From Exploring Ideas to Activating Them

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Guest column by Randy White, D.Min., executive director, Center for Community Transformation, associate professor of community transformation, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary

Seminaries are where we go to have long, earnest talks about God, right? They are for discussing theological nuances and exploring doctrine and thinking about the afterlife, right? They prepare people to serve inside the church, right?

Have you heard these assumptions? So it might surprise folks that Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary hosts the Center for Community Transformation (CCT)—a community-based organization focused on starting social businesses that employ formerly incarcerated persons, focused on doing anti-human trafficking research and policy work, focused on creating GED study clubs at churches and focused on doing financial literacy training in extreme poverty neighborhoods to equip people against payday lenders. At the CCT we don’t just explore ideas, we activate them.

It might surprise people that the CCT trains young, emerging leaders in Christian community development through helping to steward “Fresno City Summit,” a gathering of more than 400 young leaders who are learning to embrace civic transformation in their city as part of their Gospel commitment.

And it might surprise folks that the CCT runs the only Pastoral and Ministry Leadership Certificate in the Central Valley offered by an accredited institution delivered in Spanish to lay leaders and pastoral ministry teams of some of the 168 Spanish-speaking churches in Fresno (more than one-third of all Fresno congregations). And leaders travel from rural communities more than an hour away to get this training. Many of these leaders are bi- and tri-vocational, and fewer than 5 percent have had access to any kind of formal theological or leadership training. Nor does their life position allow them access to traditional seminary education. The final module of the Certificado is on community transformation, helping Latino churches envision and engage at a more comprehensive level the needs and aspirations of their communities. We have graduated more than 50 Valley leaders through this program, which provided access where none existed.

Why would a seminary do all of this? Because these are the issues ministry personnel face in the Valley when they lead churches and faith-rooted community benefit organizations. The seminary offers the M.A. in Community Leadership and Transformation Degree, and students get to participate in all of the community initiatives of the CCT as part of their education. For example, this fall, students in the Engaging the City course are responsible for action research around human trafficking organizations, helping them to share data and collaborate more efficiently. Another group from that same class is doing action research around how community development corporations (CDCs) relate with the city and how to improve that process. Many of these are based at churches or run by people of faith. The results of these projects will be used by these very organizations to improve their service delivery, and in the case of the CDC project will help shape public policy for the next mayoral administration.

Now half-way through its fifth year, the CCT has helped catalyze 31 start-up social enterprises through its Spark Tank Pitch Fest, this year held at Bitwise Industries, downtown. These include 701 United, a fitness club for kids in the 93701 ZIP zone, one of the poorest in the city. They learn violence mediation and discipleship right along with martial arts. It includes Tree of Life Café, a beautiful new restaurant on Kern Street that serves farm fresh, organic food in a beautiful atmosphere and employs people coming out of rehab at Fresno Rescue Mission. It includes Crumb ‘n’ Get ‘Em Cupcakes, owned by a Lowell Neighborhood resident who mentors and employs young people from the neighborhood. It includes Five Gals Cleaning, a social business run by Evangel Home to give the women they serve work experience and provide revenue for the ministry. These are just four of the 31, and all are life-giving to both the employees and ministries alike, providing a non-charity form of poverty alleviation. Recently the British Council’s report, Social Enterprise in a Global Context, did a case study on FPU’s social enterprise emphasis through the CCT in a publication that is international in scope. The world is taking notice of innovation.

This level of innovation in a city like Fresno is providing hope to other cities. Last year a publisher contacted the CCT to ask if we would document what we are learning about community transformation in a new book aimed at outlining a place-based approach to the pursuit of shalom in a community. So we designed a book that pulls from a diverse team of local practitioners writing in their areas of expertise, and it is now in the hands of the publisher. Out of Nazareth: Christ-Centered Civic Transformation in Unlikely Places should be out in January 2017.

So let’s go have some long, earnest talks about God. First subject: what innovative idea might God want to activate in your church for the transformation of your community?

  • Walter Saul

    Thanks, Randy! It’s nice to be brought into the light of what the Center for Community Transformation is up to. Well-written update! In Christ, Walter Saul

  • Angela

    So happy to know you Randy and so proud of the amazing work of you and CCT! Blessings to you!