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A Midwestern political junkie; a Ph.D.


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Born in East L.A.

Boarded up and condemned by the city, a barrio-style neighborhood store sits at the corner of West Howard and Navarro Avenue in Pasadena, Calif. Well, one-third of a store, anyway. In May, the second story and one wing burned to cinders in an accidental blaze, leaving a grungy little store-stump of sorts. That was a few weeks after gangsta rapper Ice Cube and a hip-hop posse thumped out of town (having used the store in a music video) and a few months before a tagging crew beat a kid with a baseball bat for having painted out their graffiti with his own.

But such drama is relatively rare on Navarro these days, in part because of the guy who hangs out across the street from the store.

Rudy Carrasco came to work with the urban poor in this once-blighted neighborhood in 1990. At that time, the intersection of West Howard and Navarro was called "blood corner" because of the blood that splashed the streets during drive-by shootings and aborted drug deals. In 1982, John Perkins, an African-American evangelical, had founded the Harambee Christian Family Center in a house on the corner opposite the store. Perkins bought the house right out from under a pair of incarcerated drug-dealing twins who had run a brothel from a tent in the backyard. Eight years later, Carrasco, fresh from college and full of youth, joined in Perkins' plan to reclaim fallen neighborhoods by nurturing "indigenous leadership" tutored in scriptural truth.

"I was just out of college, stumbling in the daylight, trying to do urban ministry, but not really knowing what I was doing," said Carrasco, who talked with WORLD in the shade of a spreading pine at the edge of the half-size basketball court poured behind Harambee's property, which has grown to include six adjacent houses. A few feet away, 30 or so polo-shirted K-6 students from the Harambee Preparatory School galloped up and down the concrete, laughing.

"Rudy! Rudy!" kids called at intervals, the younger girls running up to administer brief hugs, the older boys to give Carrasco "dap."

"I want you to have that college degree and that ring on your finger!" Carrasco said to one boy, about 12, then held up his hand and waggled his wedding band. "Aw, yeah . . . marriage!"

The boy grinned and dashed back to the basketball game.

A number of Harambee Preparatory School kids come from two-parent families that, Carrasco said, "can afford to send their kids anywhere." They pay full tuition, about $6,300 a year. Others pay as little as $10 a month. One little boy lives in a garage with his mother and sister. One girl's mother is in jail. Carrasco emphasizes that while the former is not necessarily the neighborhood rule, neither is the latter. "When you're talking about urban ministry, everyone wants to emphasize the bad things that happen. But there are many good families here who go to work, come home, and dream big."

Harambee started as an after-school program. "The idea was to meet some basic needs, give kids a safe place to go," he said. Back then, "a kid playing ball on the sidewalk was being 'discipled' by drug dealers, prostitutes, and thieves"-some formally, and some by street-osmosis, absorbing bad attitudes about things like race, drugs, money, authority, and morality. "They are being 'discipled' and don't even know it." As a stronger antidote, Harambee added both a teen-jobs program and the school.

In 1996, Carrasco became associate director at Harambee, and Christianity Today named him one of 50 evangelical leaders under 40 to watch. In 2003, he took over as executive director. Thirty-nine now, Carrasco still talks like a college kid, wide-eyed and earnest, making exclamation points with his hands. But his enthusiasm is grounded in hard experience. The son of Mexican immigrants, Carrasco was born in East L.A. His mother died when he was 6; his father had left the family long before. Carrasco's older sister, Yolanda, a Christian, took him and his siblings in and raised them. Their little neighborhood church became Carrasco's extended family.

After earning a degree in English from Stanford University, Carrasco knew he wanted to work with the poor. Though not a loner, at first he thought he could reach people one-on-one. "I was like, here's my money, here's some clothes. Need a ride? Here's my car," he said. But slowly, he developed the philosophy that the power to promote lasting life-change lies in the strength of a group.

The group brings resources and staying power, Carrasco said, as well as the discernment to know when mercy will count as mercy instead of as an enabling handout. "This is not a place for kids to come and 'find themselves' or 'keep it real.' If they want to do that, there's a big city out there," he said. "Here, there are rules and standards when they walk in. But we are going to love them and invest in them."

As a result, people who once opposed the Christian presence on "blood corner" now come to Harambee in times of pain and need. "We are in a post-Christian world and we have to prove ourselves over and over again," Carrasco said. "But they have seen by our actions that we believe what we say" about the love of Christ. "A lot of people don't really feel like listening to evangelicals right now, but in the long run they will give heed to your actions. I've seen it over and over again.

