When longtime country singer Barbara Mandrell saw a resurgence of popularity in country music in the 1990s, she released her song, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” a single that reminded the upstarts around her that there were those who had paid their dues long before they had caught the “country” bug.
This came to mind when I had the opportunity to sit down with Jonathan Bradford who, you might say, was “urban when urban wasn’t cool.” CEO of the Inner City Christian Federation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bradford has been invested in urban renewal since the 1970s. Given renewed interest in “the city” among North American evangelicals, and in tandem with the release of our summer issue, “The Other Side of the City,” I sat down for a conversation with Jonathan and talked to him about the Christian vision that motivates his work, the nitty-gritty of urban redevelopment, and the challenges (and opportunities) associated with gentrification.
—James K.A. Smith, Editor
James K.A. Smith: As you know, Jonathan, there are more and more Christians talking about “the city” today than probably have in a generation, which is very exciting. I think there are all kinds of reasons why that’s an encouraging report. For a long time people were fleeing the city and now there’s a new embrace of it. But you’ve been working on, and thinking about, these issues for over forty years. What motivated you to care about urban challenges already in the early 1970s? And how did that lead you to become involved with the Inner City Christian Federation?
Jonathan Bradford: There were two things that happened in my life that connected me to this. The first is, as a freshman in high school in one of the suburbs of Chicago, I was offered a job working for a home remodelling company. A one-man show just getting started asked, “Hey could you help after school and Saturdays?” I did so for three years and I learned an awful lot. Indeed, I remember after about a year with this gentleman, being paid $1.25 an hour, I asked him for a raise and he said with great astonishment, “A raise? You should be thanking me for all you’re learning.” He raised the pay by 10 cents and never let me forget how much I was learning.
At the same time, mind you, I was going through high school and college in the 1960s, the city and indeed our nation was beset with all of the trauma of discovering what it meant for us to be sensitive to the needs, the challenges, the issues facing our African-American brothers and sisters. My own father, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, was faced with a very difficult racial justice matter in our community. Then, going off to college in 1967, confronted with the issues of war and pacifism and Vietnam, I did a whole lot of study and it was indeed my experience in college, my both required and not-so-required reading that informed my choice to become a conscientious objector to all war and I was awarded that status by my draft board, the first such person to achieve that.
So I was, on the one hand, exposed to this world of housing repair. On the other hand, I worked and lived among many people facing these racial difficulties and then the disconnect that is inherent there in our nation’s policies and the failure to understand, to see any justification for, the war effort made me attentive to my community. I was not any kind of a college star. I just sought to be a faithful steward of the gifts God had given me so choosing to be a sociology major and economics minor, I just found myself in love with the city.
When we were married, my wife and I chose to live in a diverse urban environment. When the call came to help renovate a house that was donated to a nearby church for resale to a family, I said . . . I said “Sure.” And as it happened, I knew a little bit more than most of the people there, so when the call came to incorporate and grow the organization, I went to the meeting and I was asked to be the vice president. Those were the humble beginnings of ICCF.
When the opportunity presented itself to become the executive director of ICCF, I first said no. That’s a whole other little story but in God’s providence, I was talked into it but I agreed to it for only six months.
JS: That was how many years ago?
JB: Thirty-three years. Anyway, I deserve no special attention. The fact is, God places us in the fields where he needs us. With the exception of one year in college at Dordt College, I have always lived in a very dense urban environment. My understanding of the world and my calling as serving of Jesus Christ is completely defined around density, around diversity, and around urban matters. I think I would be in lot of trouble if I were compelled to live in an 800-person town. It wouldn’t be me.
JS: In your own experience, and then in the specific kind of work ICCF does, there’s this interesting intersection of very concrete, tangible, hands-on, practical work helping people repair homes, build homes, care for homes, coupled with a little bit more big-picture, “abstract” policy work.
That comes out of your practical experience of learning how to fix homes but then also getting invested in, well, “seeking the welfare of the city.” Was your focus a strategic decision? The city has lots of problems. What made you focus on issues related to housing? Could describe a little bit the sorts of things ICCF does in that regard?
JB: Sure. Maybe this is as good as any time to tell you of our simple rule of threes here at ICCF. There are three key functions, three key program areas, and three key values.
My calling is completely defined around density, diversity, and urban matters.
JS: Great. This will be both big picture and nitty-gritty.
JB: The three functions work as if they were gears in a machine. They’re of equal size and equal importance. One gear not working? The other two won’t either. The first function is real estate development finance packaging—the very complex financial arrangements that are necessary to make a high-quality unit of housing available to somebody of lesser economic capacity. It takes a certain amount of magic. How do you pay $140,000 to build a housing unit when the target population can only afford $80,000? There’s got to be a way to close that $60,000 gap. That’s what we mean with that particular gear, our first function.
The second gear is residential construction. We are a licensed builder. Except in very large projects, we build everything ourselves so that we’re in full control of the budget, the quality of the work, and the timetable. We don’t want to set a family up for problems down the road. We don’t want mistakes and shortcuts to be hidden in the walls.
The third gear is housing education and empowerment. What we mean by that is this: sure, it’s good to be creative in the finance, and it’s good to be a responsible builder, but our target audience here, those that God is calling us to serve, are the Johnsons and Hernandez families. Most years, in the vicinity of about 2,500 households come to us facing all kinds of skill shortcomings. They likely never have lived in a home owned by a family member. They may not have ever experienced living in something that didn’t have a dozen or twenty code violations.
We want the family’s housing experience to be good for them so we encourage them attend to all kinds of skills-building opportunities, including housing repairs and maintenance (“Hey, how do you fix a broken window?” and that kind of thing—wall repair and painting and landscaping and all of those kinds of things)—but also the “soft” skills of housing and family management: insurance and taxes, time management, family budgeting, savings and investing, parenting. These are the kinds of things that quite a number of us either learned by example when we were young or had some other kind of mentoring relationship. Too often, that kind of experience is rare in the populations we serve.
