Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – April 16, 1996

Ann Racco and her family are like hundreds of thousands in northeast Ohio who left the central cities during the last four decades for the suburbs.

But Racco is different from most. She is trying to build a link with the people and the communities she left behind.

“I really thought Christians should not be separated by mere logistics, by a few miles or the fact that you live in a mostly white community,” said Racco, a Medina County mother of two.

From her 7-acre slice of Sharon Township, Racco is acting on a Cleveland Catholic Diocese initiative by bridging the eco- HOnomic, social, and geographic distance of her affluent community to the central city neighborhoods of Cleveland.

Yesterday, Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla and other diocese officials held a news conference to present an action plan on how Catholics can respond to the bishop’s call to “build new cities where children will be able to live in decent homes, have sufficient food, and be properly educated for meaningful employment.”

Pilla’s Church in the City program emphasizes that the fate of central cities affects suburbs, and that suburbanites must be concerned about how their urban counterparts fare.

Through her church, Holy Martyrs in Medina Township, Racco and other Catholics are building a link to San Juan Bautista parish on Cleveland’s near West Side. Last year, they held a joint Mass, a meal, and other functions. In March, the parishes held a joint art show for their children.

Those contacts, though only a beginning, have helped transform how Racco and other suburbanites view their lives as Catholics.

“It has really changed my reading of the gospel,” said Racco, 39. “I can’t read the gospel in any other light than the preferential option of the poor” – that is, that God is especially open to the cries of the poor.

The transformation of Racco and others has come about as the Cleveland diocese tries to translate its Church in the City initiative into a program that Catholics can act on.

But even as the process touches its participants in a positive way, church officials are finding resistance from some who do not yet understand the message that the suburbs and the city share the same fate. “We have a long way to go,” said Pilla.

More than two years ago, Pilla first proposed a role for the Catholic Church in helping revitalize central-city neighorhoods, the former homes of hundreds of thousands of Catholics who moved to the suburbs along with much of the middle class.

To turn the proposal into an action plan, the diocese held a yearlong series of discussions with several thousand of the more than 800,000 Catholics in the eight-county diocese. The intitiative has drawn national attention and is being looked to by other dioceses as a possible model to follow, said Pilla, who is president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The plan calls for the diocese to build affordable housing, promote education for inner-city youths, help provide job training to the disadvantaged, and create other programs that revitalize inner-city neighborhoods.

The diocese also will provide $150,000 in grants to promote the kind of partnerships Racco’s church has developed with San Juan Bautista. One of the main goals, the diocese says, is to break down the barriers between communities that are created when people of different classes and races live far apart.

A major goal of the action plan is to achieve the kind of conversion in others that Racco went through last year. While it has many successes it can point to, the diocese admits the process will be a slow and sometimes painful one for the Catholic community.

The difficulty comes in convincing suburban Catholics that they have an economic and moral imperative to help revitalize the central cities.

The disappearance of the middle class from the central cities to the suburbs since the 1940s and ’50s has weakened inner-city neighborhoods, leaving them with high percentages of poor people who lack the financial resources and the political clout to protect their communities from decay.

To create communities in what was farmland, the suburbs spend more tax money on sewers, roads and buildings, while the same infrastructure in the central city goes to ruin. The economic cost is coupled with an environmental one as well, as the new communities threaten farms and forests.

As the city and suburbs drift apart economically and socially, the affluent communities do not view the inner-city problems as ones they should care about and help solve, the bishop said.

“We had never intended to put guilt on anyone, but what has been perceived by some is that we are blaming them for moving to a suburb, blaming them for trying to improve their family situation,” said Pilla in an interview last week. “We weren’t saying that, but we had to deal with that. We are not done yet.”

To that end, the diocese has created various agencies to educate its members and the general public about how urban sprawl can harm people and neighborhoods, both in the city and in the country. In the next two years, the diocese will initiate a Social Action Leadership Institute to promote the church’s social mission, and it will create a land-use task force to bring more of the urban land issues to the forefront.

That conversion will be a slow one, say others involved in urban sprawl issues.

“What we are asking people to do is to change the way they think about making decisions,” said Kevin Snape, assistant director and project manager of the Regional Environmental Priorities Project, which last year identified urban sprawl as northeast Ohio’s greatest environmental threat. “We are in a mindset, and the hardest job is to get people to look at something in a very different way.”

Pilla said the church could use moral persuasion, linking the initiative to religious teachings, but ultimately the change, for individuals, would have to come from within.

“We’re running counter-culture on a lot of things,” Pilla said. “We are talking about being one people. We are talking about the common good. We are talking about mutual responsibility for each other in a culture that promotes privatism when it comes to religious matters and really exults in the individual. I think we’re really struggling with that.”