Advancing "relational ministry"

Amy Sherman's compassion for the poor was born in a tarpaper shack. Growing up in a liberal Methodist church near Buffalo, N.Y., Sherman yearned for the day she would be old enough to travel with Methodist Youth Fellowship on a week-long service trip. Finally, she turned 13, and that summer piled into a youth leader's car bound for the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia.

"We camped in tents, then built a barn," said Sherman, now 41, director of the Center on Faith in Communities at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. "Then we broke into work teams. Our team's assignment involved going to do some work on the house of an old woman who lived right up at the top of a mountain."

A long, winding drive led Sherman's group to a shack that had no electricity or running water. "I remember being a young teenager and just being amazed at this little old lady living alone in this little shack," Sherman said. "She told us how every morning she would take these two big buckets to a freshwater spring on the mountain, one bucket for washing water and one for drinking water, and she'd drag them all the way back. . . . I imagined her in the middle of winter clomping through the snow. It just burned something into my heart and made me aware of poverty in a very visceral way."

Today, working with two assistants from the converted top floor of her home in Charlottesville, Sherman runs a range of projects designed to engage faith groups in fighting poverty.

As director of the Faith and Service Technical Education Network, Sherman oversees a peer-reviewed website that provides faith-based practitioners with proven tools for poverty-fighting. Sherman also is involved in ELEVATE, which provides school-based training in economic literacy and entrepreneurship at more than 40 inner-city Christian schools. At one such program, sponsored by a church in Columbus, Ohio, "third-graders are going home and talking to their parents about risk, investment, and security," Sherman explained. "The parents came and said, 'Our kids know more about this than we do! Can you teach us this stuff?'" The sponsoring church said yes, and put on a financial literacy class for parents.

Sherman first encountered conservative philosophies behind community-based poverty-fighting through the Catholic Church. During a two-year academic hiatus from Messiah College, she worked for Catholic scholar George Weigel, then president of the James Madison Foundation, a think tank focused on religious liberty and ethics. Weigel exposed Sherman to Catholic teaching on social justice issues.

"I was particularly struck by the Catholic notion of 'subsidiarity,' a fancy word that means that the people closest to the problems ought to be the main ones designing solutions," she said. Later, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Sherman earned master's and doctoral degrees in government and international affairs but "kept one foot in the hands-on world," performing inner-city service projects with friends.

"For me personally, it has been incredibly important to have one foot in the world of the practitioner, to see with my own eyes what's going on at the grassroots, to stay in touch with the stories and the struggles of people doing ministry, listening to what their needs are," Sherman said. At the same time, she notes, it's critical to promote good thinking about effective community transformation. "I have found that there's a wonderful learning interaction that happens in the middle of those two spheres of activity."

Poverty-fighting ideas that sound good on paper may run aground in the real world, she said. Meanwhile, street lessons learned the hard way often need to find their way back to those shaping policy.

One street lesson Sherman has learned is this: Churches need to move away from commodity-based compassion-that is, "throwing money and canned goods and used furniture at poor people."

She remembers when members of her own church "adopted" kids or whole families at Christmas, delivering gifts to the homes of those in need. "One of the things you see in the field is that when churches do that kind of adopt-a-family program and bring stuff in, if there's a male who's a part of that family, who's trying to make a living, you will see no sign of him. There's embarrassment and a sense of failure."

Charlottesville Abundant Life Ministries, an outreach launched by Sherman's church, found what she said is a better way "to capitalize on the holiday largesse of the 'haves' in a way that protects the dignity of the 'have-nots.'" All year long, kids involved in Abundant Life's youth programs earn "Blue Bucks." Then, just after Thanksgiving, Abundant Life turns its facility into a Christmas mega-store that carries everything from new toys to new clothes to gift certificates for oil changes, all donated.

It's a win-win, Sherman said. "People from church get to feel great about doing something for people who don't have as much as they do, and the kids get to have the experience of being a giver."

And there's a third win: The families receiving these gifts feel better about how they acquired them. "It's not a bunch of rich people coming from the other side of town, saying, 'Well you weren't able to afford Christmas, so we're providing one for you.' Instead, it's 'Gosh, my fourth-grader had 250 Blue Bucks, and look, he got a present for his brother and his grandmother.'"

For Sherman, Abundant Life's approach to neighborhood ministry is a model for how Christians can effectively live out Micah 6:8. "I don't think we do justice or love mercy through drive-by, commodity-based ministry. Micah 6:8 requires holistic, relationship-driven ministry."

