Housing and community development work has always been a part of the LCMS’ mercy work over the last 150 years. Beginning with the individual actions of local congregations, LCMS Lutherans built orphanages and shelters in the second half of the nineteenth century – providing housing services for thousands of individuals. This work was continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century and eventually expanded to include national housing drives like “Keys for Christ” and large-scale local housing projects like the New York Nehemiah program. Today, this work is continued through the efforts of the LCMS National Housing Support Corporation (d/b/a Lutheran Housing Support).
The loose association that had launched the Lutheran Hospital’s development officially named itself the Lutheran Hospital, Asylum, and Orphanage Association of St. Louis in 1867. Under its first president, Rev. J.F. Buegner, the association spearheaded the construction of a children’s home for orphans on forty acres of land in Des Peres, Missouri. The association laid the building’s cornerstone on March 15, 1868. Six months later, the building had been finished and was dedicated. The facility initially served five orphans and two elderly, homeless men. However, by 1881, the children’s home was sheltering over a hundred orphans from over nine different states at once, some from as far away as Virginia.
At the end of the 1940s, several LCMS social welfare organization leaders began to lobby the synod’s convention to incorporate the local programs of numerous LCMS churches into a single national synodical organization. Such an incorporation would lead to the standardization of professional practices among the many charitable groups in the LCMS. Supporters also argued that a more centralized agency was needed to coordinate the activities of a massive charitable network that, by 1950, consisted of “50 institutions… involving some 2,500 personnel in service to approximately 100,000 [people] annually.” Responding to these calls for centralization, the LCMS synodical convention established an exploratory committee in 1947 to look into options surrounding the issue. When the convention reconvened in 1950, the exploratory committee came back with a proposal to create a “Synodical Board for Social Welfare.” The 1950 Convention immediately established this board which laid the groundwork for a more centralized approach to mercy work throughout the church – including housing development efforts.
The second and third resolutions, “To Inaugurate Action on Fair Housing” and “To Provide Guidelines for the Elimination of Discrimination in Housing,” called upon the synod to honor its anti-discrimination stance laid out in the 1956 Convention by supporting the creation of fair housing. All three of these resolutions passed the convention and served as the basis for the synod’s new fundraising and informational program on fair housing entitled “Keys for Christ.” Unlike past housing programs, where each program was driven by individual congregations and local needs, the resolutions passed in the 1967 Convention provided a synod-wide, national program to answer a national need. This was a major shift in organizational policy, although not unexpected, considering the changes made to the social ministry structure of the LCMS in the late 1950s.
The “Keys for Christ” campaign pulled in donations rapidly after its start. Early results from the LCMS’ first Housing Sunday event in February 1969 indicated that over $100,000 had been received with nearly half of the synod’s congregations participating. By June 1, 1969, total receipts had reached $250,000. By the middle of 1969, the “Keys for Christ” program was financially solvent and had a sizable amount of money in the bank from which to provide grants and loans.
These grants and loans went to a wide variety of LCMS-affiliated programs. “Keys for Christ” seed money was used to secure funding for large, low-income housing complexes like Hollybrook Homes, a project of the Florida-Georgia district of the LCMS. “Keys for Christ” provided $81,000 in seed money to the program which then obtained over $2,000,000 in federal grants to complete construction. The final complex consisted of 11 buildings, consisting of 183 family units, a capacity that could accommodate roughly 1,000 people. “Keys for Christ” seed money was also used on smaller projects like the King of Kings Lutheran Center in Fresno, California where the program provided a $2,300 grant to pay for filing fees involved in developing 100 units of low and middle income housing.
