Yes in God’s Backyard’ to use
church land for affordable housing
Faith congregations across California are responding to the state’s housing crisis by sharing their parking lots with people living in their cars, providing mobile showers for the homeless and joining their neighbors in calling for rent control in their communities.
But another form of housing advocacy has been taking place among spaces of faith. A number of churches are exploring ways to build affordable housing on their own land. It’s what pastors and other leaders are referring to as YIGBY, or “Yes in God’s Backyard.”
The acronym is a play off of the term NIMBY – short for “Not in My Backyard” – a term often used to describe community pushback against affordable housing or other similar projects. “Jesus very clearly tells us to keep our eyes open to those who are in need,” said Clairemont Lutheran Church pastor Jonathan Doolittle. California is home to the 10 least-affordable major markets in the nation and is near the top in cost-burdened households – second among homeowners and fourth among renters, according to a January 2019 report
from the Public Policy Institute of California. The median home price
in California is $549,000. The median rent price is $2,800.
Aerial view of Clairemont Lutheran Church in San Diego, with a rendering of proposed affordable housing project in the parking lot, bottom right. Image courtesy of Yigby.org About four years ago, Clairemont Lutheran Church members in San Diego decided they needed to do something about the housing crisis affecting their community.
The church was part of an interfaith shelter network in which congregations open their spaces for a certain length of time to house families in crisis. During this time, churches host families for two weeks while they get back on their feet. The families rotate to other churches in the network, but once that cycle runs out, they may have nowhere else to seek shelter, Doolittle said. As the church made plans to redevelop its fellowship hall, Doolittle said they sought to include affordable housing as part of that project. The church proposed building a number of affordable apartments on part of their current parking lot.
Church leaders thought the affordable housing component could also speed up the approval process for the project. Instead, they encountered more roadblocks including parking restrictions and costly environmental impact reports.
In San Diego, city code
makes it a requirement for churches to have a certain number of parking spaces based on the number of people who can fit in the sanctuary. The renovation of the church’s fellowship hall is underway, but the housing element is on hold for now. However, that could soon change. On Nov. 6, a subcommittee of the San Diego City Council voted in favor
on an item that would make it easier for faith communities to get approval to build housing on their parking lots. Under this plan, excess parking spaces could be used as a location for housing. The City Council will consider the item at a future meeting.
Clairemont Lutheran Church plans to jumpstart its housing efforts next year, hoping to put between 16 and 21 apartments on its parking lot.
To housing advocate Tom Theisen, the city’s move is a step in the right direction. Theisen – a retired attorney and former chair of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless – is part of the San Diego YIGBY working group that helps activate under-utilized faith community properties suitable for residential units. He says the YIGBY group shows how an abundance of church land across the county can help address the region’s housing shortage. Theisen said that in the past, individual churches were going to the government proposing small projects of 15 to 20 units.
“It’s hard to create any change when you’re talking about individual small projects,” Theisen said. Theisen said the YIGBY group emerged when San Diego County tax collector Dan McAllister identified about 1,100 faith community properties on more than 2,000 acres of land. Theisen said a substantial portion of that land is available for housing.
“If we look at this from the perspective of, ‘how do we help the churches help the needy in their community and look at it county wide,’ we’re talking hundreds of potential housing units, possibly thousands,” Theisen said. Theisen estimates construction costs could be “primarily if not exclusively” paid through income coming in from the housing.
“The idea is to start building housing and start putting people in houses,” Theisen said.
People tour St. Paul’s Commons in Walnut Creek, California, in September 2019. Photo courtesy of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
In Northern California, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek would like to open its affordable housing complex in December or January.
It’s called St. Paul’s Commons and will be a mixed-use development with community spaces operated by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It’s also where the nonprofit Trinity Center will have a physical space to serve people who are homeless. The project will include 45 affordable apartments. The church leased its land to Berkeley-based developer Resources for Community Development, which used a property management company to perform background checks, call references and conduct interviews for apartment applications.
The development is taking over a single-family home where Trinity Center provided services to the homeless. The Rev. Krista Fregoso said they were already assisting people who were homeless and later thought, “What if we became a part of the solution, too?”
To Fregoso, “This is just one part of how we live out our faith. We hope to be a model for other faith communities who might see their property in a different way.”
Najah Bazzy – CNN Hero of 2019
Just recently CNN revealed the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2019
– these are men and women that are changing the world by helping families affected by the tragedy, cleaning up the environment, protecting neglected animals, and so much more. They were nominated by CNN to receive a ten thousand dollar cash prize with the Hero of the Year to receive one hundred thousand dollars. One of the nominees is Najah Bazzy, an Arab-American who changed the lives of thousands of women and children in the Detroit Metropolitan Area.
