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True Light

Years ago, I began my career in an impoverished community in North St. Louis, Missouri. Our offices were located at True Light Missionary Baptist Church. I worked for an organization that had high hopes for the transformative impact of investment in this community. 

While we had some charitable funding, we knew it wouldn't be sufficient. At the time, comprehensive redevelopment initiatives were a nationwide trend, focusing on multiple aspects of redevelopment like housing, education, neighborhood beautification, and workforce development simultaneously. 

St. Louis' effort was boosted by a major grant from a local foundation that no longer exists. The thinking behind this was that it would unleash an avalanche of support in a part of the St. Louis region close to Grand Center, which has now become a destination for arts and culture. Having an inside view of the organization, the politics around community development, and the flow of money was instructive and formative. 

What everyone close to the effort knew was that to make a lasting difference, we needed more financial support from foundations and corporations over a longer period, as well as the involvement of businesses and churches in the community. We needed a revival, a renewed interest and enthusiasm for improving the region one community at a time. This effort had at least what many business people and politicians considered to be a "justifiable investment" - location or proximity to other significant investment. We sometimes call this synergy. 

At the time, I was a recent college graduate, filled with energy and optimism to work alongside the people in this community. Growing up in similar neighborhoods and working in this one, thinking back on the experience today, I see three essential factors for successful revitalization efforts to lift communities out of poverty: local ownership of the vision, mobilization of allies to support local initiatives, and the attraction of capital and commerce. Additionally, the engagement of non-profits, churches, and people of faith is crucial. In many ways, we need a revival of thought and capital. 


Local Ownership of Vision: If local people aren't positioned to own the process of revitalization and the outcomes of their neighborhood’s transformation efforts will fall short over time. If nonprofits, who are the lynchpin of many of these communities and are responsible for providing capacity, and focused effort toward a common vision are unoptimized, uninspired, under reaching and unattached to the region’s race to the top, transformation efforts will fall short.

Mobilization of Allies: When my son was five years old, I taught him how to ride a bike. Just like many parents, I played a hands-on role until he got the hang of it. I vividly remember that day: I held his seat from the back as he pedaled with all his heart. Then, I let go of the seat, and he had no idea until he looked back that he was doing it himself. I was there for him when he fell down, offering support and advice. We need more allies who are comfortable, holding a seat, providing support and advice, being there when things fall short and letting go. 

Last year, I had a conversation with a local business legend known for breaking businesses up to unlock their value. I asked him what advice he would give to anyone looking to start a business, and he simply replied, "Don't start one, buy one that is already proven." It reminded me of an early mentor, Rev. Jerry Paul, who emphasized the importance of investing in leaders with a vision. He used to say, "I don't have to do everything; I invest in leaders who have novel or proven ideas to solve problems." 


Churches and Capital: One of the highlights of 2023 for me was witnessing the success of the Refuge and Restoration Marketplace, led by Pastors Ken and Beverly Jenkins, along with other pastors and business owners of faith. This achievement came after six years of partnership with Bishop Michael Jones, the Pastor of Friendly Temple, who is working to transform Martin Luther King Drive. It came more than a decade after partnering with Chris Krehmeyer of Beyond Housing, who is seeking to transform the 24:1 Community in North St. Louis County. This group started as an ecumenical housing organization many years ago. Church leaders and their congregations are known to do great work. 

I firmly believe that the Church has the potential to have an even greater impact on society than it currently does. As people of faith, we are called to be a beacon of light. Practical demonstrations of faith and experiencing God's presence in tangible ways can truly inspire others. This realization led me to consider the incredible power of seemingly small acts that are divinely connected. What if over 1,000 churches in the St. Louis region rallied around a single small business, a community development project, or another church with the potential to transform a neighborhood? I am convinced that this strategy could not only reverse the decline in church membership but also benefit our communities and propel our region towards greatness. It takes courage to take relevant, practical action. People in all types of communities are searching for something real and meaningful. 


Engagement: Lastly, for St. Louis to compete with other thriving metropolitan areas in attracting companies, jobs, and people, it requires an overall revitalization. St. Louis needs to invest more in helping people not only prepare for future jobs but also connect their industriousness with future business opportunities—we need more owners. We need renewed localism—Supporting St. Louis small businesses and efforts is crucial. We need common sense policies and practices to address issues of safety in our neighborhoods. Ignoring issues won't make them disappear, and we need more people involved in community and board service as relying on a few individuals to do everything won't provide the momentum the region needs. True light, is enlightening.

Where you bank matters.

Originally published in the St. Louis Business Journals Ask The Expert Column on 2/16/2024 by Orv Kimbrough, Chairman and CEO.