“Keys for Christ” was reaffirmed in the 1971 Synodical Convention when Resolution 9-05 stated that the LCMS would support housing programs across the country, first and foremost, through the “Keys for Christ” program. In 1973, the program received additional support from the Synodical Convention in New Orleans. In that convention’s resolution 9-07, “Keys for Christ” was praised for producing over $25,000,000 in low and middle income housing. The convention directed the Board of Social Ministry, which at that time had become the Board of Social Ministry and World Relief, to develop a stronger approach to LCMS congregations to encourage them to give more to the revolving fund. The “Keys for Christ” program did this by continuing to promote and support its Housing Sunday program as well as lending financial support to additional projects. By the end of its run in the 1980s, the “Keys for Christ” program had enacted a great deal of change through its relatively small initial investment of around $300,000. By 1980, a “Keys for Christ” informational piece estimated that the program had provided new housing for 10,000 people and helped create just over $60,000,000 in low and middle income housing during the previous decade.
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was approached in January, 1982 for funding by two of its congregations, St. Peter’s and Risen Christ Lutheran churches, which were involved directly in the East Brooklyn area and were affiliated with EBC. The request, which first came to the LCMS Board for Mission Services, was for an amount of $1,000,000 to be contributed to the Nehemiah revolving fund. Based on the materials that it received from the EBC, the Board for Social Missions immediately referred the project to the synodical Board of Directors with the strong recommendation that the synod should provide the $1,000,000 for the Nehemiah Plan. In its resolution of action to the Board of Directors, the Board for Social Missions noted:
“The Nehemiah Plan” proposes an exciting and realistic approach to the rebuilding of these central city areas and offers the possibility of becoming a workable and acceptable model for other devastated central cities; and [it] offers the churches involved, including two Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregations (Risen Christ and St. Peter’s) the return of a stable community and a rebuilding of their membership and a return to self-support and self-esteem. [“The Nehemiah Plan”] offers denominations willing to become involved a unique opportunity to work together in demonstrating that the spoken concern for needs and conditions of people and the betterment of living conditions is real [and] that such cooperation can happen without violation of denominational positions….”
The LCMS was the first national church body to give a major million dollar gift to the revolving fund, and its financial commitment to the program spurred the other national church bodies to also provide funds to the program. In a 2004 celebration of the Nehemiah program, EBC’s lead organizer Mike Gecan noted that this initial no-interest loan from the LCMS was “pivotal to building support for an effort that [by 2004 had] had an extraordinary impact.” By the middle of 1982, the revolving fund had collected $8,000,000, with the main contributors being the LCMS, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Episcopal Church. With the majority of its revolving loan fund in place, the EBC immediately began to move ahead with building plans.
Had anyone told Cornelia Jones that she would one day own a house, let alone on Junius Street in Brooklyn’s notorious Brownsville district, she would have laughed. The average price for decent housing in adjoining neighborhoods is $80,000, far above what her husband Melvin, a package loader with United Parcel Service, could swing on a salary of just under $30,000. Moreover, Junius Street was a wasteland of vandalized buildings and rubble-strewn vacant lots, not even a place “that I wanted my car to break down in,” says Jones, 48. Yet in August 1984 the Joneses and their two children moved from a nearby public-housing project into a spanking-new two-bedroom house, complete with front and back yards. The house, part of a new development of more than 1,000 two-story residences, “is all I want in a home,” says Cornelia Jones. Its address: 500 Junius Street. Its cost to the Joneses: just $39,000. The Joneses’ entree into home ownership and the rebirth of Junius Street are the work of the Nehemiah Project, the largest of the community-based private housing groups that are springing up around the country to answer the enormous need for low-cost shelter [sic].
Over ten years later, a local newspaper in the Brooklyn community, the Daily News, mirrored Time’s sentiments by noting Nehemiah’s place as the driving force behind cleaning up many of the blighted Brooklyn neighborhoods: “‘If not for the Nehemiah Houses’ has become a refrain of hopes fulfilled in the past 15 years for many public housing tenants in the South Bronx and in Brownsville and East New York, Brooklyn.” In the same article, a Brooklyn resident, who had moved into one of the Nehemiah homes, described the experience of owning a home of his own as empowering: “It’s like getting a stake in your neighborhood, in your country, a stake in everything you believe in and it gives you hope. It makes you feel less negative about what can be done.”