Najah learned to navigate through attitudes and beliefs that were conflicting very early in life. Born in a neighborhood that was predominantly Arab and Muslim – Dearborn, Michigan – she refers to herself as ‘a new thing
‘ – a by-product of a merger between being Arab, American, and Muslim all at once. She believes these are not mutually exclusive identities, even in a post 9/11 America.
They are, which is now having the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States, back then was a hub of immigrants. In an interview, Najah says: “It was the people from Poland, Italy, Macedonia, Mexico, and others that we learned about their traditions and their different faiths. That’s why I love diversity so much. Neighbors sat on the front porch and they shared food while their children would go from house to house visit other children and play. The amount of care that people had for each other was tremendous, and this is where I learned to love my neighbor.”
However, she also felt a different attitude towards Muslims after the September 11 attacks. “I’ve had death threats. I’ve had to have protection placed on me. It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” she shares. “To know that you can put out love, and other people judge that love saddens me. I want to make every breath count, so I can’t fear those who choose hate. I can only control the love I have in my heart and choose that love.”
Najah is the founder of Zaman International, a non-profit organization, which has the mission to facilitate change and advance the lives of marginalized women and children of different backgrounds in the Detroit area; she has been doing it by enabling them to meet essential needs common to all humankind. The group’s 40,000-square-foot warehouse offers for free aisles of food, rows of clothes, and furniture to those in need.
The history of the organization is truly inspirational. In 1996, when a three-month-old infant was with a terminal diagnosis, Najah Bazzy, a Transcultural Clinical Nurse Specialist, provided clinical, spiritual and cultural support to his parents who were new arrivals to the United States. She helped them face the reality that no treatment would save their child. After visiting the family at their home, Najah was shocked by their living conditions. Instead of a refrigerator, the family used a picnic cooler to house their limited food supply and baby formula. Instead of a stove, a portable propane stove was used for cooking. The infant’s bed was a laundry basket piled high with towels, and the infant only had the hospital’s receiving blanket to keep him warm. When the infant passed away and the family was unable to pay for a funeral, Najah raised funds from the community to provide him with a proper burial. This was the beginning of Plots for Tots
, Zaman’s signature program which provides dignified burial support for families that have lost a fetus or infant.
Witnessing this family’s sorrowful experience and shocking living conditions, Najah was inspired and determined to harness the community’s efforts to help struggling families. She asked community members to donate furniture, food, clothing, and household goods. The support and need for such efforts quickly increased, encouraging Zaman to formalize as an organization committed to using community support to address community needs.
In 2018, Zaman distributed 170,400 pounds of food, collected 886,950 pounds of clothing, provided over 7,750 hours of job skills and literacy instruction to more than 90 women, and gave 268 winter coats and 895 school supply-filled backpacks to local children. Meanwhile, it partnered with 444 community partners on a range of initiatives and funded overseas relief projects, bringing safe water and humanitarian relief to more than 431,900 people. Now that Zaman’s mission has been shared with the world, Bazzy is encouraging interested readers to help by donating through the CNN Heroes program, for which a CrowdRise
donation page has been set up.
“What I’m most proud of this year is that Zaman is 94 cents on the dollar (which has been audited financially), she said, and it goes to programs,” she said
about the percentage of donation dollars used to help fund its operations to serve those in need.
“We really encourage people to go to the website and to donate any amount that they can, anything helps.”
To donate, visit the Zaman International website, but you and your friends are highly encouraged to VOTE by December 3rd here.
An Olive Tree Symbolizes Hope For Two Cultures
An olive tree symbolizing hope and peace was planted at Israel’s Gush Etzion Winery in memory of a beloved deceased Palestinian worker.By United with Israel Staff
Israel’s Gush Etzion Winery memorialized a Palestinian worker who died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage two weeks ago. A group of Jews and Palestinians joined forces to plant an olive tree, a symbol of peace, in front of the winery.
Shadi Assad, 25, from the village Khallet Sakariya in the Gush Etzion region outside of Jerusalem, had worked at the Gush Etzion Winery’s restaurant for five years as a cleaner.
Last month, Assad complained of head pain. He was taken to a medical clinic in Bethlehem, where he was told that nothing serious was wrong. One week later, Assad died of a brain hemorrhage.
Following a condolence visit by the winery’s owner, Shraga Rozenberg, to the Assad family, his colleagues decided to plant an olive tree in his memory.
Biblically, the olive tree represents peace and comfort. However, presently, the olive tree is often portrayed in the news as a point of contention between Jews and Palestinians.
In Israel, planting trees (usually olive trees as they grow well in hill country) establishes squatter ownership rights on property. This creates a “land grab” between Jews and Palestinians.
