Fall 2001
Cover Story
Alma Matters
Riff Ram
Class Notes
Back Issues

TCU Magazine "AlumNews"

Community spirit

Mack McCarter '67 (MDiv '71) claims he's only the messenger, but his brainchild, Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal, just might change the world.

By Nancy Bartosek

Mack McCarter's gray eyes peer intently toward spacious, tree-shrouded homes as he steers his tan Suburban slowly down a limb-draped street.

He's talking animatedly about the contributions of the people who live in this land of privilege, but he's looking for a sign -- a handcarved, wooden one. This is where McCarter '67 (MDiv '71) grew up. Not on this exact street, but here in Shreveport.

Quick to smile, this 55-year-old activist doesn't look his age, nor like he spent many years as a pastor in Texas; the collared shirt he wears with jeans now has Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal on the right breast. McCarter pauses mid-sentence and busts a grin.

"See the sign?" he queries, eyes sparkling with excitement as he points to the message amid azaleas and magnolias.

The sign proclaims: We Care. McCarter isn't shy about saying he wants to change the world.

And judging from his success in Shreveport, the community renewal model he is putting in place might do just that -- one heart at a time.

ALLENDALE is a part of Shreveport you don't go to if you don't have to. Blighted and worn, this historically black neighborhood has been home to generations of disadvantage.

Rows of dilapidated shotgun houses surround a recently cleared block. A large sign on the land explains the heavy machinery parked on site: Coming soon, Friendship Houses

This warm afternoon, the small porches overlooking the lot sag with residents. Kids scamper about and teens wander aimlessly. A car pulls up and as the driver steps out, a young woman waves and hollers, "Hey Mr. Norm, I've got to talk to you."

A serious conversation ensues. The girl, not more than about 16, has just gotten out of jail and doesn't like the way life is going. She wants to get a GED and a job. She knows Mr. Norm, a.k.a. Norman Brown, is just the man to help.

Brown is one of two Shreveport-Bossier Community Renewal (SBCR) coordinators for Allendale. He and his family will be permanent residents in one of the two new Internal Care Unit (ICU) houses that will fill the now-vacant land by year's end. His primary focus will be the teens, the other coordinator will concentrate on the children.

Both have been injecting themselves into this neighborhood for months. Every day they are on site, talking to the residents, building friendships, helping locals access city services.

Allendale is the third neighborhood where the ICU plan has been implemented. By year's end, five troubled areas -- four in Shreveport, one in Bossier City -- will have two new families, each committed to fulltime community renewal in their neighborhood.

The ICUs are making a difference. Coordinator Yul Taylor and his family were the first to move into one of the target areas. Since they arrived in the Cedar Grove neighborhood in 1998, crime in the area once known as cocaine alley has dropped 42 percent.

The magic Taylor and others with the renewal organization have worked has transformed five of the six crack houses on his street into family homes. Taylor has even made peace with those who still sell drugs from the house across from his. What might be a problem now provides an unusual sense of safety for the family: the remaining dealers know Taylor is there to help, not hurt, so they act as guard dogs, watching out for the Taylor home and the neighborhood kids who frequent it.

Reaching out. Allendale Coordinator Norman Brown helps kids who have little hope.

Norman Dolch, a sociology professor at Louisiana State University at Shreveport, has led focus groups in the ICU neighborhoods for the past four years. The first group was quick to report their area was not a nice place to live. High crime, trash, houses in need of repair and drainage problems topped the list of complaints. Four years later the response was markedly different.

Most said their neighborhood was a pretty nice place to live; crime is down, neighborhood groups and individuals have cleaned up some areas and the city is more responsive to problems. The people feel safer.

McCarter knows the renewal teams efforts didn't make all that happen. But their presence leavened the process. By getting the neighbors to talk, showing them how to get better response from the police, helping even a few take pride and realize they could affect change, the entire community was lifted.

McCarter's "solution" to societal breakdown began to percolate more than 20 years ago while he was ministering to cowboys in small Texas towns. It was then he read society defined as a system of relationships.

