The first step in learning how to best serve a neighborhood is getting to truly know the place and the people who call it home. Rev. Paul Richards-Kuan has spent the past three years doing just that at St. Paul’s UMC in Houston. He has found members of a dream team who want to make a positive impact in the East End of the city. Together, they are moving forward and already making a difference.
St. Paul’s UMC has a long history in Houston, dating back to 1905, and a mission to serve truly as a “cathedral for the city.” That involves vibrant worship, Christian mission, hospitality and faith formation for all individuals and communities.
The church’s vision fit with Rev. Richards-Kuan own interest in building intentional community, based on prayer, hospitality and justice.
The first thing St. Paul asked Richards-Kuan when he accepted his appointment as associate pastor of the East End Missional Community was to get to know the neighborhood. Originally from Houston, he admits that still was unfamiliar with the area.
“At first, I did demographic research, learning about Houston a little more,” he said. “From there, I started interviewing people.”
When he learned about interesting individuals or nonprofits in the neighborhood, he would give them a call and ask about the work already being done in the East End.
At the same time, he connected with St. Paul’s members who live in the area – and formed a regular prayer group with them.
In addition, Richards-Kuan and his wife Rev. Karyn Richards-Kuan, who serves in worship and faith formation at St. Paul’s, moved to the East End.
One day, Richards-Kuan said, while driving through the neighborhood, he had a sense of peace. “I had this overwhelming feeling that I could live in this neighborhood; I could love this neighborhood and I could care for this neighborhood,” he said.
The question then became to care for the area. “In the first six months, my goal was to get to know the East End as much as possible,” Richards-Kuan said.
Then, he started hosting block parties with a few of the friends he made to see if they could meet more residents. In 2018, they had a total of 20 parties.
“They were block parties to build community,” Richards-Kuan said. “The objective was to meet people.”
Sometimes 10 people would show up; other times, about 50 neighbors came out. All faith backgrounds attended.
“How do we create a space that is wildly welcoming to every single neighbor, no matter what social class they are in or what part of the neighborhood they are from?” Richards-Kuan and his block-party organizers began to ask.
They found the answer in a garden. During work days, neighbors connected with each other over shared interests of food, education and community.
At the same time, Richards-Kuan found opportunities by reenergizing the East End Collaborative and becoming part of the Houston Community Land Trust.
“What ended up happening was by accident,” he said.
In the midst of meeting people and connecting with causes, a core group formed. The key players included Estella Gonzalez, a long time neighborhood leader and vice-president of the Second Ward Superneighborhood Council (SWSNC) and the group’s president Tommy Garcia-Prats, also co-founder of Finca Tres Robles community farm.
In addition, the group included Jorge Olvera, a social worker with El Centro de Corazon, which addresses community and healthcare issues, and neighborhood activist Jessica Hulsey, who has served in citizen-supervisory positions for the City.
Christi Vasquez jumped in as a marketer for the group, and she restarted the Magnolia Multi Service Center garden along with Olvera. In addition, Patrick Moreno-Covington, who has helped the neighborhood in many ways, got on board. Diane Schenke, a St. Paul’s member, also helped with initial work.
Together, they supported Growing Roots East End Network (GREEN), a collaborative of most of the area school and community gardens that shares resources and promotes gardening and healthy food options for all, as well as the East End Collaborative, which brings together residents, leaders, businesses, religious organizations to form a stronger neighborhood.
Richards-Kuan personally started working as a convener for the Collaborative pushing forward the agendas, following through on everyday business and making sure meetings continued.
Then, Richards-Kuan and his core group learned about the Houston Community Land Trust (CLT), a nonprofit developing affordable homeownership opportunities for limited-icome households.
Instead of owning the land, Richards-Kuan explained, the individual owns the improvements on the land.
Then the homeowner signs a 99-year lease of the land from the CLT who holds it in trust. The lease is inheritable, renewable and effective perpetually. “Unlike other housing subsidies, this is a permanent option that builds stronger neighborhoods,” Richards-Kuan said.
He said that recently his crew of East End leaders celebrated a year of advocacy, teaching and sharing information about the CLT.
“A huge part of our work is really educating people what the CLT is,” Richards-Kuan said. “We consult with them and act as go-betweens.”
He said that the journey is just now beginning – and that while there is a long way to go, there is movement and individuals are work together for a common good of the East End.
“I didn’t know much about community development when I started,” Richards-Kuan said. “I’m still figuring everything out. The more work I do in the community, the more I feel stimulated and enlivened in the church. I can’t see myself not doing this.”
He’s learned that the best way to proceed is to be open to new ideas and to change.
“A huge part of my work is being able to look and see the pathways as they open,” Richards-Kuan said. “I’m building the plane as I fly it. I’m figuring out the plan as I move ahead.”
Listening to the needs of the community is what drives the momentum.
The pastor needs more volunteers to help distribute information and canvas the neighborhoods. “It takes boots on the ground,” he said.
He also invites individuals to join work days in the neighborhood’s community gardens.