Assad’s olive tree is meant to symbolize hope for peace between the clashing cultures. Alongside the tree is a large stone with both Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions.
The inauguration was attended by local rabbis, staff, family and friends from both the Jewish and Muslim communities.
Following the event, one winery employee wrote, “I don’t know what peace would be like and how to bring it, but I know that a few hours ago I experienced a moment of peace. I feel the crazy complexity, the anger – but also neighborly and humane feelings.”
In a video, Rozenberg and Muhmad Assad, the father of Shadi, sit together and explain their feelings about Shadi and the tree planting.
Muhmad said that he witnessed the love that the winery staff had for his son, noting that they cried along with him. Rozenberg shared that he wanted to comfort the family with the memorial.
The video ends with both men expressing similar sentiments, hoping for peace in their native languages.
Sikh community planting hundreds of trees in Brampton, Scarborough
Environmentalism ingrained in Sikh faith, says founder of EcoSikh Canada Sikhs worldwide are planting 550 trees in their respective communities to celebrate the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth. (
Hundreds of people braved rainy weather to plant 550 trees in Brampton on Saturday as part of an effort to combat climate change and honour the founder of Sikhism. Shovels in hand, Sharanjeet Kaur came with her young children to do their part for the environment – but also to celebrate Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru.
“Guru Nanak was an environmentalist,” said Kaur. “[This is] really understanding his teachings and putting them into practice.”
City of Brampton councillor Harkirat Singh planned and organized the event, with members of EcoSikh on hand.
EcoSikh is a non-profit organization that has begun a global movement to connect Sikh values and environmental issues.
People around the world are planting 550 trees in their respective communities to celebrate the 550th anniversary of Guru Nanak’s birth, said global EcoSikh founder Rajwant Singh.
Another 550 trees will be planted in Scarborough on Sunday, and there is a tree planting event in Oakville next weekend.
Environmentalism is engrained in the Sikh faith, said Roop Sidhu, who founded EcoSikh’s Canadian chapter in June.
EcoSikh Canada has done a number of tree planting events across the country, Sidhu said. By Guru Nanak’s birthday on Nov. 12, Sidhu said they will have planted more than 10,000 trees across Canada. Their goal is to plant 55,000 trees in Canada by 2021.
Guru Nanak was the founder of Sikhism – and harmony with nature was a core part of his teachings, Singh said. “We feel that planting trees is a sacred act,” said Singh, adding that it “should be part of practicing our faith” and not just for the environment. EcoSihk’s goal is to engage the Sikh community to take action on the environment based on the teachings of their faith, Singh said. “Earth is a gift from God,” said Singh. “Our future generations need to have the same gifts of nature.”
Sidhu said the organization is not exclusive to the Sikh community – they want to work with all communities to take action against climate change. “We’re just another climate action group that wants to help,” Sidhu said.
Congressional Caucus for
Black and Jewish Relations Kicks Off
Detroit Jewish News
Congressional Caucus for Black and Jewish Relations held its kickoff event last month, hoping to raise awareness and initiate measures to combat hate.
Featured photo courtesy of Linda Jacobs
By Mark Jacobs
The Congressional Caucus for Black and Jewish Relations held its kickoff reception on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., last month, hosted by the American Jewish Committee and attended by a bipartisan team of leading lawmakers and supporters.
The group, the first Black and Jewish caucus in the U.S. Congress, is co-chaired by Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, D-Fla., Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Rep. Lee Zelden, R-N.Y., and Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas. The caucus seeks to raise awareness of each community’s needs as well as to initiate measures to combat hate and stereotypes.
“White supremacy is alive and well,” declared Wasserman-Shultz, warning the crowd that hate crimes against blacks and Jews have spiked in recent years and that the need for the caucus is imperative.
Lawmakers spoke of the current disunity in Washington, D.C., but noted that support for the caucus is widespread and undisputed.
The speakers recalled the historical roots of the two communities uniting during the civil rights movement. Rep. Elliot Engel said this caucus “comes at a critical time, and it is incumbent on both of our communities to act now.”
The full executive committee of the local Detroit group, the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, attended the event. The coalition, a partnership between the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC and the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, shares similar goals as the Congressional Caucus.
Coalition Executive Board member Hazzan Dan Gross, along with Dr. Pauline Plummer, an accomplished pastor and singer, capped off the evening by leading the group in an emotional, arm-clinging rendition of the civil rights ballad “We Shall Overcome.”
In what was possibly a first on Capitol Hill, Gross sang the first verse of the song in Hebrew. It was an extraordinarily moving and unforgettable display of solidarity for two communities who now have re-committed to each other through this new Congressional Caucus.
Mark Jacobs is co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity.