The CONNECT Project: Collaborative Community Development

Date Posted: 4/28/2016

A unique partnership between St. Luke’s’ UMC - Gethsemane Campus and several community groups is designed to revitalize an entire neighborhood.

“If the church is to transform Houston with the love of God and redemptive power of the gospel, then the time is now,” says Rev. David Horton, teaching pastor for St. Luke’s UMC Gethsemane campus in southwest Houston. “We find we can do more for the Kingdom by ministering with our neighbors rather than ministering to them,” he adds, “so St. Luke’s is proud to be a founding member and active partner of Connect Community where the work is all about relationships. For the last year we have been working alongside our other partners, being humbled by their impressive ministry, and stepping up to the plate to sit at the same table with them. It is also about relationships with those we serve. As a pastor and a Connect collaborator, I am learning that ministry with is always better than ministry to. View the partnership story video on YouTube.

What is Connect Community about?
Connect Community is a broad-based and expanding coalition of best-in-class service providers and organizations who are working in partnership to provide aligned education, literacy, career, and spiritual, health, and wellness services in the Sharpstown/Gulfton community, a high-poverty area of Houston. The founding organizations—KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), YMCA, Legacy Community Health Services, and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church—are working together with additional collaborating partners, including Houston Center for Literacy, Sutton Elementary, Collaborative for Children, and Breakthrough Houston, to help families break down barriers to accessing resources so that they can build confidence, accountability, and success.
According to St. Luke's pastor Rev. Dr. Tom Pace, Connect Community was formed when KIPP purchased the land immediately contiguous to St. Luke’s Gethsemane campus. KIPP approached St. Luke’s about use of a vacant field, and a conversation began.  Notes Tom, “St. Luke’s was looking for ways to make a greater impact to bring renewal to the neighborhood, and KIPP wanted to help provide access for their students to the additional wellness resources they need to allow them to focus on education.  The conversation led to Purpose Built Communities out of Eastlake community in Atlanta, and the YMCA and Legacy Health care joined in the conversation as well.” Collectively, the group agreed to become an epicenter for renewal and community building in the Gulfton and Sharpstown neighborhoods. 
What each founding partner brings

  • KIPP brings excellence in education. 
  • The YMCA works for youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.
  • Legacy Community Health opens their doors and hearts to people from all walks of  life by providing a wide range of quality health care services.
  • St. Luke’s offers multi-lingual worship services and classes for persons of all ages. The church also hosts community celebrations and provides hospitality and safe sanctuary for persons of all faiths or no faith within the community.
Adds Anne, “At Connect, we work to create opportunities for members of our community in Sharpstown/Gulfton by connecting them with essential resources, local institutions and one another to help build a brighter future for us all.” She lists the collaborative vision and values as:
  • Children and families will succeed.
  • Families are the change leaders.
  • Relationships are the crux of our work.
  • Diversity is an asset that is woven into our processes and systems of support/service.
  • Partnership creates spiritual, behavioral and economic prosperity.
  • Partners have made a conscious commitment to improve outcomes.
  • Change happens at “the speed of trust”.
  • Data drives leadership efficacy.
At present, Connect Community is focusing its efforts and measuring its impact within a clearly delineated geographic area called the Impact Zone, which encompasses an approximately one-mile radius around the Connect campus located at St. Luke’s Gethsemane campus in the 6800 block of Bellaire Boulevard. Within this Impact Zone, approximately 65% of the residents are from Central America and Mexico, and 30% are refugees from around the world (primarily Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, and the Congo).
Anne reports that statistics for the census tracts within the Impact Zone underscore the economic and other difficulties that this community is facing. Due to low levels of educational attainment, limited English literacy, low wages, high crime rates, and lack of awareness about opportunities, families in the Connect Community Impact Zone face significant challenges to building thriving families and a flourishing community.
Dr. Tom Pace, Senior Pastor, St. Luke’s UMC says, “This initiative has involved amazing friendships and relationships between leaders of these organizations, and we believe we have a holistic model that can really make an impact on families.  Connect is a place where people can connect to resources for mind, body, and spirit.  More importantly, they can connect to one another.  God is really doing something in this partnership.”
Key organizational accomplishments during 2015-2016 include:
  • Developing the vision, mission, and strategic plan for Connect Community,
  • Hiring a Founding Director for Connect Community in January 2015,
  • Completing schematic master site plan drawings for the new Community Center in March 2015 and are currently being revised,
  • Developing a plan for ongoing community engagement and over the past year eight major community engagement initiatives have been carried out, using over 200 volunteers and engaging over 500 residents through a Community Walk, Parent Workshops, Newcomer Thanksgiving Dinner and a Valentine’s “Connecting through Love” Pop-up event, and
  • Establishing 2 collaborative partnerships (early childhood education and expanded summer learning).
David is thrilled with the outlook of this unique model of collaborative partnership. “May the relationship-building, Kingdom-constructing, God-glorifying work of Connect Community continue for years to come,” he says. “May it make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”