By James H. Heine
If you ask Carol Crenshaw what has changed in the 40-plus years she has lived in the College Hill neighborhood of St. Louis and why she participated June 6 in a “Peace and Praise Walk” that began at St. Paul Lutheran Church in College Hill, she will mention two things — gunfire and abandoned buildings.
College Hill is an historic neighborhood not far from the Mississippi River and about four miles north of downtown St. Louis and the Gateway Arch. It includes several landmarks listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as the homes of several of the city’s early luminaries. Until the latter part of the 20th century, it was a thriving residential and commercial neighborhood. Today, it ranks among the poorest communities in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and also among the most violent.
“When we first moved here [in 1970], it was beautiful and quiet, and you could sleep all night,” says Crenshaw, who raised her five children in College Hill, and who on this day is hosting two grandchildren up from Alabama for a summer visit with their grandmother. “The property was kept up, and neighbors were ones that really loved taking care of their things,” she said.
Now, she says, “We have to listen out for shots, because there’s quite a bit of shooting up here now. It’s not nearly as quiet as it was.”
Also, she adds, “a lot of people have moved. [There are] a lot of abandoned buildings, and we have a lot of vacant lots.”
It’s an observation echoed by fellow College Hill resident and Peace and Praise Walk participant Joanna White, who describes her neighborhood as “lost” — and plagued by drugs and gun violence.
‘A wonderful neighborhood’
“It’s a wonderful neighborhood. It’s just lost,” she says. “And we don’t have too much in the neighborhood for kids to do.”
After a pause, White, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years, adds, “I want peace in my neighborhood, and if this can help, I want to be part of it.”
Her hope for the Peace and Praise Walk she has joined? Awareness, she says, “so people can know that there are people who really do care about you, and we don’t have to take each other’s lives. We can help each other as much as we can.”
Organized by the LCMS National Housing Support Corporation (NHSC) and St. Paul Lutheran Church, College Hill, in partnership with the College Hill Foundation and The Campaign for College Hill, the “Peace and Praise Walk for College Hill” drew some 100 participants who included members of St. Paul and the College Hill Foundation, representatives from the LCMS International Center, local LCMS congregations, public officials from the city of St. Louis, neighborhood residents, and members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, including Col. Sam Dodson III, chief of police. The event served as a follow-up to a similar prayer walk, also organized by NHSC and the College Hill Foundation, Oct. 17.
The NHSC seeks to help revitalize struggling neighborhoods anchored by LCMS congregations. The corporation has been involved in College Hill since 2007, where it works with like-minded individuals and organizations such as the Lutheran Foundation of St. Louis to achieve its goals. Since 2007, the NHSC — more commonly known as Lutheran Housing Support — has worked with the residents to develop a vision and concept plan for College Hill; begun construction of Nazareth Homes, a project that will bring 20 new family residences to the community, three of which are built and two sold; rehabbed or assisted residents in repairing more than 90 neighborhood homes; and most recently secured funds to acquire and demolish nine derelict and abandoned buildings in the community identified as nuisance properties.
NHSC brings hope
The work of the NHSC, St. Paul Lutheran Church, and their partners has had an effect on the neighborhood, observes Crenshaw, a member of The Campaign for College Hill and an advocate for the community.
“They have absolutely brought hope here,” she says. “When they say they are going to do something, they do it. We up here have had a lot of promises and heard a lot of things that people say they’re going to do. We’ve been through quite a bit of different charrettes and all of those things. But that’s all it ever was. The end of it was just to do a charrette. No one ever took it any further. But with the Lutheran campaign here, it’s been different. They have absolutely improved College Hill.”
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson agrees. “I think this church is doing exactly what it should be doing,” he said. “A church, a school, a community center brings people together. And when people come together, there’s power in numbers. And, when a neighborhood sees this type of energy, it causes change.”
Dotson credits the efforts of St. Paul and the NHSC with being a stabilizing force in the neighborhood.
“This is exactly what I would like to see in all the city’s 79 neighborhoods, not just here in College Hill,” he said.
City of St. Louis Second Ward Alderwoman Dionne Flowers also credits St. Paul’s and NHSC with having a positive effect on the neighborhood, part of which she represents at City Hall.
“I thank them for everything they’ve done,” she said.
Flowers also reminded participants to thank the police officers who were present. Keep them in your prayers, she said, “because what they do is not easy, and it is not something that is always glorified. They’re here, not only as officers working today, but they’re here to let you know they joined this peace walk and this prayer walk because they need it as well.”
God’s work through people
The day began with a Service of Peace and Praise on the steps of St. Paul Lutheran Church. In his homily for the service, the Rev. Dwight Dickinson, pastor of Great Commission Lutheran Church in St. Louis, said, “As we go forth from this place and we march and we pray for people, we’re going to see some things that we may not feel are right, but you have to look beyond the sin and see the sinner and know that God loves each and every one of His creatures here on earth. No matter what their circumstances here at this time, God can work in us and through us to bring change to people who are in need of change, to bring change to a community that is in need of change.”
Dickinson concluded his message by saying, “Let’s show the love of Christ Jesus as it dwells in us and through us as we move forward to bless this community and do the things we need to do as Christians to be a part of this great change.”
At the conclusion of the service, the participants divided into two groups and began the “walk” portion of the day, introducing themselves to residents, asking for prayer requests, and noting if requests for help or referrals were made.
The Peace and Praise Walk concluded at the display house for Nazareth Homes, where the Rev. Randall Golter, special assistant to LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, led participants in a responsive prayer from Lutheran Service Book’s “Service of Prayer and Preaching.”
In reviewing the event, NHSC’s Chief Executive Nicole Ridley judged it a “huge success,” pointing to the wide spectrum of people who took part — residents, volunteers, stakeholders, city representatives, clergy — “all coming together to pray for the neighborhood and what has been plaguing that community, but also to celebrate all the good things and all the good people that live there.”
Crenshaw, who works tirelessly to improve the neighborhood and to bring about an end to the crime and violence that affects the community, agrees: “I know that God answers prayers. And I thank the Lord that we had this today and neighbors came out and gave their prayer requests, because quite a few people here do not go to church. I think this was a positive thing today.”
For more information about the work of NHSC — Lutheran Housing Support — in College Hill and elsewhere, visit nationalhousingsupport.org.
James H. Heine (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a St. Louis journalist and the retired director of news and information for LCMS Communications.