Pilla draws hope for the initiative from the response of parishioners like Racco.

For her, the conversion was almost instantaneous. Hearing Pilla speak on Church in the City last year, Racco said she realized that being a Catholic meant reaching out to help others, including other Catholics, in a meaningful way.

She knows the understanding will come more slowly for others in the suburbs.

“I don’t think it is going to be easy, but I see some hopeful signs,” she said. “This is a movement that was not happening in my parish a year ago, and it is being resoundingly supported now.”



Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – April 19, 1998

For five years, Cleveland Catholic Bishop Anthony M. Pilla has pushed his followers to help revive Northeast Ohio’s older cities and to bridge widening differences between urban and suburban dwellers.

He is quick to admit his vision of regional harmony and rejuvenated cities is still far from reality. Pieces of that vision, however, have come into focus.

The broad, ambitious initiative Pilla launched in 1993, called “Church in the City,” has been translated into concrete steps by many in his flock.

For example, Church in the City has spurred Catholic parishes to participate in house-building and renovation; begun a program to teach teens the importance of revitalizing cities; formed a committee to promote regional planning to help older cities; and collected $150,000 in diocese and private grants for groups that promote Pilla’s vision of regional unity and city revival.

And, in what the bishop believes may be the most encouraging sign of success, Church in the City has started partnerships between suburban and city churches – partnerships that range from a Brecksville and a Cleveland church uniting children in choirs and sports activities, to five Akron-area churches forming a job-training program for unemployed city residents.

Pilla, through Church in the City, has tried to call attention to the racial and economic gaps created between cities and suburbs as Northeast Ohio’s population moves farther out.

The church’s interest is both moral and practical. Pilla has used Church in the City to prompt suburbanites to examine their moral responsibility to help create a better life for less privileged city residents.

From the practical standpoint, urban Catholic parishes have shrinking populations, dwindling finances and aging churches, while booming growth in suburbs has demanded new churches and larger parish staffs.

But have the early results done enough to rejuvenate cities such as Cleveland and Akron? Are suburbanites universally heeding the bishop’s call not to turn their backs on urban centers?

Pilla knows the answer is no. But for the spiritual leader of nearly 850,000 Catholics in Northeast Ohio, the returns thus far are cause for enthusiasm.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said last week. “But we’re seeing great signs of hope.”

Tomorrow, to honor the five-year benchmark for Church in the City, the diocese is holding a symposium on issues such as regional land use and redevelopment in urban centers. Corporate, academic and community leaders will join Pilla.

The location of the symposium, The Temple-Tifereth Israel in University Circle, is an indication of Pilla’s desire to have his movement influence people of all faiths, not just Catholics.

“The bishop’s vision never was strictly a Catholic vision,” said Rabbi Ben Kamin, leader of The Temple-Tifereth Israel. “The moral implications of it apply to anybody. I would like members of our community to study it and consider what we need to do to become involved in it.”

On Friday, many of the same land-use and urban-revival issues will be tackled by another group. The First Suburbs Consortium, a collection of mayors and city council members from the older suburbs surrounding Cleveland, will hold a conference in Shaker Heights with their counterparts from cities around the state.

Members of the consortium, formed by the leaders of such cities as Euclid and Lakewood, are concerned they will increasingly face issues of poverty and blight – as Cleveland has – if people continue to move farther from the center of Cuyahoga County.

The brainstorming session is on how to remain economically healthy. The goal is to build a strong, statewide coalition of inner-ring suburbs.

The timing of the conference, in the same week as the Church in the City symposium, is coincidental. But leaders of the First Suburbs Consortium acknowledge they and Pilla are allies.

“Bishop Pilla has made a moral argument,” said Judy Rawson, a Shaker Heights councilwoman and consortium member. “We have agreed with that analysis and said, `OK, let’s talk about remedies – practical, economic and political remedies.’

One of the obstacles Pilla and the inner-ring suburban leaders face is skepticism from many residents in outlying communities who feel they are being unfairly made to feel guilty.

Pilla insists no one is blaming people who have left city life behind. He said the key to stemming the migration is to provide strong schools, good housing and safe streets in cities.

“The answer is not to beat up on the people who live in suburbs,” Pilla said. “The answer is addressing the situation that caused them to leave.”

To that end, Pilla has called for unity among Catholics – whether they live in Cleveland or Medina – to combat blight and poverty in cities.

One example of Pilla’s mission is a partnership between Divine Word Catholic Church in Kirtland and St. Phillip Neri in Cleveland. The churches are working together to turn a former convent at St. Phillip Neri into a home for foreign refugees in Cleveland. Church members also have joined for fund-raisers, retreats and social events.

