I read the front page of the Wall Street Journal this morning and felt sad and concerned for the citizens of Detroit. They face incredible challenges as the city declared bankruptcy this week. We stand with the citizens of Detroit as their city faces an uncertain future. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Presbytery of Detroit, its congregations, and hundreds of other faith-based organizations all across the city, are praying and working to improve the city's health and restore financial vitality. According to Ecumenical News, "Christians, individually and through their churches, are mobilizing to revitalize the once prominent city of Detroit, Michigan...." AEPS, the Association of Executive Presbyters, a learning community for mid council leadership, is proud to hold our October annual event in Detroit. We hope that our presence, at least in a small way, offers not only economic blessings, but also offers a much needed social, emotional, and spiritual support.
What is the responsibility of a faith-based organization, a congregation, mosque, or synagogue, to support the economic health of the city it is located in?
In September 2012, the Mayor and council in Racine, Wisconsin, sent a letter to its faith communities, asking for a donation to reduce the town's looming budget deficit. According to the Journal Times, Mayor John Dickert's office sent out 182 letters to local nonprofits, "including churches, asking the tax-exempt organizations if they would consider paying a portion of the property tax the city would normally charge them if their properties were taxed."
In the letter, Mayor Dickert said the Racine Fair Share program was based on similar initiatives in cities like Boston and Milwaukee, according to the Journal Times.
While state law grants tax-exempt status to properties owned and used by not-for-profits, a city still is expected to provide services to these properties. The Mayor reasoned that though churches did not owe property tax, they had an obligation to support the town facing financial crisis, like that now experienced by Detroit.
The principle Mayor Dickert was alluding to is referred to as Reciprocity. The Bible records numerous examples of reciprocity. God’s exiled people were to demonstrate reciprocity with the exhortation to, “Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare;” and to “Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you” (Jer. 29:7). The Gospels also encourage reciprocity: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A person reaps what they sow” (Gal. 6:7).
Our communities are social networks built on principles of reciprocity to operate optimally. This shared value within a community is referred to as “social capital,” measured as bonding social capital (inward looking activities like churches and other volunteer associations), or measured as bridging social capital (outward looking activities of groups such as political parties, civil rights movements, youth service groups, and ecumenical associations). See my Living Pulpit article (accessed with a free subscription login), or on my Reciprocal Revolution blog.
Churches don't have an obligation, they have a mission opportunity. They have an opportunity to extend the blessings a congregation of worshippers enjoys on the inside the sanctuary, to those who are outside in the community.
In Racine, not one church responded to the Mayor's September request for assistance. According to the Journal Times, "On Nov. 2 City Administrator Tom Friedel told aldermen that the city has yet to collect any money through the program, ... Two weeks later, on Friday, the mayor’s office received a check from the congregation at Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church." $1,500 collected by free-will gifts of parishioners.
Of the 182 organizations that were asked for assistance, only one came forward. One.
What would your church have done if the Mayor asked for financial assistance for your town? What is your congregation doing now to demonstrate God's love for the world, and honor the reciprocal relationship between the town and the church? As MissionInsite's Michael Regele aptly wrote, "The church's inward focus is a grave illness" Death of the Church. Outward focusing congregations bless their community!
Every city depends on its citizens, especially citizens aligning with faith-based organizations. Let's take responsibility for our mission and generously contribute to the social, economic, political, and spiritual welfare of our city; and for every town, village, and rural hamlet.
Motor City needs a blessing. Will you join with me in praying for the city of Detroit and its citizens? Its business and political leaders are counting on it. Remember. God loved the world so much that God gave...." Our response to that gift would be the best expression of reciprocity I know.