If you had told me 20 years ago that in 2023 I would be training graduate-level community development professionals in the Pacific Northwest to do economic development, I would have wondered where my life went wrong. I was enrolled in a mission aviation program at Bible college, after all. The plan was to raise support and go be a missionary overseas, flying planes in and out of geographically isolated areas in support of the missionaries there. But to pay off my student loans after graduation, I worked at nonprofits in Portland doing refugee resettlement and offering services for people experiencing homelessness, and I couldn’t help but notice how much need was around me.
When I was in high school youth group back in the ’90s, we used to go on mini mission trips to downtown Seattle and hand out New Testaments to people experiencing homelessness. We were each given a stack of one-dollar McDonald’s coupons and encouraged to identify verses meaningful to us and place coupons in those pages. Even then I felt like there was a step missing. It’s embarrassing to admit, but it took years of working with refugees, people experiencing homelessness, at-risk youth, adults with disabilities, and terrified people getting laid off during the Great Recession for me to learn one simple truth. I was motivated to love my neighbor as myself, but I needed to love them according to what they needed rather than what I wanted to give them. That realization untethered me from the type of service I thought I might do and led me to a more recent realization: Christians are well positioned to love our neighbors through community economic development. But many of us have not yet seen the opportunity.
I did end up going overseas for a number of years, serving with the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. However, those needs back at home seemed to be getting more severe. Eventually, my wife and I felt called to come home and serve. We have been in Tacoma for the past 10 years where I have largely focused on grassroots economic development. Now I am the director of the School of Global Studies at Northwest University where we are launching a new master’s degree in community economic development.
Christians & Economic Development
When I talk to Christians about getting involved in economic development, the initial reaction is usually more or less the same: “yuck.” But once they give it a chance, it does not take them long to get excited about doing this type of work. Because doing economic development the right way is fundamentally about relationship-building, which is right up our alley.
There isn’t necessarily a wrong way to do economic development, but what the sector often does overlooks a significant opportunity. Economic development mostly works on the business side of a community, often trying to attract businesses from other cities to their city with tools such as lax labor laws or tax incentives. Some economic development boards go further and try to support local entrepreneurs to start new businesses and create local jobs, but those are few and far between. Community economic development is about connecting a local workforce with local economic opportunities or preparing that workforce to adapt to changes.
A tech company specializing in energy management, for instance, might respond to a tax incentive and relocate to a different city. If the workforce in that new city has historically been employed by a manufacturing plant that has closed and been offshored to another country, what will happen in that community? Are third-generation manufacturing workers in their 50s or 60s going to get retrained with four-year tech degrees to take those new jobs? Most likely, the employer will bring in an outside workforce, which raises the cost of living for everyone who was already there, and then we have gentrification. But the people responsible for economic development in that city have done their jobs well and will be honored and promoted. There is a piece of the puzzle missing. The churches in that community will try to meet the need after the fact, but many faith communities are wondering what more they could have done and what they can do moving forward.
The “yuck” impulse comes from a largely unspoken uneasiness Christians have toward talking about money and wealth. Jesus does warn us about the dangers of money and reminds us we cannot serve two masters. He scolds the Pharisees for devouring widows’ houses and Paul lists greed among the sins to avoid. Today, the prosperity gospel combined with America’s greed problem can make this sector repulsive to anyone doing grassroots community work. But I think we need to remember that while serving money is indeed evil, serving God by helping our neighbors develop economic stability is not.
How and why I do community development is first and foremost in reaction to Jesus’ clarification that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Whenever I feel stuck or lost in ambiguity, I go back to those commandments. How do I move forward in a way that loves my neighbor? I feel the warnings about idolatry and love of money, and I witness fellow brothers and sisters in Christ celebrating greed as a virtue, so I am cautious as I work with anything economic. But our Cascadian neighbors are in desperate need of love and that love needs to show up in tangible ways. It needs to involve our economics.
I could list all the issues in my community in Tacoma: the struggle to pay rent, youth gun violence, substance abuse, etc. The challenges in my community probably mirror those in your community. A common denominator is that most of our strategies require a good job as the outcome, or a living wage is needed to sustain other outcomes we achieve with the community. Women coming out of a domestic violence situation need to earn sufficient wages to avoid another relationship that could turn abusive. People coming out of jail or prison need a good job to avoid recidivism. Parents need sufficient financial resources to meet the many expensive needs children have and to have the time and emotional health to be resilient, patient, and engaged.
For example, I often encounter single moms who have survived domestic violence. They might get into a wonderful multi-year assistance program that includes housing, food, some job training, and mental health services for them and their children. But afterward, if they can only find jobs that pay close to minimum wage, how is that multi-year investment going to be sustained? Too often those moms end up back in other abusive relationships because of financial struggles, and the cycle starts over again.
What if relatively early in her time with the assistance program, that organization did an assessment of her job history and competencies? That assessment might yield a lifelong interest in healthcare or medicine. Then, what if that organization had relationships with local churches and could pair that single mom with a mentor (thoroughly vetted and equipped) who had a successful career in that sector and could help her understand the jobs and what you need to get those jobs? That mentor could help her find a training program at a local college while she is still receiving services and maybe the church could even “adopt” her to help her complete the program, attain a job, and transition into stable housing afterward. That’s community economic development, and it also looks a lot like the ministries our churches excel at providing.