“The Church in the City programs are sometimes perceived as the suburban parishes going to help the city parishes,” said the Rev. Norman Smith, pastor of Divine Word. “Our goal is the two parishes working together.”

Since Pilla launched Church in the City, about 85 Catholic parishes and schools have formed partnerships, said Sister Rita Mary Harwood, the diocese’s secretary for parish life.

As for the future of Church in the City, the diocese has a plan for broadening current achievements and taking on new roles, such as raising funds for affordable housing projects, encouraging parishes to get involved in planning in their communities, and trying to involve people of other faiths in the initiative.

“This is about building relationships, about raising awareness, about asking, `What is my responsibility?’ Harwood said.



Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH) – October 25, 1996

Cleveland Catholic Bishop Anthony M. Pilla was elated this week to receive a Protestant invitation to broaden his closely watched “Church in the City” experiment to other faiths.

Episcopal Bishop J. Clark Grew II asked Pilla to gather with local Protestant leaders early next year to discuss how they might cooperate with the Catholic diocese’s effort to link disaffected suburbanites back to the concerns of the city.

But some local evangelical leaders voiced skepticism about Pilla’s plan and whether well-meaning religious groups might inadvertently make matters worse for the poor.

“It can’t be all us white suburbanites gratuitously alleviating our guilt by serving dinner to the homeless once a month,” warned the Rev. James J. Bzdafka, pastor of Providence Evangelical Free Church in Westlake.

Pilla agreed. “It’s got to come from a deeply felt personal commitment and a change of attitude,” he said. “You can’t just give money and let somebody else do it. One notion we apply in this is nobody is so poor he can’t contribute and nobody is so rich he can’t benefit.”

Pilla sees real benefit in Grew’s invitation.

“I didn’t want to be presumptuous and say I was the convener,” the Catholic prelate said, noting that partnerships are difficult for the Catholic Church to forge here when it is perceived as the biggest kid on the block. Roughly 30 percent of the residents of northeastern Ohio are Roman Catholic.

The Rev. Marvin A. McMickle, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, said he would be at the table.

“The question really is, friends, how broad and diverse a community do we want Greater Cleveland to be and how hard are we prepared to work for it,” McMickle told about 100 listeners yesterday at the Women’s City Club of Cleveland.

The club luncheon marked Pilla’s third public presentation of his “Church in the City” initiative in the last week. Pilla was particularly encouraged by the Catholic congregations surmounting class, race and geographic barriers to work and worship together, such as St. Catherine at E. 93rd St. in Cleveland and St. Basil in Brecksville.

Today, Pilla delivers the fourth description of such alliances to a Harvard Business School gathering at the Union Club.

“It’s foolish to think that we can have a thriving region and a declining urban core,” Pilla said.

Three years ago, Pilla pointed out that the expansion of U.S. 422 from Solon into Geauga County created a virtual pipeline for out-migration from Cleveland and the eastern suburbs. He never argued that the expansion in itself was wrong but questioned why its $65 million cost was not matched by an equal redevelopment effort in the city.

The Rev. Kenneth W. Chalker, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Cleveland, has similar problems with the extreme isolation of suburbanites from city people.

“The professional financial portfolio manager, for instance, can drive in from her upscale home in Hudson, into the city, directly to the parking garage under the building in which her office is found, spend the day caring for all needs from lunch to exercise and never see the resident population,” Chalker told the Women’s City Club forum.

Later, when asked about his Westlake parsonage, Chalker said he was not completely comfortable living so far from his downtown ministry.

“There are real problems in the city,” Pilla acknowledged in an interview afterward. “People have gone to the suburbs for legitimate reasons. I couldn’t expect somebody to sacrifice the well-being of their children or their elderly parents. We must work to make the cities more livable.”

The bishop’s effort comes amid a national debate on the effectiveness of American social welfare systems and the conservative argument that careless charity breeds dependency.

Bzdafka’s nondenominational church is one of the fastest-growing Christian churches in the region. He said his 4-year-old Westlake congregation struggles with its duty to the poor.

“Our congregation has a heart for the inner city and helping the poor, but we want to do it responsibly,” Bzdafka said. “… We are struggling with what it means to be Christian and what to do that doesn’t complicate the problems by our being involved.”

McMickle and Pilla agreed. McMickle said an occasional tour of duty in a soup kitchen doesn’t cut it for “a guilty black suburbanite,” either.

“With social justice issues, sometimes I think we evangelicals have really missed the boat,” Bzdafka said.

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