New US church development initiative puts communities first

By staff writers
July 5, 2009

The Communities First Association (CFA), a fast-growing inter-church movement based in the United States, was formally launched from its new offices in Holland, Michigan, at the beginning of July 2009.

CFA is aimed at helping Christian congregations and organizations of all denominations to address poverty in their own areas and to work towards improved community life for all.

Communities First Association director Jay Van Groningen describes the new organization as “an association of independent professionals who help faith communities meet neighbourhood needs across America. CFA’s mission is to equip and resource association members to be great coaches and trainers in asset-based community development. CFA is growing into a movement of transformed communities across the USA.”

By using ‘asset-based community development,’ CFA assists churches, organizations and individuals in recognising the resources they already have, and then use them to make positive improvements in their areas, says Groningen.

Asset-based community development (or ABCD) was originally adapted for use by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), which is now providing a significant start-up grant to CFA.

CFA is demonstrating its practical 'from the ground up' philosophy by making a difference in the Midwest city of Holland itself.

Four years ago, residents in one Holland Heights community realized that none of them wanted to live there: the crime rate was high and police were called in regularly to address violence. People were afraid and living in isolation from each other.

But through a small, local organization called Heights of Hope, CFA and its regional partners began placing AmeriCorps volunteers in the community. Using CFA’s ABCD strategy, the volunteers uncovered the residents’ hopes, dreams, and concerns as well as their gifts and interests.

Soon, people began to cooperate with each other and to discover they could enjoy life together. They also started to exchange their time and resources.

“People are working together to benefit the whole community with programmes like after-school tutoring instead of being afraid of one another,” Van Groningen explains. “The residents rented a nearby apartment to use as a community centre, and when the Holland city council notified them that they were out of compliance with local zoning laws, they banded together to present their case to the council and received a zoning variance for the centre.”

Van Groningen claims that the Holland Heights neighbourhood centre has become “a continuing hub of local gatherings, programmes, and support activities for community members.”

“There is more interaction, less crime, less residential turnover, and more neighbour-to-neighbour sharing and cooperation in this community,” says the CFA director.

The change in Holland Heights is the result of training in ABCD through CFA, and mutual learning among the people and organizations involved.

“Learning from each other is what CFA is about,” Van Groningen says. “CFA will continue to walk alongside Heights of Hope and other non-profits like them, helping them build capacity to work together towards a better future in tough communities.”

He also cites experiences in Bellflower, California, Miami, and the Bronx.

Communities First Association resources and membership information can be found at

A book entitled Communities First, which includes a series of workbooks and forms an empowering guide for churches and community organizations is also obtainable through CFA. Materials are available in Spanish as well as English.

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