Citizen-driven compassion

Neighbors observing young William Schambra growing up in Midland, Mich., might have known he'd wind up in Washington, D.C. For reasons Schambra can't explain today, politics fascinated him even as a kid. He remembers spending the summer of 1965 hunkered down with one very detailed project.

"I spent hours and hours tracing county maps of every state in the union, filling them in with the results of the 1960 and 1964 elections," said Schambra, now director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civil Renewal of the Hudson Institute. Maybe it was a little nerdy, he now thinks. But behind his scribblings, Schambra saw more than numbers: He saw people-Americans, millions of them, coming together to decide how they wanted to live.

American politics is "an inspiring process, but messy and gritty," he said. "I loved the nitty-gritty of politics. I loved the fact that the town clerks could sit down and name the party affiliation of everyone in the township . . . that all the Bradleys were Democrats, for example, and all the Cunninghams were Republicans."

Schambra's citizen-centered, town-square view of politics-and policymaking-would later inform what became his life's calling: helping to advance a view of effective philanthropy as being rooted in local communities. At Hudson, Schambra writes and speaks on civic life and the necessity of funding ground-level programs that transform poor communities by helping the poor transform their own lives.

Now 57, with silver hair and square-rimmed glasses, Schambra, when he turns out in a suit, looks more like a not-to-be-trifled-with corporate attorney than a do-gooder. But when he opens his mouth, that image evaporates: During his telephone interview with WORLD, well-turned but accessible phrases tripped easily through the line, as though some tiny speechwriter lives in his mouth. Perhaps it's because he once worked as a senior advisor and speechwriter for former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and others, before joining the Bradley Center in 1992.

Silver tongue notwithstanding, "I knew early on I was not the personality type to be a candidate, but I wanted to be around politics," he said. After earning his undergrad degree at Michigan State, Schambra completed master's and doctoral programs in political science at Northern Illinois University. It was there that he also first encountered the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.

From the famous French traveler, "you learn the story of the American township . . . that there's no substitute for everyday citizens stepping forward to deal with their problems in community with each other," Schambra said.

De Tocqueville's observations dovetailed perfectly with Schambra's post-collegiate studies as a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. At that time, during the mid-70s, thinkers like Richard John Neuhaus, Peter Berger, Michael Novak, and Amy Sherman's mentor, George Weigel, were exploring the concept of "mediating structures" within communities.

Such structures included the American family, the neighborhood, houses of worship, and voluntary and ethnic associations. As a researcher, Schambra found himself agreeing with the scholars' argument that such neighborhood groups, the center of Americans' values-life and civic engagement, ought to be providers of social services, rather than big, program-oriented institutions.

Such thinking was less new than resurrected, Schambra notes. "What the left can't understand is that compassionate conservatism wasn't a bunch of new and weird ideas concocted to take back power. It was a long process of historical recovery of a lot of very old ideas."

And very basic ideas, such as: In every low-income community, there is a pastor who is a leader; there is a church-based childcare center, led by the woman in the neighborhood to whom everyone goes for advice; and these types of people are the ones who can promote the personal responsibility and long-term care that deliver the needy from dependence.

Schambra first saw this with life-changing clarity while serving as program officer at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. "In the early 90s, we at Bradley asked [Center for Neighborhood Enterprise founder] Robert Woodson to come . . . help us rethink our program of local grants," he said. "We had been told by all the experts that our central city . . . was nothing but a desolate wasteland, begging to be filled by well-paid professional service providers gingerly making their way in from the suburbs."

Schambra and his Bradley colleagues challenged Woodson to show them, in their own backyard, those faith-based wellsprings of hope he'd made a name for himself talking about.

Woodson did, hooking up the Bradley Foundation's grant-makers with Bill Lock, founder of a local business incubator and job-training center; Cordelia Taylor, who ran a senior care facility; and Pastor Sedgwick Daniels, who had been running four church-based schools, a health clinic, a credit union, and other programs on nothing but donations from his congregation.

Lock, Taylor, Daniels, and others became the personification of concepts Schambra had been formulating for 20 years. He felt he was "standing in the presence of modern-day saints, people doing incredible works. They would tell you that you are witnessing the hand of God in human affairs. There's no other way to explain the personal transformation that was taking place."

Schambra said conservatives smarting from the 2006 mid-term election results might take a lesson in poverty-fighting from Milwaukee's inner-city saints. "Forget about passing legislation," he said. "Go out, find those people . . . and get them the resources to do the work. The good news about this approach to public policy is that you don't need public policy to make it work."


Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.

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