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The ROCK Initiative is Transforming this Indiana Community

The ROCK “renewing our community for the kingdom” Initiative ground breaking in May 2016.

While many people avert their eyes from the most poverty stricken communities in the nation, the ROCK Initiative looked around their backyard and saw an opportunity for transformation.

The Community of 46218

Eastern Star Church is situated on the eastern edge of the zip code 46218 in Indianapolis, Indiana, an area of the city with a significant African-American population (73%). A large portion of its residents (38.2%) live at or below the poverty line, with an average household income of $25,292. The region is considered a food desert with few grocery options and minimal choices for non-predatory financial services.

Eastern Star Church decided they wanted to do something to help the area in their own backyard, specifically, the neighborhood within a one-mile radius of its campus. A close look at this particular neighborhood showed a community in stark decline. Between 11% and 28% of the nearly 6,000 housing units in the area are vacant. Home values have not rebounded since 2008 the way they have across the nation. On top of this, individuals and families in this area carry a significant cost burden for housing—conventional public policy recommends no more than 30% of a household’s income should go toward housing, and yet in this area, the burden is anywhere from 42% to 61%.

Senior Pastor Jeffrey A. Johnson, Sr. grew up in this area, known locally as Arlington Woods. After witnessing decades of decay, he wanted to give back and support his community. This heart for the neighborhood shaped his vision for the ROCK Initiative.

The ROCK Initiative Begins Its Work

Eastern Star Church launched the ROCK Initiative in 2017. “ROCK” stands for “renewing our community for the kingdom.” According to the website, its goal is “to bridge evangelism and discipleship in 21st century terms to the tangible needs of the community, encouraging and empowering both ESC members and neighborhood residents to transform lives and the community.”

The ROCK Initiative focuses on improving four core areas: affordable housing, a strong community, financial security, and enhanced educational opportunities. 

“These four pillars are all about building a sense of community among the people who live and work in Arlington Woods,” Leigh Riley Evans, Director of Community Development at the Eastern Star Church, shared.

Its first phase encouraged and trained community members to participate in a neighborhood association, so that they might feel empowered to share their voice and work together to raise awareness for their community. During this time, the ROCK Initiative invested in enhancing the range of affordable housing options. The Initiative has a property management component to it that allows them to manage the cost of homes as well as subsidize costs if necessary. 

Well-maintained properties and the ability to own a home “instill a sense of pride and community in the residents,” said Evans. “They now have options that are safe, decent, and affordable.”

The ROCK Initiative goes beyond providing affordable housing for individuals, Evans said. “We have helped establish infrastructure for a banking institution so community members can establish credit, build wealth, and understand financial management, which in itself instills a greater sense of pride.”

The neighborhood also has its own grocery store now, addressing the area’s access to healthy foods. 

Fresh produce awaits residents inside the Rock Fresh Market.  Image courtesy of the 

The first phase enhanced educational options, both formal and informal. “When people choose where they are going to live, they want to be in a space that has quality educational options,” said Evans. The Initiative has ensured that educational options are within walking distance of the neighborhood and free for families.

The ROCK Community Center for Children and Youth

The next phase of the ROCK Initiative—ROCK Community Center for Children and Youth—is currently under construction and slated to open Spring 2022. This 60,000-square-foot space will provide a much needed safe space for typical community center activities, like tutoring and recreation for youth, while also providing a space to hear from speakers about entrepreneurship, money management, owning a home, school options, and more. The Initiative is partnering with Ivy Tech, an area community college, to offer classes in culinary skills, hospitality, and programming in the center.

Building Community Takes More than Brick and Mortar

In addition to all of the physical improvements necessary to enhance the Arlington Woods neighborhood, the ROCK Initiative seeks to meet the social service needs of the community through their umbrella organization, JEWEL Human Services. JEWEL is a separate entity of Eastern Star Church that provides benevolence assistance with housing and utilities, mental health support, a food pantry, and COVID testing and vaccinations for the community. This investment aims to meet the needs of the whole person to create a thriving community.

What’s Next: Phase 3

“Since it launched, through the generosity of the congregation and area partners, we’ve invested nearly $20 million into the community,” Evans said. “Most recently, that congregation support has leveraged an $8.1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment’s Enhancing Opportunities Fund toward the youth and community center. An additional $20 million investment in the next three years is expected to come through Fifth Third Bank and Enterprise Community Partners, using the ROCK Initiative as the intermediary.”

The partnership and investment from Fifth Third Bank and others will help make the way for the next phase in the ROCK Initiative project, the development of additional housing, green space, a middle school building, and additional business development. 

“We have acquired about ten more acres of land that will be developed in the next 3-5 years,” Evans said. “This means more job creation, formal education options, and more housing. With that will come more infrastructure from the city: sidewalks, streets, and so on.”

Change Is Slow, but We’re Sowing Seeds of Hope

It takes a long time to begin to see real, measurable results at a community level, but the leaders at the ROCK Initiative believe in the vision for change. 

“What keeps us going is people being willing to participate and start asking questions because they now have an expectation of an answer,” Evans shared. “Before, they would complain but no one would listen and nothing would change, whereas now they know there is a resource, and changes are occurring.”

“That has been exciting,” Evans continued. “Even during the pandemic we still had great attendance at our neighborhood association meetings, which were held virtually, with people wanting to participate, especially partners reaching out. People are seeing that things are happening.”

“People are hopeful—there really is encouragement that is providing them with hope.”

A volunteer writes a blessing inside the wall of a new home in the Arlington Woods neighborhood in Indianapolis, IN.  A joint project with Habitat for Humanity and the Rock Initiative.  Image courtesy of Eastern Star Church Facebook page.  

In a decade’s time, the community expects to see a decline in the percentage of neighborhood residents living in poverty, an increase in the median home value in the area, an increase in the median income of residents, a decrease in the percentage of households spending more than 30% on housing costs, and more households headed by a husband and a wife than households headed by women with no husbands present.

Jesus saw the needs immediately in front of him and sought to help, heal, feed, and teach whoever crossed his path. Eastern Star Church and its ROCK Initiative are following in Jesus’ footsteps. Their work inspires others to look around their communities to see what can be done. 

“You don’t have to do it just like we’ve done it,” Evans said. “There are unique circumstances here that wouldn’t be like anywhere else. As the saying goes, ‘You eat an elephant one bite at a time.’ Think about one house, one person, one block. It doesn’t have to be a mile.”

The ROCK Initiative welcomes support in their vision to revitalize Arlington Woods. Visit their website to learn more, make a donation, or volunteer.

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