“Un” Rusting the Rust Belt

Wesleyans and Methodists were some of the very early successful church planters in America centuries ago. In this video interview, Ed Stetzer shares why the heritage of church planting is essential to reclaim, and why Wesleyans are specially positioned to do so in America.

Churches are taking job creation and economic development into their own hands

Recently, I engaged a youth who had a small rusty metal sheet of about 2” x 6”.  (I thought the same thing: “What in the world is a kid doing with a rusty sheet of metal?”)  As we were talking he asked me an interesting question, “How can I get the rust off?”

I sat there puzzled (and amused) for a moment wondering why he would ask such a question, silently thinking, “You should probably just get another piece of metal.”  After a few moments, I noticed the young man seemed to endear the sheet of metal, as if it were an object of affection. While I never discovered its significance, later on, after reflecting on the incident, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to another situation.

That experience defines my doctoral research associated with the Rust Belt region of the U.S., which comprises a portion of the north-central and northeastern regions of the country.  The Rust Belt label was applied to the region because of the significant experience of economic depression, de-industrialization and population decline.  Much like my impression toward the youth I spoke of in the beginning and his sheet of metal, many have drawn similar conclusions to this region of the nation, “focusing on the new and forgetting the old.”

Probably no other city more defines the Rust Belt than Detroit, Mich., which last year became the largest city to declare bankruptcy in U.S. history. Further, within a 10 year span, the city of Detroit has lost nearly half of its population and has become a city with challenges, such as high levels of unemployment and, most recently, cuts to the public pension funds of retirees.  While Detroit arguably symbolizes the region, other cities including Lansing and Flint, Mich., Scranton, Pa., Youngstown, Ohio, Camden , N.J., and even traditionally big cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, Milwaukee, Wis., Pittsburgh, Pa.,  and Buffalo, N.Y., are all locales that represent a region that has experienced gradual and significant decline over the half century.

To make matters worse, while this region has experienced elevated levels of negative social factors compared to the nation as a whole, certain segments within the population have suffered through even greater disparities, particularly African American males.   The University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development has produced several reports over the past decade highlighting the crisis-like epidemic for cities in these regions.  While the national average for unemployment is now well below 10 percent, for African American males in several Rust Belt region cities, unemployment levels have exceeded 50 percent.  The chart below is drawn from their latest report from 2012, in which a segment compared African American male employment in 1970 and 2010. This study was based on employable males, ages 16-64.

Metro Area 1970 2010
Milwaukee 73.4 44.7
Detroit 71.6 43.0
Cleveland 73.7 47.7
Chicago 72.1 48.3
Buffalo 67.5 43.9

Despite such challenges the Church has been a strong, visible witness to the importance of faith, work and economics within the Rust Belt region.  One unique example is the True Bethel Baptist Church of Buffalo, N.Y., the first church in the nation to have a Subway franchise on their campus.  The congregation and their Subway was featured on the nationally televised show Under Cover Boss, highlighting their desire to provide employment and skills.  The Subway executive was so moved by the experience that the company has committed to helping the Church open a second shop at their other worship location.

Another notable initiative is occurring through the Fellowship Baptist Church of Chicago, which recently received a generous donation from the Christian based company Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby donated a 14.5 acre property to the Church.  Fellowship Church intends to use the property as a major piece in their development plan known as the “Legacy Project,” which, in part, aims to start businesses and economic development projects to help address high unemployment rates. Further, there are other efforts taking place through churches in the Rust Belt region with the aim of transforming the plight of poverty and joblessness being experienced by many in the area, while affirming the relevance and witness of the Church for such a time as this.

Perhaps many have given up on the city, but it’s encouraging to know that the Church is still leading where others dare not go.  In Scripture, we are repeatedly reminded about the city and God’s commitment to it in many instances.  Perhaps one of my favorite passages of scripture is Jeremiah 29:7 where God is instructing the Jewish exiles to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”


Jonathan Blackburn, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., has been involved in ministry and advocacy work for nearly fifteen years. He has a wealth of Christian experience, having served as an educator, community developer, speaker and pastor. Currently Jonathan is pursuing a Ph.D. in Development and Missiology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. Jonathan shares this journey with his wife LaDonna, and their four children.