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FINALIST

Mack McCarter

Diocese of Shreveport, Lousiana

Meet the visionary transforming poor neighborhoods by fostering love and friendship

It’s a Saturday morning in 1991, and Mack McCarter is walking through the Allendale neighborhood of Shreveport, just trying to be neighborly. There’s a part of him that wonders whether this is a good idea—he stands out as a white man in a black neighborhood where he knows no one, and no one knows him. Moreover, he knows full well that the murder rate in this area averages nearly two people every week.

 

But God has given Mack a mission, and he knows much better than to take missions lightly.

 

He’s spent his adult life in ministry, having gone to seminary and been a pastor of an evangelical church in west Texas for many years. He has pored over scripture, counseled members of his flock, and sought to lead them as faithful followers of Jesus.

 

But even within this vocation, Mack has discerned a deeper voice, urging him to pay close attention to the poor. Just as Jesus preached in the parable of the Good Samaritan, he felt a call to help people in need. Christian life, he understands, is more than seeking personal holiness. It is about being willing to let go of anything that gets in the way of being a neighbor.

 

Back in his hometown of Shreveport, his neighbors needed him. In the nearly 30 years since he’d left, the once-prosperous black neighborhoods of the city had been overrun with gangs and drugs, while the remaining white people who could afford it moved to places like neighboring Bossier City.

God told him to head toward “the Bottoms,” the toughest area of the city, and go door to door. He thought about taking the easy route first—“drive-by blessings,” he calls them, recalling how he tried to hedge on his promise to God. But God told him to go door-to-door on Saturday mornings, when “the bad guys are hungover,” and try to make friends.

Thus, Mack recalls, God told him to begin “the fundamental molecular part of the reconstruction of society.”

 

In the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a new, just order, he describes how “a little child shall guide them” (Isaiah 11:6). On that first Saturday, Mack saw that happen. The first people to greet him were kids, who just wanted to play with him. Emboldened by their warm response, he began to knock on doors, introducing himself and saying he wanted to be friends.

 

Many, he said, were more than a little dubious. But he continued to come by every Saturday. And within three months, people were waiting on their row house porches, waiting for their turn to meet their gregarious neighbor.

Eventually, Mack heard God calling him to be a member at a black Baptist church. He describes the litany of reasons he gave God why that might be a bad idea. But he remembered a quote from Eleanor Ford which moved him: “you cannot continue to hope for a new day tomorrow unless you are willing to live that new day today. You cannot hope for brotherhood tomorrow. You’ve got to be a brother today.” And so he went and joined.

During this period, he reached out to the Catholic bishop of Shreveport, William Friend. He recalled how, during his time in Texas, he had seen the important work that the Catholic Church was doing. He wanted to befriend the local Catholic priest, because in his words “wherever the poor were, the Catholic church was.”

 

He came to appreciate the way that the local Catholic bishop stood for those on the margins, and assumed that the same would be true of the Bishop of Shreveport. So over time, he became friends with Bishop Friend, and slowly revealed his plans for renewing the city.

 

Bishop Friend was convinced. He invited his entire diocesan staff to listen to this captivating Protestant preacher talk about “re-villagizing” the city of Shreveport by establishing new relationships among its residents. He then invited Mack to speak in any of the Catholic parishes in the city and gave him a check for $10,000 to get to work.

 

The seed of Mack’s idea was and is, in fact, a very Biblical one. He points to Jesus’ parable of the woman leavening dough: a small amount of leaven can lift an entire loaf of bread. Revillagizing a city is similar: small changes in relationships, making city blocks into networks of friends, can have a transformative effect.

Similarly, the parable of the mustard seed—“the smallest of all the seeds” growing into a large tree is an image of the kind of change that can happen with changes in relationships. In Mack’s view, friendship can change the world. That basic insight, coupled with the efforts of people who were inspired by Mack’s vision, led to the founding of Community Renewal International.

Twenty-five years later, CRI has shown itself to be a vibrant, hopeful model of urban renewal. Mack and his team first established a “Friendship House” in the same Allendale neighborhood where he began his neighbor walks in 1991.

 

Reflecting on its place in the community years later, Robert Handy, a lifetime resident of Allendale who has volunteered with CRI for 17 years, described why it was different than the many failed programs that had preceded it:

“They show up, you sign paper, they turn in paper and they get government money. But the difference with Community Renewal, they came in and they built a foundation. They built this house before they did anything else. That got my attention.”

What Robert and many others have come to see is a network of neighbors committed to serving one another to build villages within the city. On average, neighborhoods where CRI has built Friendship Houses see a 52% drop in major crime.

 

Over 50,000 people in Shreveport—what Mack calls “the largest gang in town”—have signed “We Care” pledge cards, committing to some service towards their neighbors. In 2018, over 2,000 volunteers gave nearly 40,000 hours of service. The 10 Friendship Houses spread across 5 neighborhoods of Shreveport host after school programs, adult literacy programs, and many other community activities.

The success of CRI is now being replicated in 9 other places: Abilene, Texas; Palestine, Texas: Houston, Texas; Shawnee, Oklahoma; Lawton, Oklahoma; Ringgold, Louisiana; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota; Washington, D.C.; and the country of Cameroon in Africa.

In 2016, Mack McCarter joined the Catholic Church, the fruit of many relationships, both within his extended family and with the late Bishop Friend. Reflecting on his journey, Mack points to what drew him to the Church, especially after such profound experiences of pastoring a community in Texas and joining a black Baptist church in Shreveport. His answer is simple: “Well, it wasn't doctrine, it was love.”

 

He continues: “It was serving, because I was drawn to say, ‘Here are folks that are serving the poor, and consistently, that wherever they are, the Church is there.’” For Mack, the light of Christ means being generous and even extravagant in loving service to others. That kind of generosity—that kind of friendship—can transform individuals and entire communities.

 

The Lumen Christi Award is proudly presented by Catholic Extension, a non-profit that

provides grants to build the Catholic faith in the poorest areas of the United States.