Binghampton organizations find community at The Commons

The Commons serves as a home for Binghampton organizations and congregations to come together in community.
The Commons on North Merton Street in Binghampton could be called a clearinghouse. It houses four nonprofit organizations and serves as a place of worship for five congregations.
 
It wasn’t always a multiuse building. Everett Memorial United Methodist Church built the sanctuary building in 1935 and a Sunday School annex in 1957. But by the early 2000s as much of the congregants had moved east the church donated the facility to Center for Transforming Communities, then known as CONECT Inc. On Sept. 27, 2007, the building was rededicated as a site focused on the transformation of Binghampton, and later renamed The Commons on Merton.
 
The Commons serves as the headquarters of Center for Transforming Communities, which owns and operates the building as part of its mission to engage and mobilize individuals, organizations and churches to be agents of transformation in their neighborhoods.
 
“We recognize that buildings like this are physical assets in a neighborhood,” said Kenny Latta, Coordinator of Special Projects for Center for Transforming Communities. “Center for Transforming Communities, in our role as stewards of this building, is to make sure it’s used to its potential and that it’s full and open to the community. We want to help facilitate that.”
 
Center for Transforming Communities was incorporated in the mid-1990s as a United Methodist agency to help those churches connect to their neighborhoods. The organization later became independent, working across all denominations.
 
“We have a small network across the community committed to asset-based development and helping congregations look at neighborhoods full of needs and problems and help them shift the lens to see where there are assets and building blocks and people with hopes and dreams,” said Amy Moritz, Director of Center for Transforming Communities. “We can begin to really pay attention to that and come alongside what’s already present in the neighborhood with the belief that any long-term sustainable effort is dependent on what’s inside the neighborhood.”
 
And that can be seen at The Commons where partner organizations include Memphis Immigration Advocates, a nonprofit law firm that represents children, survivors of violence and other low-income immigrants; Memphis School of Servant Leadership, which raises up servant leaders for the church; Refugee Empowerment Program, an organization that addresses the needs of the refugee population of Memphis through empowerment programs and community outreach; Narcotics Anonymous, an association of people in recovery; Fishes and Loaves, a food pantry for the neighborhood that’s operated by the Binghampton United Methodist Church; and McMerton Neighborhood Gardens, a network of community gardens in the area.
 
Billy Vaughan lives near The Commons. He was a part of Everett United Methodist Church and its descendant, Binghampton United Methodist Church. He also serves on The Commons board of directors.
 
“The Commons opened and said we’re not going to be like other church buildings scattered throughout the city,” he said. “The Commons said we want this space to be for the good of the neighborhood and the city. All these partners see themselves as connected, not just separate entities. All of this, plus Caritas Village and other stories like that have helped solidify the celebration of diversity, economic, racial, class and ethnic diversity. I think that’s the treasure that this neighborhood is. The shalom work that comes out of The Commons is precisely that.”
 
Center for Transforming Communities works with churches in neighborhoods around Memphis in what it calls communities of shalom. The program focuses on asset-based strategies to help guide churches through the process of working together with other congregations in the neighborhood to identify assets to improve the quality of the community.
 
There are five shalom zones in Memphis that CTC provides ongoing technical support, training and other needs. The zones are South Memphis, Highland Heights, Hickory Hill, Mason, Tennessee, and Binghampton, the original.
 
“I hope (the Binghampton shalom zone) gives hope to other shalom zones of what can be possible,” Moritz said. “You can look at McMerton Neighborhood Gardens. No one owns it. To me that is something to aspire to that you have these things that are so vital in the neighborhood that there is a sense that the lens of ownership gets blurred but everybody feels the sense of responsibility. That can translate to The Commons and the way we try to occupy that space.”
 
The Commons shows how faith congregations can share one space. Four Christian congregations and a chapter of Moorish Muslims meet in the space: Binghampton United Methodist Church, Holy Pentecost Church, Memphis Metropolitan Christian Church, Moorish Science Temple of American and Transforming Lives Christian Church.
 
The congregations that meet at The Commons on Merton are an example of the diversity that is Binghampton, Latta said. For example, Binghampton is a traditional United Methodist Church that is the descendant of the original Everett UMC. Transforming Lives is a traditional African-American congregation with a COGIC background, while Metropolitan leans heavily on technology.
 
Holy Pentecost is a congregation of Christian refugees from Burundi, many of whom live in the neighborhood. And Moorish Science Temple is a national religious organization founded by Prophet Noble Drew Ali in 1913.
 
A diverse group, to be sure, and an important representation of the neighborhood.
 
“On this side (of Binghampton) I’d say it’s about a third refugees, third white residents and then the rest are Latino and African-Americans,” Latta said. “It’s a tremendously diverse neighborhood. When you walk down the street sometimes you can’t guess the language people are speaking.”
 
Serving the refugee population of the neighborhood is important. Refugee Empowerment Program was one of the first partners in The Commons after it started. The organization uses about half of the building’s space for its youth programming in the summer and after school as well as Sunday School classroom spaces upstairs for English as Second Language classes for adults.
 
CTC was intentional about the mix of partners in The Commons, Latta said, ensuring that they all resonate with the vision and can contribute to that.
 
Vaughan said the diversity of The Commons is similar to that of the neighborhood, and something he said is a true positive for the community.
 
“The diversity isn’t just racial, it’s ethnic, it’s international,” he said. “You have African-Americans, Euro-Americans, Latino-Americans, then all of these folks from Sudan, Somalia, Philippines, China; we’ve got an amazing diversity and that in and of itself is just an incredible blessing.”
 
Vaughan and his family moved to Binghampton in 2002 from Cooper-Young. He said the image then was that it’s a dangerous place. But his family has found the opposite through the years, in part because of the diversity.
 
“There is so much happening on the streets,” he said. “People often walk in the streets and traffic has to stop for them. It’s a real gift in a lot of ways. The community is not behind doors. It’s on the streets, in the yards, in Binghampton Park. Our kids were all soccer players and they found themselves at the park in soccer games. Oftentimes soccer games on one end of the field with mostly Latinos and one on the other side that was mostly refugee and Africans. And they had their own side games that were a mixture of everyone.”
 
Even though the name has been around for several years now, many in the neighborhood still recognize the Everett church name more than The Commons. But the word is getting out, in part just by the number of people who are in and out of the building visiting its various partner organizations on any given day or on the weekend for worship services.
 
With thousands of churches in the Memphis area, some of which are buildings with no or diminished congregations, could The Commons be replicated in other neighborhoods?
 
“How many neighborhoods are crying out for community centers and how many empty church buildings are in those neighborhoods,” Latta said. “We try to actively encourage things like this through communities of shalom, but we’d be overjoyed to see other congregations and church buildings take on models like this.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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