The Breakthrough FamilyPlex provides more than 40,000 square feet of community space in the East Garfield Park neighborhood. It houses a gym, a fitness center, a meditation room, a medical clinic, classrooms, a computer center, a cafe, and much more. But it began in the early 1990s as simply a soup kitchen.
Arloa Sutter, the executive director of Breakthrough Urban Ministries, was a pastor’s wife at the time. She started doing relief work to as a way to meet the needs of people who came to their church in Andersonville seeking help. Soon she added a jobs program. To give people a way to make a steady income, she put them to work cleaning the nearby streets.
Breakthrough grew from there. It added counseling services and a recovery program. Around 2000, it opened a women’s center in East Garfield Park. The FamilyPlex, which opened in January 2015, is the fulfillment of Sutter’s vision for a community center that would proactively create change in the community.
East Garfield Park is among the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. About 40 percent of households are under the poverty line. The unemployment rate is more than 16 percent, or about three times the national rate.
Breakthrough’s vision for community transformation includes mentoring young people, and the FamilyPlex has plenty of spaces for preschool and after-school programs and sports. But it takes a different approach than the typical mentoring program. Instead of a one-on-one model, it creates a network of relationships, so that several people are responsible for a child’s well-being.
“We surround the kids with a lot of adults who love on them,” Sutter says. “When there’s turnover in the one-on-one model—that can do more harm than good. Because the child has to adjust to a new mentor. She learns not to trust and the relationships aren’t as strong. We’re always intentional about creating relationships.”
In addition to the FamilyPlex, Breakthrough also operates a women’s center and a men’s center in East Garfield Park. They offer job training and addiction recovery programs, housing placement services, and shelter. As of 2015, Breakthrough had a staff of 65 and a budget of nearly $6 million. About half of its income comes from individual donations. Another third comes from government, foundation, and corporation grants.
Sutter, who lives in East Garfield Park, grew up in northwestern Iowa, a deeply conservative part of the state, and her work is driven by her Christian faith. She has read the Bible through each year for decades, and she teaches a course on urban ministry at a Chicago-area Christian college. But she is concerned about the recent political leanings of many who call themselves evangelicals.
“I think the evangelical movement has aligned itself to right-wing politics so much that it’s lost its mission, its heart,” she says. “And there seems to be a growing disdain for the poor and vulnerable, which is the polar opposite of what scripture teaches and what Christ modeled. I would not want to associate with that type of Christianity. But I do see people who are making a huge difference in a lot of our urban communities, and many of them are based in faith and grew out of local churches.”
Here are highlights from an SC conversation with Sutter about religion, politics, and Breakthrough's model of creating relationship-based community transformation:
There is true Christianity that is based on the love of God and the compassion of Christ. Then there is this other, politicized movement that has been hijacked by right-wing government. And I think some Christians are caught [in that trap]. And the only way they can rationalize the disconnect is to really individualize faith, so that it’s me and my relationship with God—that’s all that matters. If the environment is being damaged, if there are unjust laws, the only approach that they think would work is just to love people one by one, and win them to Christ. And that’s the way to change the world.
Hidden in that is a long history of racism and oppression. Our country was founded on this doctrine of manifest destiny. Conquerors came over to this country and took the land, killing and enslaving those already here. And it was blessed by the church. And the history of atrocities—of moving the Native Americans off the land, and taking away their rights—really dehumanized individuals. And then the centuries of slavery of African-Americans was terribly dehumanizing. And the economy was built on that stolen land and the free labor force. The more that slaves were tortured, the more productive they became. And that fed into the textile industry. And made people incredibly wealthy, at the expense of people who were marginalized and dehumanized.
And the church has been a part of that. It’s a heritage that I’m ashamed of. And I want to stand up and say: You’ve lost your way. You’ve lost the heart of what true Christianity is.
Making it work
What we’re doing here really works. Everyone is scratching their heads, trying to come up with a solution to the violence in Chicago. I just know that the kids who come up through this program aren’t out on the corner selling drugs. There’s no need for them to. They have a life, they have people in their life, they’re on their way. So, I know this is what our communities need. It can spread and grow, and it can be replicated in other communities. There aren’t that many communities in Chicago that deal with this kind of extreme poverty. And there are historical reasons why certain communities are struggling with the effects of poverty, and they have to do with discrimination and segregation and incarceration. This is a success. It works. And we can prove it with statistics and stories. But this is only the beginning, and it needs to grow. Let’s work alongside the people in these communities who are still here, and make sure they don’t get pushed out because of gentrification, and surround them with love and care.
Bigger than us
There are so many good people in the world. If I didn’t believe that God has a mission to bring wholeness to our world, it would be easy to get cynical and burned out. So what faith gives to us at Breakthrough is a sense of hope. At the end of Isaiah 65, it says someday—someday—children will not be born “doomed to misfortune.” And so we work for that. Someday people will grow their own food and have meaningful work and live out their days in peace. Someday.
We have that hope—we’re participating in something that’s a whole lot bigger than ourselves. And we see the mystery and the resurrection of people and communities. And we begin to participate in that resurrection. And I think that’s all part of this divine process—of God wanting to bring hope and healing, especially to those who are broken and crying out for mercy. And they are.
I was leading a devotional once with homeless women, and I was using Isaiah 6, where Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord holy, lifted up.” And I asked the women in this little group, “Have any of you ever seen God?” And they all raised their hands. I was surprised by that. In most environments, you wouldn’t have that kind of response. And one by one they told their stories. And one that stood out to me was a woman who had been in an abusive relationship. She was frightened, so she stayed near a police station, thinking it would be the safest place. And she would go in the police station to use the bathroom. And one morning, as she said, “I really had to go. And I came to the door, and a police officer said, ‘You can’t come in. You can’t use the bathroom here anymore.’ And I said, ‘But I have to go. Just this one time.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m sorry.’”
By now tears are streaming down her face. And she said, “I had to squat in the alley and do it like a dog. And I cried out and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ And I looked up and there was a man standing in front of me with a very kind, gentle face. And he said, ‘Don’t worry, we have a place for you.’”
And then, she said, he disappeared. And later that day she found her way to Breakthrough. So she’s sitting there telling me that God had a plan to take care of her, and Breakthrough was part of that plan. That’s very inspirational to me. There are people in trauma. And they’re looking to those of us who have resources to create a place where people can find refuge and compassion.