"That was a key for me," McCarter said. "Society is really marriage on a grand scale. If we ignore these relationships, then we suffer disintegration of society." He thought that if he could create a sense of community in the county seats it might build a movement that would spread to the cities.

For 10 years he tried to implement the concept through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where he pastored. It was a decade of frustration. The local community wouldn't embrace the concept because it was connected to a certain dogma.

In 1991, boyhood buddy and Shreveport businessman Milton Hamel told McCarter he would support him for three years while he worked to implement his concepts in Shreveport. With nothing but a vision, McCarter left the ministry and took the challenge.

He and wife Judy Keator McCarter '67 settled into a modest home not far from his old stomping ground. Then he faced down Lawrence Street. Lined with broken-down dwellings filled with broken-down people, this street was one of the most depressing in the city. McCarter knew success required finding ways to connect people. All people.

Lawrence Street became his test case. Years later, McCarter humbly admits that when he stepped from his car that first Saturday morning in 1991, he was frankly terrified. There he was, an affluent white man coming into a place he wasn't wanted. He had nothing to offer but friendship, which would likely be seen as suspect. He worried he'd be beaten or even killed.

The children saved him. As he stood on the curb, wondering how long he might last, the little ones gathered. He stooped down and they climbed into his arms. Weighed down with these smiling faces, he knocked on the first door.

"Hi, I'm Mack McCarter, and I am here to be your friend."

Most doors closed abruptly on him that day. The next week he was back. Every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. he parked his car and knocked on doors. Eventually he noticed people were waiting for him on their porches.

"It was an astonishing transformation for me," he said, awe coating his words as he related his tale. "I was set free by being a friend. And realized: What if we can do this where we live too?"

WHEN McCARTER left Shreveport as a college-bound youth, he was entrenched in the well-to-do white world. Yet his sensibilities had been goaded while growing up. More than once, he had been deeply disturbed by the sight of young black kids passing his bedroom window in the dark, early hours of winter mornings.

The children lived in a small cluster of homes nearby that once housed the servants for the very wealthy at the country club. Each morning they would leave before the sun to catch a bus across town to "their" school.

"I vividly remember thinking: Why am I in this warm bed and they have to walk in the cold?" McCarter said. He later found himself sticking up for the underdogs. He knew it was inherently wrong that the only blacks in his neighborhood came to clean or do yard work.

When McCarter returned to Shreveport 20-some years later, he inadvertently re-entered through the black community. He claims it wasn't his doing. One of his first tasks was to find a church to call home. One Sunday, he visited a black congregation to hear the well-respected civil rights preacher that led the church. Much to his chagrin, McCarter received a clear spiritual message at the end of the meeting that he should walk to the front of the church to join.

Part of the solution. Jackie Dunson, right, Queensboro community coordinator, welcomes 21 kids into her home several days a week from her three-square-block "community" for fun and learning.

After a short argument with God, wherein McCarter reported he was chastised for lacking faith, he reluctantly rose to his feet and became the first and, until Judy joined months later, only white member of Mt. Canaan Baptist Church. "The hand of God," McCarter calls the experience, an essential element in his success establishing the renewal project.

SHREVEPORT-BOSSIER Community Renewal (SBCR) is only seven years old. The grassroots non-profit has grown from McCarter's one-man show into a city-wide effort spearheaded by more than 20 employees who inspire and lead hundreds of volunteers.

It reaches into every neighborhood, every economic strata, every home and soon will explode onto the national scene as a model for community revitalization. Lauded by the Washington Post and supported by the Pew Patnership of the Pew Charitable Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (of Johnson & Johnson fame), the program with the $1.4 million annual budget is based on the belief that most people care about their neighbors and their community.

The three-pronged effort is so simple in concept that everyone and anyone can contribute. The SBCR is already partnering with Centenary College and LSUS for research and support, and a budding academic alliance with Hardin Simmons University will potentially provide the Shreveport community with up to 1,000 social work interns a year who will serve in the neighborhoods. Hardin Simmons wants to replicate SBCR's program in their home city of Abilene and plans are in the works to establish an endowed chair to lead it.