The expansion of housing ministry within the LCMS Board for Human Care was accompanied by an expansion of LCMS housing activities across the country. In 1993, an organization named Interfaith Action Communities, which had one LCMS affiliate congregation, planned to build 2,500 Nehemiah homes in Prince George’s County, Maryland. The synod provided $250,000 for the effort. That same year, Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest began work on a project that would add around 150 units of “low and moderate income” housing in Phoenix, Arizona. In late 1994, plans were created for the “first national Inter-Lutheran Housing Ministries Convocation,” a joint convention held by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the LCMS. That convention was carried out in September, 1995 in Memphis, Tennessee. By the fall of 1996, according to the quarterly Housing Information for Ministry, over four years, “five projects [had] been approved [for loan funding from the revolving housing fund], including a new $1 million loan to build 1,300 homes in Brooklyn Nehemiah II.”
Also during the 1990s, there were multiple attempts by various non-profit agencies, as well as some LCMS districts, to recreate the Nehemiah program in other cities across the country. An interfaith agency in Memphis, Tennessee, the Shelby County Interfaith group, created plans in 1993 to build 2,000 units of affordable housing in Memphis by 2000 under a “Memphis Nehemiah” titled program. In 1998, LCMS pastor John Brasil created a moderate-income housing program under the name “OKShare” which built a similar type of housing in Chicago. This preliminary housing work helped lead the Northern Illinois District, in 1999, to request a $1,000,000 loan from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund to create a Nehemiah program in Chicago.
The synod supplemented these district and congregational efforts with two convention resolutions in the 1990s. Both resolutions were entitled “To Expand Housing Ministry.” The first one, Overture 6-24, passed in 1995, formed the formal basis for a housing ministry position inside of the LCMS. The second overture, 6-25, passed in 1998, recommended that the synod pursue closer work in housing, especially through partners like Habitat for Humanity. Both resolutions reinforced what had already been a rich thirty year history of housing resolutions passed by various LCMS conventions, beginning with Resolution 9-08 in the 1967 Convention that created the “Keys for Christ” program.
The planning for this new corporation led to a November, 2003 Board for Human Care Ministries meeting where the board approved the proposal to create the “LCMS National Housing Support Corporation.” The board cited, as support for this new corporation, the LCMS’ involvement in the New York and Memphis Nehemiah plans. It also noted in its decision that the corporation would be advantageous in obtaining external funds and developing partnerships for housing that were not available to LCMS World Relief and Human Care.
In its 2004 Convention, the LCMS stated in Resolution 6-02 that the “[d]evelopment of capacity and capital for the many housing programs of Districts and congregations” was a way that LCMS Lutherans could serve their communities. Shortly after the 2004 Convention, on a national and international level, LCMS World Relief and Human Care looked at new housing problems in the wake of two devastating natural disasters: the Indonesian Tsunami in late 2004 and Hurricane Katrina, which occurred in late 2005. Both events created large numbers of homeless people as they destroyed entire communities.
Today, the NHSC seeks and secures funding from government, private, and corporate sources to assist LCMS congregations, districts, registered service organizations (RSOs) and other partners to develop housing ministries in their neighborhoods. NHSC acts as an intermediary for securing and administering funds and complying with conditions imposed by the various funding entities. NHSC has grown to provide a variety of services to various LCMS entities and their partners across the country.
NHSC’s current organizational objectives include:
- Providing financial and technical support for community improvement initiatives in neighborhoods that are close to LCMS altars.
- Networking with, training, and supporting community, faith based entities and their partners engaged in community-based projects to successfully seek and secure private and public financial investments into their redevelopment and revitalization activities.
- Developing models for successful faith-based neighborhood revitalization in blighted and economically challenged communities.
- Providing financial and technical support designed to strengthen the capacity and sustainability of organizations engaged in housing and neighborhood revitalization activities in economically challenged communities.
- Establishing locally based, sustainable, and financially stable collaboration vehicles that will help identify, nurture, support, and promote promising, successful, and reproducible new and innovative approaches, programs, and projects that improve economic conditions, ensure the widest possible availability of safe, decent and affordable housing, and provide services designed to revitalize communities and help prevent future deterioration.