Using What We Already Have
In 2015 I was managing strategic workforce development initiatives in Pierce County. My job was to simultaneously build new collaborative projects and raise money to fund them. But I had kind of a radical idea. It didn’t look to me like we needed more money. All the pieces I needed to do good work were already around the community. This didn’t sound right to a lot of people, so I built a pilot program.
I went to the Port of Tacoma, gathered some human resources folks, and we compiled a list of competencies required for three living wage jobs they struggled to fill. I took that list to one of our excellent technical colleges in Tacoma and we pulled pieces from existing certificate programs into one 10-week curriculum. We took that back to the HR representatives who confirmed they would hire someone who completed it.
That summer, Tacoma Public Schools piloted the Tacoma Tideflats Certificate and 18 credit-deficient high schoolers signed up. All of them completed the program and were offered jobs at the port or matriculated into a marine engineering program. I passed this pilot template to our local United Way where it became part of their Center for Strong Families network of grassroots workforce development work with living wage jobs from other sectors. This program is an example of long-term support. And it didn’t cost anything. It just required building relationships and putting pieces of the job-search puzzle together.
After that, I started to realize that increasing income was not having a permanent effect without simultaneously increasing financial literacy and credit scores. I went to work for a nonprofit to build a financial empowerment initiative. We partnered with a credit union, local and state elected officials, private businesses, churches, and nonprofits. We hired seven financial coaches and embedded them around the South Sound wherever we could find partners achieving significant impact in the community to help cement those outcomes. That work did not cost nothing, but the money became easy to raise because of our relationship-building and ability to connect people’s values with our unquestionably high-quality and groundbreaking initiative.
What Christian Economic Development Requires
This is the sort of work that Christians should be able to enthusiastically engage in. It turns love of neighbor into a concrete and long-lasting reality. However, we Christians don’t often get to those concrete steps because we do not have enough people committed to doing the relationship-building required to get everyone on the same page. Often, we don’t realize that those of us with differing experiences and opinions still want the same things.
In my community development work, I find people in high-income situations often say they want people in lower-income communities to work hard and get a job. In those lower-income communities, I find people already working multiple part-time jobs and asking how they can get on a path to one well-paying career. Everyone is worried about crime, and everyone seems to agree that a good education and a good job is the best investment to prevent or reduce crime. Almost no one fully trusts the government, yet all of us depend on at least some parts of the public sector and need it to function well. Our goals are mostly aligned, but we misunderstand one another. We need to overcome the biases we bring to the table, give each other grace and the benefit of the doubt, and actively listen. If we can do that, there is a tremendous amount of great work just waiting to be done by some good and faithful servants.
I wish I had comprehensive answers for precisely what Christians should be doing in terms of economic development. There are many ambiguous and controversial topics awaiting us including rezoning, accessory dwelling units, down payment assistance, universal basic income, etc. But to start, we need to accept that economic development work, when done the right way, is God’s work.
We also need to consider the invaluable resources we already have in our church pews that remain largely dormant. Insights about jobs, sectors, and employers are critical to move community members to action. On paper, a technical college program to become a low-voltage electrician sounds lucrative. But what does it actually require to become an electrician? Can someone be self-employed and, if not, what are the reputations of the larger companies that hire? Does the training program qualify someone for that job or do they also need five years of experience they will struggle to attain? Without this kind of information, it will be hard to help workers become trained for living wage jobs. But in our pews we have electricians, project managers, sales people, software engineers, healthcare professionals, teachers, etc. Building trusted relationships with communities to be able to share these insights will take some work, but it is work worth doing. There are also churches in those communities who have the opposite problem. They know the community but may not have those valuable career pathway insights in their congregations. Creating church partnerships across communities to accomplish these goals would be a lot of fun and might lead to other service opportunities.
Doing economic development the right way means we also need to prepare for the “diapers or books” dilemma. Even if someone does identify a training program at a local technical college, for instance, there are logistical challenges that we often overlook. How are they going to get to campus? What about childcare? What if they already work two part-time jobs with unpredictable schedules to make ends meet? More than once I have heard about parents dropping out of training programs because when they got their booklist, they had to pick between school supplies or diapers that month. But this is the kind of need that ignites our passion as Christians. It is depressing to give a person experiencing homelessness a new tent. It is a pleasure to buy books for a parent on track to attaining a living wage job. And it opens up other areas for relationship-based economic development including mentorship or financial coaching.
There is a lot of talk these days about revivals and the hope for more revivals. And that’s great, I hope all our churches and communities break out into ongoing prayer and worship that lead to peace. Personally, I pray for a revival of action. One of my favorite books of the Bible is…Acts. Teaching, fellowship, wonders, and signs are immediately followed by selling property and giving to anyone who has needs, as well as continually coming together and breaking bread with each other with glad and sincere hearts. The modern equivalent of those acts in the Cascadia region is going to include joyfully providing economic opportunities for our neighbors and communities, and Christians are better positioned to do this work than we realize.
Cover photo credit: Micheile Henderson