(Part 2 of Grand Opening Reflections)
The early ‘90s were very turbulent for Madison —and the world.
The U.S. was riveted — and divided — over the April 29, 1992 acquittal of the L.A. police officers who had been charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force for their conduct during their arrest of Rodney King. It had been years, if not decades, since such grand scale racial polarization has been witnessed on American soil. The acquittals were considered to be the triggers for the L.A. riots in which more than 50 people were killed.
Meanwhile, Madison was experiencing its own issues concerning race. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of African Americans in Madison doubled. This was mainly due to new residents moving to the area from Milwaukee and Chicago. These new numbers did not translate into a proportionate increase of African American judges, police officers, schoolteachers, social workers, principals, bankers, realtors or counselors. For the community, this meant a great disparity in how Madison addressed social and educational issues with African Americans. Seemingly all of a sudden we saw a drastic increase of African Americans experiencing higher rates of incarceration, high school drop out, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), admission to juvenile detention and juvenile mental health facilities. The Greater Madison community needed to respond to its changing demographics quickly and sensitively.
During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Union Tabernacle Church had become a twenty-something college and young adult congregation with about twenty-something members. My sister, Lilada, and I invited our friends from UW-Madison to church. I challenged many of them to consider staying in Madison after graduation to help empower the African American community in South Madison.
To my great surprise, many of our student-parishioners decided to stay in Madison to help take our ministry to a new level of relevance and community empowerment. We began collaborating with Christ Presbyterian Church on programs like Project Opportunity and Young Life. We began an after-school homework club at the Sommerset Circle (today’s Parker Place Apartments) apartments on Badger Road. Our young congregants engaged in community mentoring and tutoring programs while others took jobs as social workers, teachers, and community activists. Our newfound infatuation with community involvement added a sweet touch of relevance and credibility to our witness of faith.
We were so struck with this new direction that in 1992 Union Tabernacle formalized its community service activities and founded what was then called The Nehemiah Community Development Corporation to empower African American children, youth, and families on Madison’s south side. The South Madison community respected and affirmed our commitment, cultural sensitivity, and indignity of our leaders. By the mid-’90s, Nehemiah, our church’s faith-based social services organization, was contracted by Dane County Human Services to create family empowerment and culturally sensitive programming for African American, Latino, and Southeast Asian families that were in transition due to our W2 (Wisconsin Works) program. We could speak three different languages at our staff meetings!
We quickly discovered that our philosophies of cultural competent leadership development, family empowerment, and youth enrichment services not only strengthened our clients, but it showed us that those clients were becoming the community’s newest indigenous leaders. The great lesson learned was that people wanted to be leaders more than they wanted to be clients — hence indigenous leadership development became our new focus and specialty.
(As I’ve studied models of leadership around the world, it’s very apparent that neither programs nor institutions change society — people do. More often than not, those people are grassroots, indigenous leaders. This is called transformational leadership. Although we are very proud of our new building, it is merely a facility where more leadership development can take place.)
In February of 1997, Union Tabernacle Church officially became Fountain of Life Church. The imagery of a fountain as a source from which something flows was more congruent with our ministry philosophy than the symbol of a tabernacle where exclusive people gathered and shielded themselves from the outside.
In my next and final installment of Fountain of Life’s history, I will explain how our vision for expansion and remodeling developed. Please join us this coming weekend for our Grand Opening Celebration activities which are free and open to all: Friday Youth Inspiration Night (7 p.m.); Saturday’s Gospel Music Concert (6 p.m.); and Sunday’s Dedication Service (10 a.m.). We are located at 633 W. Badger Road. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (608)257-LIFE.