Keeping it in the neighborhood

Kit Danley founded Neighborhood Ministries, a Phoenix-based holistic outreach organization serving low-income families and at-risk children, after her "phone booth" conversion.

Editor's note: Kit Danley will be teaching at the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation's 2011 Summer Institute.

Kit Danley walks into El Mercado de la Comunidad, a warehouse-turned-thrift store in inner-city Phoenix, Ariz., that has concrete floors and graffiti art painted across the building’s tin siding.

With white, stylishly curled hair, the 56-year-old Danley wears jeans, a casual blouse and a pair of leather designer shoes, which she bought at El Mercado.

She greets shoppers with a friendly, familial tone. Conversing in both English and Spanish, she asks customers, “How’s your son?” “How are your siblings?” “What are you looking for?”

A man, shopping with his son, said he’s searching for a washing machine.

“If we don’t have one today, just keep checking back every day,” Danley said. “I’m sure we’ll get one in soon.”

Later, seated in her office about 100 yards away from El Mercado, Danley’s demeanor shifts, turning serious and determined as she speaks about the poverty and injustice she sees daily in her community, and about El Mercado.

The store is one of 15 outreach arms and programs run by Neighborhood Ministries, a Phoenix-based holistic outreach organization for low-income families and at-risk children that Danley co-founded in 1982. Neighborhood Ministries serves more than 9,000 people each year, including about 1,000 children and teenagers.

“Our reference point is God’s heart. [His] heart is for the widows, orphans and aliens living in the land,” said Danley, president of Neighborhood Ministries.

“This is my assignment, and it’s the journey of my life.”

A heart for the poor

Danley grew up at the base of Phoenix’s Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., an affluent city sprinkled with art galleries, high-end restaurants and sprawling properties. Though the scene from the outside was picturesque, Danley had her share of childhood trials. Her father committed suicide. Her mother was an alcoholic. Her stepfather was abusive.

Danley often wondered, “If God is so loving, then why is there so much suffering?”

After graduating from high school, she followed in her father’s footsteps and enrolled at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. There, one day, driven by her own personal pain and emboldened by a country just coming out of the civil rights movement, she sobbed in a phone booth to a friend on the other end of the line. The friend quoted her parts of Luke 12:48, “… Much is required from those to whom much is given.”

Danley felt like she was waking up for the first time. Though she had committed her life to Jesus long before, it was a vow full of caveats, including “a big P.S.: Don’t mess with my life,” she said.

But that day, Danley simply and directly asked God, “If you are so loving, then why is there so much suffering?”

The answer: “Keep asking me the hard questions. I will meet you in those questions.”

The “phone booth” conversion, as Danley calls it, opened her eyes to what she as a Christian could be doing.

“In Scripture, it was about getting everyone, especially the prophets of old, out of their comfort zones,” Danley said. “In my discomfort zone, I’m changed.”

Hungry to learn how she could help her own community, Danley transferred to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where she discovered a “hothouse environment” of a socially conscious Christian movement and met her future husband, Wayne.

“From our very first conversation, I could see how focused she was on God’s heart for the poor,” he said.

After both separately moved to Phoenix, Kit and Wayne reconnected at Open Door Fellowship Church. At the time, according to a 2001 study based on U.S. Census data conducted by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, Open Door was located right in the heart of the most impoverished area in Arizona. Densely populated, with 20 to 40 percent of its residents living in poverty, the area also had a growing population that was largely Hispanic with low education attainment and high unemployment rates.

The couple married in 1978 and had two children, Heather and Ian, now 32 and 29.

Determined not to be just “Sunday-service churchgoers,” they bought an old house -- complete with six shattered windows and motor oil-stained carpets -- in Open Door’s neighborhood and moved there. Their daughter asked at the time, “Why are we moving from the pretty house into the dirty house?”

“To us this is known as ‘relocation,’” Wayne Danley said. “If you commute to the poor, you will at the very least be in danger of appearing condescending. It is only through sharing in the very environment that you might identify what it means to be poor and come to a point where you may identify with those you are attempting to reach with the good news.”