So those are the functions of ICCF. Then there are three program areas. We have an emergency shelter for homeless families. Families stay with us for up to thirty days free of charge. We help them address the issues that cause their homelessness, help them find a permanent place to rent. That serves between seventy-five and eighty-five families a year.
Because home ownership is not suitable for everyone and the for-profit rental operator has a hard time meeting all the needs of the lower income renter ICCF had to enter the field of rental housing. We own and operate 142 units of high quality and affordable rental housing and soon we will be adding thirty more. Then finally is homeownership. For some families, it is good to own home. We do that either through the reconstruction of an existing house or new construction of a brand new house on a vacant lot.
All of this is informed by our three key values, which are fundamental to all we do. We believe strongly in our responsibility to respect the Johnson and Hernandez families. God has thought enough of them to create them in His image. He wants good for them. He wants opportunity and hope and flourishing and nurture. He wants shalom. He wanted shalom for my wife and I when we were married forty-two years ago. We had various ways that helped us achieve that, a college degree, supportive parents, and so forth. The Johnsons and the Hernandez families may not have that.
Respecting these families that God sends our way means not holding wrongs against them, just as we read in 2 Corinthians 5: “The old is gone and new has come.” We have that reconciliation, and we read later on, “Therefore be as ambassadors don’t receive the grace of God in vain.” I believe very strongly that this call on contemporary Christians is all-inclusive. It often has been applied only to a spiritual dimension of our relationship to God: “Is my heart right with the Lord?” But I believe strongly that God’s care extends far beyond my heart and to every area of my activity, all of my being as a citizen in His Kingdom and in the city. Respecting the family, not holding the wrong turns against them, communicating hope and optimism is an extremely important thing.
Second value: opportunity. How do we respect? By expecting the pursuit of opportunity. That might sound like just a little clever turn of a phrase but, hey, you know what? If you regard the Hernandez and Johnson families as perfectly capable—as wanting good for themselves, as reaching for something more—for stability that has eluded them. We want to say to them: here is your chance to learn, to grow. “Mr. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, what have you aspired to achieve?” Inevitably, we’re going to hear a financial roadblock. They’re going to say, “Yeah. I wanted to take that course at community college so I could qualify for a raise at work but I could never get the $300 tuition together.” “Well, sure, Mr. Johnson because you’re spending 55% of your income on inadequate, unsafe housing and there’s no reason why you should have to continue to do that.”
We generally find our target population moves once every 22 to 24 months.
When Mr. Johnson can go from spending $850 to spending $550, Mr. Johnson has a $300 a month raise. That’s $3,600 post-tax cash stays in his pocket. What, Mr. Johnson, can you do with $3,600? Will you take that class at the community college? Will you address the health issue you’ve been denying, ducking? On and on, the pursuit of opportunity.
The final word, the final value that is, to my way of thinking as powerful, as important, as central as anything: that is simply beauty.
Here at ICCF, Jamie, we talk about beauty as a gift of God. Created in His image, we have that unique, that very special capacity to seek and to embrace that which is aesthetically satisfying. The Lord is the author of all that is right and proper and in the shaping, in the colouring, in the dimensioning of our built environment, we need to celebrate that Lordship. Guess what? The Hernandez family that I keep talking about is all created in the image of God? They have that same aesthetic compass that I do. They may not know how to articulate it. They may not be in any way accustomed to paying attention to that compass. But their needle seeks that which is right and proper just like mine does. We believe if we are faithful in our stewardship, if in full pursuit and enabling of that respectful treatment, that the heart of justice for these families in their housing is that it be beautiful.
Beauty should not be confused with the ostentatious or palatial, but simple matters of architectural balance. Do you build a house with a 4/12 roof pitch in a neighbourhood of 80-year-old houses where all the roofs have a 12/12 roof pitch? Do you build a house with a 4 x 6 front porch when all the front porches are 12 x 20 or more? No.
JS: Beauty is not a luxury but is a fundamental human good, then—part of what one should expect from our spaces and our built environment.
JB: I will tell you, with a nod to Sir Winston Churchill—a very often-quoted reflection of his . . . quoted in architectural schools and so forth, I guess: “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” Architects today know what colours to paint kindergarten classrooms and what colours to paint prison cells. Guess what? They’re not the same colours, okay? We know about the impact of design on the human condition.
The Johnsons have a little boy and the Hernandez family has two little girls. Believe me, there’s a lot of little kids that run through this building when mom and dad come for classes and so forth, but how that little guy and those two little girls do in school is directly affected by their housing. We know it.
There are a host of very responsible academic studies that have established a strong correlation between educational achievement and stability of housing. I’m sure it varies from city to city, but in Grand Rapids we generally find our target population moves once every twenty-two to twenty-four months. If you do twelve years of schooling in Grand Rapids, you will have moved six times and your reason for moving will often have been the condition of—or the price of—the housing that your parents have been able to find.
JS: That destabilization of their environment compromises their ability to learn, to be engaged, to be attentive. I’m struck by how much the animating conviction here is taking seriously that we’re created in the image of God and we are embodied, material, social beings who live and move in spaces and places. So ICCF is called to think intentionally about creating spaces for those who maybe don’t have the resources to be in charge of that otherwise—to, in a way, empower them and to not just treat where they live as some utilitarian thing to check off a box. You’re trying to create spaces in which they are flourishing at home—that then has a snowball effect and they start flourishing in all kinds of other aspects of their lives.
Click here for the conclusion of our conversation with Jonathan Bradford, considering how policies and commercial practices create “reverse gentrification,” and what “gentrification with justice” might look like.