BALTIMORE, Md. — At the corner of Laurens Street and Fulton Avenue, a man watches Matthew Loftus walk by with his 21-month-old daughter, Naomi, strapped to his back. “She got big!” the man says.
Loftus, 27, says something friendly back, but he’s not sure who the man is. “My eyesight is actually really bad,” he says.
As he runs an errand in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, people notice Loftus before he notices them. On Presstman Street, where Loftus rented before buying a home several blocks away, a young girl in a school uniform smiles and says, “I see you’re visiting the old neighborhood.” A group of men playing cards on the corner asks about the rabbits that he and his wife, Maggie Loftus, 25, were raising the last time they saw him. In front of a Monroe Street car wash, a man spies Naomi. “She still gorgeous!” he says. “Tell your wife I said hi.”
For his neighbors, Matthew Loftus is hard to miss, no matter their eyesight. He is white in a nearly all-black neighborhood. Like much of West Baltimore, Sandtown faces relentless poverty, addiction and violence. Six hours after Loftus’ afternoon stroll in late May, three men were shot just down the street from the car wash.
For a brief while, though, as Loftus walks through the neighborhood, it feels like a small town.
He doesn’t fit into the typical narratives about changing American communities. On one hand, recent housing policy has encouraged integrated suburbs by helping low-income families access communities of opportunity with more jobs, less crime and better schools. When integration moves the other way — into poor urban neighborhoods — it often tips over into gentrification as upscale amenities arrive, taxes and rents rise and longtime residents get priced out.
For people like Loftus, it’s not coffee shops or home values drawing them to places like Sandtown. It’s Jesus. Shortly after Loftus started medical school in Baltimore in 2007, he began worshipping at New Song Community Church, a racially diverse congregation in Sandtown. New Song is part of the same Presbyterian denomination as the church Loftus and his 14 siblings attended as children in Harford County, Maryland, 40 minutes outside the city.
New Song is also a member of the Christian Community Development Association. The CCDA’s model is similar to asset-based community development, which tries to build out from a community’s strengths rather than fix its deficiencies. But the CCDA asks more of its practitioners across the nation: that they have something personally at stake in the development. Leaders at New Song talked to Loftus about the core of the CCDA’s philosophy, the three R’s — relocation, redistribution and reconciliation.
The CCDA model emerged largely from the work of John Perkins, a black 84-year-old civil-rights activist from rural Mississippi. Evangelism is at the heart of Perkins’ model. But what separates his approach is his insistence that outsiders who want to help a neighborhood actually move in. The idea is rooted in incarnational ministry, the idea that God became flesh and shared in human suffering. Jesus, CCDA supporters like to say, did not commute back and forth from heaven.
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