Congregations hope partnership can anchor neighborhood adrift in poverty
02/22/2014 5:16 PM
02/22/2014 5:16 PM
Alma Contreras has heard the joke: “Just dump your trash in Planeview.”
“That’s sad,” she said. “I want people to stop.”
Contreras, 36, a single mother of three boys, has lived in Planeview for 13 years.
She worked two jobs so she could save enough to buy a house two years ago in the southeast Wichita community. Planeview is among the poorest areas in the state, with a 22 percent unemployment rate and a third of its more than 1,300 households living on less than $15,000 annually, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
That’s not to say there haven’t been efforts to help Planeview residents.
The most recent one involves three church denominations coming together to establish Partners Church. The church intends to help provide education and job opportunities for adults and soccer for kids in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, organizers said.
Partners will be located at an existing church, Brookside United Methodist, 2760 S. Roosevelt. Services are scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. on Ash Wednesday, March 5, and then be held each Saturday evening.
“Planeview is a forgotten place,” said Charlie Schwartz, who is helping establish Partners through his church, Chapel Hill United Methodist. “If people don’t have to drive through it, they forget it. They’d rather not think about it.”
Other groups have come to Planeview with good intentions but some didn’t hang around for the long, difficult haul. Those who have a vested interest in Planeview issue a warning:
“My advice to them has been not to promise anything they can’t deliver,” said Lura Atherly, principal at Planeview’s Jardine Middle School. “And they need to be there.
“They need to be consistent because a lot of people promise things to Planeview and then move on. This community doesn’t hear from them again, so people here are not as trusting.”
The needs are great. Nearly 96 percent of Jardine’s students receive free or reduced-price lunches. At Colvin, Planeview’s elementary, the number is 98 percent.
Ivan Gonzalez has heard the message and said he gets the point. A native of El Salvador, he was brought to Wichita in November by St. Paul’s Lutheran Church to serve as Partners’ pastor.
“From the beginning when I came here I felt at home,” he said. “I plan to stay and hopefully have the support of the people.”
He and his wife have also chosen to live within two blocks of Planeview’s eastern edge.
Partners is a combined effort of Lutheran, United Methodist and Episcopalian denominations.
“Denominations used to compete against each other,” said the Rev. Dave Fulton, pastor at St. Paul’s. “Now it’s against the world, the culture. We need to pull together.”
St. Paul’s is joined by several Lutheran churches in Wichita in supporting Partners, as well as Chapel Hill and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“It’s laying down some lines that divide us to share together in a cooperative ministry that reaches people,” said Gary Brooks, the United Methodist’s superintendent for its East Wichita district.
Chapel Hill became involved in Planeview several years ago, including helping to raise funds to build Hunter Health Clinic next to Brookside and providing school supplies. The church also formed the Planeview Transformation Coalition, which included the principals of the neighborhood’s schools and others to get input on needs and solutions.
The neighborhood’s demographics have changed since the federal government built temporary housing to accommodate aircraft workers during World War II.
Planeview saw its Hispanic population, which includes a number of immigrants, grow from 37 to 53 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census. This school year, nearly 70 percent of Colvin’s students and more than 59 percent of Jardine’s are Hispanic.
“Planeview is kind of a landing spot for new immigrants,” said Fulton, of St. Paul’s.
Fulton said he’s hopeful that Partners can become a strong anchor for Planeview, much as several churches are for the large concentration of Hispanic residents in north Wichita.
He noted that 60 percent of the residents in that neighborhood own their homes, while 60 percent of Planeview’s residents rent.
“That means there is less attachment to the community in Planeview,” Fulton said. “It means we have to work harder.”
Chapel Hill – a church made up of mostly white members in a well-to-do east Wichita neighborhood – tried to reach out through Brookside United Methodist.
Bringing in a part-time Hispanic pastor didn’t work. Neither has rotating in a pastor.
About a year and half ago, a group that included Fulton, Schwartz and others began looking for a better approach. Nothing really clicked until Fulton learned that he could bring in Gonzalez, who had been working at a church in the Houston area.
“It all came together,” Fulton said.
Organizers point to Gonzalez’s personal experience as an immigrant as one reason he’s well suited for the position.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for the last 3 1/2 years,” said Schwartz, who is the Planeview Tranformation Coalition’s chairman. “That’s not to undermine what we’ve done up to this point, but this is how we can really impact lives and bring transformation. This is for both the church and unchurched.”
Chapel Hill made a 10-year commitment to Planeview, and Partners is doing the same thing.
That commitment also may extend the life of Brookside, a church that has been in Planeview more than 50 years. Brookside now has only about a half-dozen members, including Marianne Leach.