McCarter is also in talks with the U.S. Justice Department to establish the SBCR model as the official community arm of the national Weed and Seed crime prevention program.

But the biggest news is the development of the National Center for Community Renewal. A 15-story building in downtown Shreveport has been donated, which, after a two-year, $20 million renovation, will serve as the headquarters for the national effort. People from across the nation will come and stay in hotel-type accommodations while they spend up to several months learning how to replicate the renewal model in their own communities.

McCarter says it's the capstone to his vision of building an industry of renewal. "We are trying to affect a revolution," he said, his enthusiasm spilling into the room. "Our methodology is to rebuild social capital by building a relationalship base. Our formula is the belief that a simple act systemized solves sophisticated problems."

The preacher in McCarter might say, We get people talking to each other, neighbor to neighbor. McCarter admits that during his years as a pastor he experienced failure, which he attributes to his own weaknesses.

But since returning to Shreveport, he happily explains, he has yet to be discouraged.

"I once read that when you reach the end of yourself you are set free to serve," he said. "If you do that, you don't get discouraged because it's not your baby, you just have to serve. "This cause is not my cause."

McCARTER'S vision isn't just an inner-city program for the poor and disenfranchised. Across town, in the sort of neighborhood Beaver Cleaver might have lived, Don and Karen Toppett are anxious to talk about the benefits of being a Haven House Leader on their street.

"We Care." Karen and Don Toppett are among hundreds of Haven House neighborhood leaders in Shreveport and Bossier City.

These friendly folks have spent the last 20-some years raising a family in that house and are active in their church. You would expect them to be intimately connected to their neighborhood, but like so many, the Toppetts only knew a handful of the people living near them.

After a short training session on being a Haven House Leader, Karen ventured out and met every family on their 32-house block. She invited them all for Donuts on the Deck in their backyard. Much to their surprise, 35 people showed up that Saturday morning. More wanted to come but were busy.

"A few days later, my mother fell at our house and an ambulance came to get her," Karen said. "We got calls from five neighbors we had just met that Saturday asking if everything was okay, if they could help in any way. It was astonishing."

Several kids on the block who hadn't met before are now play buddies, and one elderly woman said this was the first time in years that she had had a conversation with any of her neighbors. She is now seen regularly in her yard, waving and chatting with her new friends.

More than 350 Haven House Leaders have been trained in Shreveport. Their responsibilities are simple: Put up a We Care sign, and commit to spending one hour a week, three weeks a month, developing friendships with the people on their block.

"We have regular Haven House Leader meetings that bring these people together from across the city," Mack said. "The black and white, rich and poor all come together and discover that they have a lot in common. They all want their city to be a better place to live."

The third prong of the renewal effort is even simpler -- and wider reaching: Write down something you have done to help someone else, send it to the SBCR and then put the We Care sticker you'll receive on your car window. And wear your We Care collar pin around town with pride.

McCarter said he asked the police how many were in the largest "gang" in town. He was stunned to hear: only 25. By year's end, McCarter and company plan to have initiated 10,000 neighbors into their We Care gang.

Success has taught McCarter an important lesson he incorporates into every aspect of the renewal model: When you are free from a doctrinal base you are set free to love. This opens the doors for "intentional connectedness through friendship and caring" where no one is excluded.

Still, he adds, though the renewal effort is community oriented and ecumenical, the people who commit their time are quick to say their involvement is faith-based.

"It's a mindset," he said. "The critical question is surrendering to a cause -- then you don't create any power, you just appropriate it."

McCarter's eyes flash with a contagious fire.

"I experience this incredible wonder and awe about the freshness of each day," he said. "It is astonishing to see the people who have been brought together to be this team. This is absolutely the greatest adventure I've been on in my life."

"I am living in a miracle."

For more information about SBCR: www.shrevecommunityrenewal.org