Strange Bedfellows: Faith and Finance Do Go Together

Rosa Lee Harden, Executive Producer of Neighborhood Economics

It has been a fascinating journey to get from our very first Neighborhood Economics event in Louisville, Kentucky in 2014, to Neighborhood Economics in 2024 in San Antonio. And it is so gratifying to me to see the role that faith holds in our work. It feels like maybe it is finally clear to everyone why faith has to be in the room with money in our work. You may wonder, though, how we got here.

Honestly, in 2014, Kevin (Jones), Tim (Soerens) and I would stop and look at each other and wonder if there really was anything of substance that we had to share with the people who gathered. 

Plus, that first gathering was a frightening mix, one we weren’t sure would work: about half of them came from faith connections that Tim and I had, and the other half were SOCAP people who would essentially show up for whatever we did. We had never put faith in the room in that way before, so we didn’t know what would happen. 

But at the end of that day and a half in Louisville, after invigorating conversations with the 100 or so folks that gathered, we realized that this particular group of people–both those who care about using money for good and those who want to see how their faith might impact a local economy–was clearly a winning combination. 

The content was fantastic; we hosted Michelle Long from BALLE, theologian Walter Brueggemann, and world-renowned business leader Peter Block. What a line up! Add to this quite a few entrepreneurs who were talking about their new ideas of saving circles and using Kiva Local to get money moving locally, and we were on to something for sure.

From that modest start, imagine how Kevin, Tim, and I felt looking around the room in San Antonio. Nearly 400 people there, clearly from all sorts of spaces: city managers, bankers – local and from the Fed, pastors, non-profit leaders, seminarians, entrepreneurs, foundation leaders, and the list goes on.  All of these people wanting to be a part of building a new economy that serves everyone, not just keep serving and sending money to the usual places and groups. 

We’ve built a core of practitioners who are creating financial platforms that bring economic power to the people who don’t typically get it; these practitioners are working with funds that create assets in disinvested neighborhoods, through innovative housing solutions, community ownership of commercial real estate, and entrepreneurship as the path to intergenerational wealth. These are the groups we continue to be excited about:

  • People from five different groups are creating mixed-use commercial and housing corridors to stop displacement of people from neighborhoods otherwise at risk of gentrification, and they learned new techniques from each other. 
  • The Purpose Built group of 26 cities, using the community quarterbacks model to help their neighborhoods thrive, told a new story about the power of their network as a place to invest large sums of public sector dollars. 
  • Seminary leaders gathered for a deep dive to talk about how to train the church’s future leaders to actively engage faith groups in economic justice work as expressions of faith.
  • Faith Practitioners met to talk about new tools and new ideas they gained that they could then take HOME with them from the San Antonio gathering

I hope the blending of people of faith and investors, with an interesting middle in that Vinn diagram, makes sense now. And this list doesn’t even even begin to name the multitudes of individual conversations and the partnerships that came out of the more than 40 separate sessions on topics ranging from new models of church property as the solution to workforce housing so teachers and police officers don’t have to drive 40 minutes to their jobs, to new ways communities have found to take charge of their own destiny and revitalization, to collaborations across disciplines in order to make this work move more efficiently and effectively. 

Looking forward, we are imagining a lot more of these conversations, particularly around real estate – both faith assets and housing– more work in corridors, and in health. We imagine deep engagement from catalytic capital from both secular and faith partners. 

This work is big. And real. And it has the potential to change not only the lives of individuals, but also neighborhoods, and maybe even someday have a substantive impact on how this country thinks about the investments we all can make together to make our economy fair and just for everyone. 

This work has come a long way from the two or three ideas and couple of tools in Louisville to the whole swath of ideas and funding mechanisms that people are sharing at Neighborhood Economics, taking back to their neighborhoods, and working with to build economies in which everyone thrives.

What we know without question, now, is that we cannot do this work without the support of our faith partners. In San Antonio, not only did church leaders and seminarians show up, but the Church literally housed us. We could not have pulled this event off without the use of Travis Park Church and the help of Reverend Cynthia Engstrom, who welcomed us into the church and engaged in the rural church content with us, Bob Clarke, who directs their Synago program, and Megan Patterson, the Director of Hospitality, who made us feel welcome and answered so many of questions about the use of space. We were happy that Travis Park could use the furniture we bought for our event. It is hard to believe, but sometimes it is less expensive to buy than to rent furnishings for our events. It was a win-win that Travis Park could use what we bought this year. Travis Park Church’s commitment to be the church to immigrants en route to what we hope are safer, better lives inspired us in our work, and we were glad to contribute to their work. 

We are excited about the future and the work that is ahead of us. If you haven’t attended one of these events before now, I hope you’ll consider joining us soon. The new economy that works for all of us is showing up at Neighborhood Economics. The future is cross sector and interdisciplinary; the unlikely allies are gathering to build what’s needed at our conferences. We need people of faith and investors, problem solvers and dreamers. There is a seat for all of you at this table. Thank you for being a part of it with us.