She left Planeview years ago after getting married but has kept Brookside as her home church.
“I grew up in Brookside. It’s where my heart is, where my kids were baptized,” Leach said. “Most of us are getting older. It’s time for us to let others try what they can do.”
Brookside will continue to have Sunday services. A thrift store attached to the church has been a source of income, but efforts to attract Hispanic people to Brookside haven’t worked.
“We’re just hoping this new endeavor can help utilize the church and what it can do for our community,” Leach said, “because we haven’t been able to do it for some reason.”
Contreras, the single mom who lives in Planeview, said fear of not being able to communicate keeps some immigrants from getting involved.
Gonzalez, 50, understands that fear.
He came to the United States in 1996 from his rural hometown in El Salvador to visit family in New York state. A friend convinced him to stay and study to be a Catholic priest.
“But I was afraid because I didn’t know English,” said Gonzalez, who became a U.S. citizen. “It was hard. I had to overcome that fear.”
He attended seminary and was ordained a priest in 2001. He served in several parishes in Long Island, N.Y., before deciding to leave the Catholic Church in 2012.
Now he wants to make sure English language classes are offered at Partners. The Catholic Diocese of Wichita has already provided the books, Gonzalez said.
Sometimes Spanish-speaking immigrants “don’t see the need to learn English,” he said. “But if they get the language, they will have more opportunities.”
Plans also call for computer, G.E.D. and U.S. citizenship classes for adults. Nine computers have already been donated.
To help encourage community, a dinner will be served before each of the weekly classes and the evening will be closed with worship.
“We’ll be feeding the stomach, mind and soul,” he said.
Soccer teams are also on the list to be sponsored by Partners.
“People are afraid these kids come to make gangs,” Gonzalez said. “They have to be doing something.”
All services will be free. Everything is provided by the sponsoring churches, he said.
Gonzalez said the “big idea for me” is establishing co-ops, similar to the agricultural co-ops found in rural Kansas. Co-ops are common in El Salvador, he said.
He wants to start with a cleaning co-op, where Planeview residents would join together in the work and share the profits and draw higher wages. But he sees it being utilized in other work areas, such as construction.
Getting the plans going is a work in progress. Gonzalez moved into his sparse office at Partners only a few weeks ago and has been busy getting to know both Planeview and the Wichita community.
“I know I have to go slow,” he said.
Atherly, the Jardine principal, has met Gonzalez.
“The gentleman seems like a really nice guy, very sincere,” she said. “He wants to bring people together – not only to provide a place of worship but also to support members of the community so they can be independent and self-reliant.”
“I feel I am here to make a dream come true,” Gonzalez said.
Contreras has dreams for her sons – ages 4, 16 and 17 – and herself.
She was pregnant with her oldest child when she come to Wichita from Mexico 18 years ago. Her husband later left.
Contreras works long hours as a housekeeper to provide for her family, which now also includes her mother and 14-year-old sister.
She wants to learn how to put restrictions on the computer to limit how much time her sons can spend time on it. She’s excited about the English classes for her mother and for the chance for her two youngest boys to play soccer.
She enthusiastically talks about plans to study social work so she can help others.
“It’s important to help,” Contreras said.
Early last year, the city of Wichita was threatening to give her a citation because of poor siding on her house. On a Saturday in April, 50 volunteers from Love Wichita – an annual citywide effort by many churches – showed up and not only replaced the siding but fixed windows and put in a new bathroom.
“All in one day,” Contreras said.
“To me, it’s like we’re progressing,” Contreras said. “I heard when I was moving that ‘Oh, don’t move over there, people are getting killed every weekend.’
“Now, I don’t see children fighting. I don’t hear people are getting killed. Now, we walk free.”
Planeview saw 16 homicides from 2003 to 2010 according to police records, but none since then. Drug arrests dropped from 161 in 2007 to 75 last year, records show.
So, yes, Contreras said: “It’s getting better.”
She said she’s not as skeptical as some because she has seen other groups fulfill what they said they would do. She also watched Janet Johnson, who was an assistant at what used to be a neighborhood City Hall in Planeview, care about her and her children.
Johnson, who now works as the city’s supervisor of community engagement, said Contreras is typical of many hard-working Planeview residents.
“Oftentimes there is a perception that the people who live in Planeview are just lazy bums,” she said, “but there many who are working poor. Some work two or three jobs.
“People’s perceptions are just what they are – perceptions.”
Partners may not be able to change the perceptions, but its leaders hope to change what the neighborhood residents think of themselves and their community.
“Coming together,” Gonzalez said, “makes all of us stronger.”
Contributing: Catalina Cepparro of The Eagle