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Congregations, life turnarounds, and city transformation

In 2009 churches and ministries provided over $2 billion worth of social services in New York City. The investments of NYC Christian churches are helping thousands of personal turnarounds which in turn help to transform our communities. The dollar value of NYC Christian congregations’ provision for our city’s social welfare is much greater than the amount […]

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Salvation Army, Manhattan Lower East Side

In 2009 churches and ministries provided over $2 billion worth of social services in New York City.

The investments of NYC Christian churches are helping thousands of personal turnarounds which in turn help to transform our communities. The dollar value of NYC Christian congregations’ provision for our city’s social welfare is much greater than the amount of annual donations given for city welfare by the top ten private foundations (Ford, Kellogg, Mellon, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Starr, Citigroup, Doris Duke, Sloan and Open Society).

The congregation-provided social welfare is also three and half times larger than the investments of the NYC Economic Development Corporation ($600 million). It is larger than the city’s public assistance program grants ($1.3 billion for Aid to Dependent Children, home relief, city-funded food stamps, and substance abuse services) through the Department of Social Services. However, New York City churches’ social concerns are usually directly tied to help for bringing individual life-turnarounds.

Take the example of Brooklynite Edwin Colon. At age thirteen he was doing coke. He dropped out of school after the seventh grade. “Life for me was a real mess,” he recalls. Then, “God saved me.” Colon’s life reversed course enough that he joined another recovering addict, Raymond Ramos, to plant a little church, The Brooklyn Lighthouse Community Church, to save others from addiction and prostitution. Since 2004, this church has planted four more churches, incubators of life turnarounds and community betterment.

After salvation, an addict may need a small community to help make a life transition, job and social skills training, legal services, and some temporary economic support. Churches typically add these services as new converts need them. On his way out of street life, Colon himself received much good counsel from the NYC Leadership Center. The formula is as old as the church: saved by God, gathered in community.

As churches have grown all over the city by bringing in people who needed a helping hand, they now find a necessity to make more investments in social services. So, it is not surprising that the number one agenda item for NYC metropolitan area church and ministry leaders are social concerns. We asked 900 evangelical church and ministry leaders what did they consider the most important issues that they need to tackle. The largest portion of leaders (39%) cited social issues like helping the poor and hurting, reconciling the races and ethnicities and bringing community peace. Further, in our census survey we find that ecumenical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox church leaders also value highly tackling social welfare concerns. How much does this large compassion translate into concrete action?

One way to answer this question is to determine the monetary value of the contribution to the NYC metropolitan area of such church and ministry efforts in social services.

The work of University of Pennsylvania professor Ram Cnaan provides a useful guide. A few years ago he did a survey of the social welfare provision by congregations in several cities including New York City. He estimated the average value of a congregation's formally organized social welfare activities by adding up the value of paid labor, volunteer labor, in-kind and direct monetary grants and the space utilized for these activities and dividing by the number of congregations he surveyed. Since his work was published in 2002 and 2006, we have updated his figures to take into account the value of today's dollar.

Adjusting his survey figures by the Consumer Price Index, we can estimate that each congregation in NYC today provides $246,840.44 worth of social welfare benefits to the city every year. There are about 8439 Christian congregations in New York City:

7300 evangelical Protestant congregations (2009);

628 ecumenical Protestant congregations (estimate for year 2004);

452 Roman Catholic churches (2004); and

59 Orthodox churches (2009).

Multiplying 8439 by the annual social welfare value contributed by each church means that Christian congregations contribute over two billion dollars for social welfare to New York City every year ($2,083,086,473).

This means that in each of the 59 community districts of NYC Christian congregations contribute on the average $35,306,550 worth of social welfare benefits every year.

Of course, this is hardly the whole story. Congregations in the city provide a whole host of informal person-to-person social services that are not counted formally. The most common informal social service that congregations provide is personal and marital counseling. Many times a pastor, congregant, or small group will also help someone out with a monetary grant or loan that never shows up in any formal books. Further, some ecumenical Protestant denominations and Roman Catholics provide most of their social welfare through large parachurch agencies that are not accounted for in our calculations. We are also not including the budgets of Christian schools, hospitals and the like.

Finally, the most important social welfare service of churches is changed hearts. Pastor Colon recalls many stories of personal turnaround at “our little crazy church.” In his own life his family became whole again, and his sister reconciled to the extent that she is now helping a church in New Jersey effect life turnarounds. At present we have hardly begun to gather our knowledge about the economic effect of such changed lives.

At the very least churches which bring addicts out of dependency and crime save taxpayers millions of dollars in crime prevention and prison costs. Colon, if he was in state prison, would have cost taxpayers about $50,000/year to house. Multiply this by the thousands that Christ has turned around, and the dollar figure adds up pretty quickly, at least hundreds of millions of dollars.

