PHOENIX - For those seeking the sun, Phoenix is a desert playground. But south of downtown, darkness often rules in the form of crime and poverty.
Memorials to murder victims mark places in many communities like South Mountain.
It's familiar terrain for Lt. Mike Kurtenbach of the South Mountain Police Department. He took CBN News on a ride-along of South Mountain streets.
Kurtenbach easily identified which streets belong to individual gangs -- even pointing out a tiny cul-de-sac that two rival gangs have fought over.
Gang War vs. Church Involvement
In 2007, a homicide wave sparked neighborhood tensions. Fourteen-year-old Jimmy Torres was an innocent bystander caught in the middle of a gang fight. He was shot and killed, and police realized a new approach was needed.
Torres' death marked the 62nd homicide in South Mountain in 11 months, a new record.
"Two years ago my officers could do nothing but go from crime scene to crime scene," Kurtenbach said. "They were constantly stringing up tape. They were investigating homicides, drive-by shootings, whatever the case may be."
Police realized the business-as-usual approach of simply arresting and convicting gang members wasn't working. Too often they returned to their community upon their release, only to continue their destructive ways.
So Kurtenbach and his crime suppression unit began to reach out to churches as a means to ensure long-term stability in the community.
"Over the short-term we can be very effective at crime reduction," Kurtenbach explained. "But if we're really committed to long-term problem solving, the only way to do it is through partnerships and through relationships."
Churches: A Catalyst for Change
Kurtenbach's connections with city and state leaders eventually led to the creation of the Neighborhood Roots system. The innovative program views churches as the catalyst for community change.
The program works with individual churches in south Phoenix to develop business plans. Neighborhood Roots picked The Bridge Church as its pilot congregation.
The Bridge Church serves a population of 63,000. Seventeen-thousand members of the community live below the poverty level. Forty-five percent of the adults have less than a high school education.
The Bridge has served its community for years with a food pantry and used clothing store. But Arizona's slumping economy brought a sharp increase in the number of people looking for help.
"We used to see families come in and then we may not see them for a few months," Pastor Tim Lesher told CBN News. "Now we're seeing families come in month after month after month."
The Bridge's business plan focused on the unemployed. That's what led to its modest sanctuary becoming a one-stop relief center for the community. Now, neighbors can not only find emergency food and clothes, they can apply for government benefits and look for a job.
"There's so many possibilities because people trust the church,"Mitzila Hogans. who works for the City of Phoenix, said.
Linda Schroeder with the Arizona Department of Economic Security said more than one-third of Arizonans who qualify for help don't apply. Churches can help meet that need and church volunteers can also provide much-needed manpower at a time when the state has had to cut its workforce.
Schroeder believes many people prefer to apply for benefits at their church, because it often means quicker lines, greater privacy and personal relationships.
"Then the person doesn't have to go back to DES -- the local office," Schroeder said. "And wait in line possibly, see their neighbors possibly or think that maybe there's racial issues, immigration--there's families that are concerned for that and afraid for that."
Looking for Work, Encouragement
On one recent Tuesday morning, a crowd of 20 people or so gathered outside the locked gate at The Bridge. A volunteer opens the gate at 8:30 a.m. and women, children and some men stream in. They check in with volunteers who pray with them and offer encouraging words. Then, they wait to meet with another volunteer who will help them process their documents and apply for food stamps or other benefits.
Some head directly to The Bridge's career center, where a bank of computers wait and more volunteers are available to provide advice to job seekers.
"The people who are looking for jobs," Lesher said. "The one thing we hear more than anything is the accessibility is so much greater. At the city's centers they're waiting for a computer, sometimes a couple hours. Here they can come in, sit down for awhile and have someone to talk to who can encourage them."
Such personal encouragement makes the difference. Unlike a government agency or police officer, church volunteers have the desire and time to form relationships.
Yemi Bosfield is a volunteer at The Bridge who knows relationships mean more to people.
"Sometimes when I'm praying with them and they start talking with me in terms of what they're going through and they start crying and you can just tell that they're going through so much," she said.
Making Neighborhoods Safer
Oscar Arnold is job-hunting after losing his job as a butcher. Thanks to The Bridge, he's now receiving food stamps and career counseling. The morning CBN News met him he was helping himself to a muffin -- part of the hospitality that draws people to the church.
"They encourage you," Arnold said. "They have a good attitude and they really focus on you -- what you need."
"When you see the work The Bridge is doing,which is connecting people to much needed resources," Kurtenbach said. "You're connecting people to food stamps. You're getting people jobs. If you're doing that, you're making neighborhoods more stable."
Twenty other churches have signed up with Neighborhood Roots. The City of Phoenix will soon start tracking its return on investment with the program.
In the meantime, measurements like a dramatic drop in crime and people like Arnold jump starting their lives will be the significant payoff.
*Originally published November 13, 2009