Hyacinth, is doing a significant amount of housing renovation in the area. “The plan has helped all of us to stop and think how we can work together for the whole area, not just for a little enclave.”

Denis Guritza, an environmental developer, came up with an interesting image for the kind of leadership Pilla provided. “Years ago, I belonged to a Catholic parish in Canada that was the focal point for the whole of the spiritual and economic leadership of the community. Why? Because there was a kitchen table in the rectory. It didn’t matter whether you were a Catholic or not, a farmer, an agrarian or a banker. Any issue could be discussed. We’d work out how to confront and change them. That’s the leadership Pilla offers,” Guritza said.

The plan was drafted by two priests of the diocese and by Tom Bier, an experienced researcher in urban development and housing who said that what is happening in this region “is what is happening all across the United States: building our new outer edges with the consequent abandonment of the urban core.” He believes that because of the amount of money involved in real estate investments, changing the pattern is extremely difficult. A diocese is one of the few organizations outside government that is fully regional and thus stands as one of the few organizations that might broker an eventual change in policy.

While the value of Pilla’s plan is in the working out of the details in the local arena, a natural question is whether his vision can be transported to other areas. In the view of the people I’ve spoken with in Cleveland, any bishop with vision and a “kitchen table” model of leadership could implement such a plan.

“We want to be a church-for-others slowly turning into the church-with-others,” wrote a theologian a few years ago. Recently I’ve met many other bishops who want that, too.

Benedictine Fr. Edmund Flood writes from Ealing Abbey in London and is one of the authors of "Breakthrough? 2000," a parish program for the new millennium largely inspired by the example in Cleveland and by the Renew program in which small groups for discussion and prayer are formed throughout a parish.

National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999