In 1981, inspired by Kit Danley’s teaching on caring for the poor, several women attending Open Door wanted to start reaching out to families in the community. Sparked by them, Danley spearheaded the development of a food and clothing pantry at the church to provide for low-income residents in the area. Danley directed the pantry, and out of that grew Neighborhood Ministries.

By 1988, Danley had expanded the nonprofit to include a youth program called Kids’ Club (now Kids’ Life), which continues to this day. Hundreds of kids from inner-city Phoenix come together every Monday night for a free meal, a worship service and learning workshops. Ten years ago, an old feed-and-seed mill was converted to a group space to house Kids’ Life and to host a weekly bilingual church.

Other programs added since Kids’ Life’s inception include a nonprofit medical clinic, a metalworking and bicycle repair shop where youth can learn a trade and earn their own bicycle, and four income-producing businesses such as a T-shirt shop that does silk-screening and a catering business.

“Everything in Neighborhood Ministries has a long story. We prayed every day for 10 years to open a medical clinic,” Danley said. “Once God’s got you captured, there’s a giant learning curve.”

Neighborhood Ministries is holistic, Danley added, explaining that the ministry is intended to demonstrate that God cares about the specific physical and emotional needs of the poor and to affirm that they “can break the cycle of poverty and have a future and hope.”

Hope was what Neighborhood Ministries gave to a man who identified himself as Juan.

“Neighborhood Ministries saved my life,” said Juan, who has worked at the El Mercado thrift store for more than a decade. “I was pretty close to suicidal, and God used Kids’ Life to bring people into my life who loved me without reason and who gave me a reason to hope.”

Where young people dream

Large photos of dozens of teenagers line the upper walls of Neighborhood Ministries’ group space where Kids’ Life meets. They are photos of the program’s participants who have graduated from high school -- the first step in breaking the cycle of poverty, Danley said.

As she looked around the space and at the photos, Danley smiled and said, “The young people here are pursuing the dreams of their lives.”

This spring, she’ll add the photo of a soon-to-be high school graduate, Rosalinda.

Rosalinda was a tough cookie from day one, Danley said. It was up to Rosalinda to watch after her younger siblings when her mother worked long hours. There were even times when her mother traveled to Mexico, leaving Rosalinda alone to care for her brothers and sisters. The one sure thing in her life was Monday nights, when Kids’ Life meets. Though she’ll be 21 when she graduates from high school, Rosalinda has done it.

Her story reminds Danley that “you’re not foolish to dream your dreams,” and no matter the circumstances, you must keep getting back up and dreaming again, “because God is the author of dreams.”

Danley’s own dreams now for the nearly 30-year-old Neighborhood Ministries include adding a community garden, raising $1 million to renovate a two-story building for classroom space, and taking over a group of houses near the Neighborhood Ministries property to create interim housing.

She’s also exploring how the ministry can create more jobs and develop businesses to aid the unemployed in the area. She has adopted two daughters from the neighborhood. And living in a state associated with highly charged immigration laws such as Senate Bill 1070 -- which requires law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of people if there is a reasonable suspicion that they are in the country illegally -- she continues to wonder, “Is it possible to change the barometer of this state?”

“[Arizonans] are known as the people who are haters,” said Danley, who has worked with her son, Ian, to raise awareness about legislation and to mobilize community members to speak out and to vote. “We love our state, we love the people, and we love where we live. We want to help change it.”

To do so, Danley challenges both Arizonans and Christians to “break down walls” that create divisions and a false sense of security.

“You can just do an event, a graffiti cleanup or a mission trip as a ‘drive-by compassion,’” Danley said. “But when you get intertwined with people and their lives, you’re not just going to stand by and watch them get slaughtered.

“If it’s right in front of you,” she added, “what are you going to do?”

Questions to consider:

  • What are the advantages of a holistic outreach approach like the one employed by Neighborhood Ministries?
  • What are the benefits of not only serving a community but living as a part of the community as well?
  • Is there a “phone booth” conversion that you have experienced and subsequently acted upon as a Christian institutional leader?
  • Where are your leadership discomfort zones in which you can be challenged and changed?
  • What could your organization do to help break down walls of injustice?