What kind of relationship should a congregation develop with a surrounding neighborhood that lacks affordable housing? Could a church, itself, be broken as a gift for others?
Arlington Presbyterian Church saw these questions as an opportunity to re-envision its commitment to serving people in south Arlington, Va. Like many worship spaces in the U.S., attendance decreased dramatically over the span of a decade. The church’s building went quietly underused and fell into disrepair.
Simply selling the property and moving was one survival strategy, but according to Arlington Presbyterian pastor Ashley Goff, being faithful with their resources meant responding to the ways life had become systematically difficult for their neighbors.
The reality is that many people can no longer afford to live in the county where they work.
In 2009, Arlington Presbyterian started its mission revision process. The presbytery, the larger jurisdiction that the church was a part of, rejected initial plans for renovations and pointed out financial risks with maintaining ownership of the land. So, the church decided to sell its property to a nonprofit developer with an aligned mission. Amid some neighbors’ NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) questions about who exactly would be moving in to the housing project. The church engaged the civic association, hosted a welcome party to find out the root cause of people’s hesitations, and gathered lay people and clergy leaders in Arlington to advocate for the project at county council meetings. After about a decade, the multi-use building is now set to open in the summer of 2019.
Local partnerships have been elemental to Arlington Presbyterian’s efforts. La Cocina VA, a culinary and entrepreneurial training program, will move into the building’s ground floor alongside the church’s rented new space and under the housing units. Paty Funegra started the social enterprise organization four years ago, using another church’s commercial kitchen, classrooms, and volunteers to facilitate bilingual cooking classes, job readiness programs, and food assistance programs to deliver healthy meals to the community. “Through food we have been able to create new job opportunities, to educate people about the importance of living healthier lives,” Funegra said. “In the near future we will also use food to communicate and to exchange cultural history, backgrounds and heritage that our immigrant communities bring with them when they move to the U.S.”