Further, the processing and victim costs for each crime are significant. One report on processing and incarceration of criminals in Washington, DC in 1998 found that the local government spent on the average $1,100 for misdemeanors and $109,585 for felonies. Also, estimates of direct losses incurred by each crime victim range from $500 to $34,000.

Everyday life in the city also becomes easier and cheaper with life turnarounds. As people’s lives become more orderly and their word more reliable, there is a large impact on social trust which means that we can more easily rely on social and economic transactions without all sorts of costly safeguards. Economists call these safeguards “transaction costs.” With life turnarounds, broken contracts, management malfeasance and employee pilfering go down.

In the past critics like Friedrich Nietzsche dismissed "the Christian movement" as dangerous to a society, "a degeneracy movement composed of reject and refuse elements of every appeals to the disinherited takes the side of idiots..." Churches and ministries indeed do pick up and value the disinherited and rejected. Their success in incorporating the former so-called "refuse elements" into wholesome communities challenges secularists to a more complex understanding of the sources of our city's prosperity.

What would the city be without such life turnarounds and social investments?

↓↓↓  More information from Rev. Edwin Colon and New Baptist Temple, 360 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.

The church is the result of the merger of Colon’s and Ramos’ first church The Brooklyn Lighthouse and the Baptist Temple, which is the first and oldest Baptist church in Brooklyn (founded 1823). The church hosts a 12 step program and has done music concerts, BBQ's, block parties, vacation bible school, clothes drives, alcohol and drug detox and rehabilitation referrals, youth drug and gang awareness events and many other ministries.

In 2001 four ex-drug addicts who had been delivered by Jesus Christ and two drug addicts on a Methadone Maintenance program started meeting in Edwin Colon’s kitchen on Java Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They called themselves The Brooklyn Lighthouse Community Church. Outgrowing the kitchen, the group moved to an apartment that was vacant due to a fire. Though the setting was pretty miserable, drug addicts were getting delivered and families were being restored. The Lighthouse then moved to another church in the neighborhood and held services Wednesday nights. In the lore of the church that location became known as “The Dungeon” on Milton Street.

What was 6 men in a kitchen now became 30 ex drug addicts, their families and their friends, praying, worshiping, breaking bread, fellowshipping, ministering to one another, studying God's Word and reaching out to other hurting people (Acts 2:42-47).

In time The Lighthouse outgrew The Dungeon and moved to North 5th St. in Williamsburg Brooklyn, known as The North Side. On North 5th St. several Muslims converted to Christ, several men & women who used to serve the Lord but fell away came back, and many more lives were touched by the power of Jesus Christ.

One day the Leadership of the Church received a call to go look at The Baptist Temple in downtown Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Lighthouse started renting space at the downtown church in 2003 and within a year the two churches merged into The New Baptist Temple.

In 2005 the church sent Pastor Raymond Ramos out to found The Recovery House of Worship, which meets Sundays, 5 pm at the Williamsburg Community Center, 195 Graham Ave (Corner of Scholes Street) in Brooklyn.

In 2007 The Recovery House of Worship in Staten Island started meeting (Sundays at 12pm
at 96 McClean Avenue).

The New Baptist Temple has also helped Pastor Ed Castro to start Victory Outreach North Brooklyn services on Sundays, 11 am at 108 Manhattan Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn and with Spanish Baptist Church helped to start New Beginnings Church at 199 North 5th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  The Temple is planning church planting partnerships in Yonkers and Coney Island.

(includes material adapted from the church’s church planting website)

  • The title of this post - Congregations, life turnarounds, and city transformation › A Journey through NYC religions - caught my eye, so I came by to check it out. Glad I did. FYI - I also bookmarked this page.

  • I appreciate your blog very much.

    Gracias for posting. ^_*

  • My partner and I really enjoyed reading this blog post.

  • Thank you House of Worship! When you get a chance, tell us about your summer program.

  • Praise God for what you are doing. We appreciate your labour for the glory of God. We are praying for you all. Continue to pray for us.

    House of Worship, Jackson Heights, Queens

  • The Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups contribute a great deal to the city. The Albanian Islamic Cultural Center in Staten Island supports a private school. During our visit there, we were very impressed with its high quality and positive atmosphere.

    The Christian churches have a well developed tradition of social programs. Some reform Buddhist groups like Xi Lai and Tai Xu studied the Christian social service tradition in order to adapt it to their religious movements.

    The American religious system also favors a congregational style that emphasizes community feeling and services. Most immigrant religious groups have assimilated to this congregational style over time.

    We will have more to say about non-Christian groups and their contributions to the city. However, so far, there are few studies of the dollar value of social services contributed by non-Christian groups. This is a big hole in our knowledge.

    Thanks for the great questions!

  • Very interesting and informative article. Are you aware if any other religious groups are contributing to the city's welfare needs? New immigrant groups with their own places of worship, for example, Hindus, Muslims. Any info on this?

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