I want to tell you about an exciting adventure upon which Bethlehem New Orleans is embarking.
Bethlehem has been situated in Central City New Orleans, on the corner of Washington and Dryades) for 134 years. Central City struggles. The median income is just $18,446. In 2016 the city identified a new for 33,593 affordable housing opportunities. There are 20,000 on the waiting list for affordable housing vouchers. Meanwhile, the number of affordable houses declined over the last few years.
Pastor Ben Groth says, “When I started as a redevelopment pastor, we had a redevelopment team. The team imagined what Bethlehem’s “thing” would be. We talked about providing a free meal in the community.” That developed into Community Table. “We talked about affordable housing.” That developed into their new affordable housing project.
Ben has been serving three and a half years, but two of those have been in a pandemic. They spent the last two years creating and building Community Table, which serves around 500 free meals a week, because the need was so great with the economic crisis created by the pandemic.
Bethlehem works with a strong network of community partners:
- CORE – Community Organized Relief Effort
- Voces Unidas – Louisiana Immigrants’ Rights Coalition
- Loyola University Law School
- Tulane School of Architecture
- Together New Orleans
- Keller Family Foundation
- Crescent Care
- Liberty’s Kitchen
Tulane School of Architecture has a program called URBANbuild. The school of architecture students design a house in the fall and then build it in the spring. Since 2005 Tulane’s URBANbuild program has been working to help revitalize the Central City Neighborhood. URBANbuild is led by Byron Mouton, an established architect, professor, New Orleans native and alumnus of Tulane.
The program built a house in 2021 adjacent to Bethlehem’s building. Bethlehem, supportive of this work, gave them access to the church parking lot. When they first met, Pastor Ben showed them Bethlehem. They saw the rotted wood beams of Bethlehem’s structure, and wondered if one day they might partner.
Later Bethlehem asked for a meeting to talk about Bethlehem, but also about potential affordable housing in the empty lot the church owns across the street. Byron Mouton was interested in the idea, but had to go through several layers of people at Tulane: deans, legal counsel, and so on.
Last July, Pastor Ben got a call from Byron saying Tulane was going to move forward with Bethlehem, in September! Not a year from then, but this fall. The students would begin designing, with a plan to build in the Spring (in other words, now).
The school donates the design and labor for the construction of these houses, but the church raises the rest. “This made it possible for us to imagine doing this,” says Pastor Ben. We had a partner we could trust that had a good track record. And we could build well below market value. So, we started talking with congregational leadership and in a few weeks called a congregational meeting.
They are starting phase one of a four-phase program. If all goes well, they will work on the church building in year five. The lot is large, 10,500 square feet. The congregation will lose the $5,000/year they make selling Mardi Gras parking. “It gives us cash, but it’s a whole lot of work, and it doesn’t help the neighborhood. We will add four affordable townhouses. We will rent these units out. The income will go to maintenance, with maybe some surplus.”
This year they need to raise $225,000. That’s a lot for a small congregation in Central City. They launched a Go Fund Me that has raised $50,000 as of March.
“We are a congregation that represents the beautiful mess of God’s love in the world,” says Ben. “We find our strength through the knowledge that God creates and loves all people, and through our own celebration of the diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences in our midst.”
Their love for their community, responsiveness to human need, and bold spirit are inspiring. Let’s help then get there.