A Discussion with Mark Ogland-Hand, Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Michigan

With: Mark Ogland-Hand

November 14, 2012

Background: This discussion took place on November 14, 2012 between Mark Ogland-Hand, Katherine Marshall, Michael Bodakowski, and Ariel Gleicher via conference call, as part of a joint effort between Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. It forms part of a year-long evaluation of the HFHI Interfaith Toolkit Pilot Project—a guide for HFHI affiliates to implement interfaith approaches through organizational strategy and outreach. Tom Jones, ambassador-at-large and senior leadership team member of HFHI, spearheaded the initiative following a 2008 workshop on faith and shelter at Georgetown University. In this interview, Mark Ogland-Hand discusses his background and experience as the faith relations director at Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Michigan. He emphasizes the relatively small size of his affiliate’s community compared to others in the pilot project; it is, however, representative of many U.S. Habitat affiliates. Ogland-Hand discusses the unique sociopolitical dynamics of his state, with lost manufacturing jobs and the foreclosure of many homes after the housing bubble collapsed in 2008. He highlights the faith dynamics of Kent County; though still largely Christian, it is increasingly diverse. He sees a real need for greater interfaith understanding. Grand Rapids mayor George Heartwell, he underlined, declared 2012 the “Year of Interfaith Dialogue,” and that has served as a motivation for his affiliate’s emphasis on interfaith engagement. Ogland-Hand cited as his goal for the pilot project to establish a sustainable interfaith engagement model to help low-income families and those in need, one that would outlive his leadership.

How did you become involved with this Habitat for Humanity chapter?

After graduating from Point Loma College in San Diego in 1983, I moved up to Los Angeles to do a master’s degree at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena. I started working in the church, but soon found I did not want to work in a church for my career. At about that time (the mid- to late 1980s), a representative of World Vision came to our church on behalf of Habitat for Humanity and recruited us to go work in the south. Our church took a team down into the Delta region of Mississippi, and we built a Habitat house as part of this effort.

I loved that experience, and when I returned to California I became a board member for a start-up Habitat affiliate called San Garbriel Valley Habitat for Humanity. At the time, I was working for Fuller Seminary as a fundraiser and traveled the West Coast raising money for the school. Then, about 15 years ago, I moved to the Midwest and returned to the family business, becoming a contractor. All along in that process I volunteered with and/or donated to Habitat. Then a friend of mine became the executive director at the local Habitat and asked me to apply for the job of faith relations director, which combined my faith background with my fundraising experience.

What is the size of your Habitat affiliate?

We have a full-time staff of 31 and almost as many part-time employees. This includes our resource development team, volunteer services, donations of building materials, finance and administration, family services, construction, YouthBuild, and ReStore.

What indicators would you use to measure your chapter’s capacity?

We are a relatively strong affiliate considering the size of our metropolitan area. Looking at our housing output, we are on track to build about 25 homes this year, as well as 35 "A Brush with Kindness" projects, and 10 critical repairs. We operate two ReStores, and over 8,000 volunteers gave their services to us last year. In 2013 it will be our thirtieth anniversary, and in that time we will have built approximately 335 homes. In 2007, the affiliate committed itself to building all LEED-certified houses (new or rehabilitated), and this year we will celebrate our one hundredth LEED house. And finally, by 2014 we should become the first Michigan affiliate to hit the $1 million mark in total tithe given to International.

What is the physical jurisdiction of your chapter?

We are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and service the Kent County area, which is in the western part of the state. The county is the fourth largest population area of Michigan and covers 864 square miles. The bulk of our building though, takes place in Grand Rapids (Michigan’s second largest city) and specifically in the southeast and southwest quadrants of the city.

What are the main issues around housing in your city or county? What are the main obstacles that you as an institution are focusing on as the problem?

We have a lot of vacant homes that are bank- or government-owned. And while this presents opportunity on the one hand, it also exacerbates the lack of available affordable housing units. The more houses owned by the bank or government translates to a smaller housing stock available. Locally, this is the result of a perfect storm—the loss of manufacturing jobs (and income) and the foreclosure crises (which in the neighborhoods this affiliate works was caused by both income flight and predatory lending practices). It is a perfect storm in that it is both a supply and demand problem.

Our affiliate is a member of an area-wide coalition created by our mayor, which aims to end homelessness. The project included a study about where our homeless are coming from and why they become homeless. Out of this study came a report that I share with anyone who will talk with me or meet with me and which also goes into many of our brochures. It uncovered a distinct lack of affordable housing. Across the different low-income spectrums, we have several thousand families that are living doubled up just to get by. That means that they are living with other families in the same home. As a result, the coalition has made one of its goals the re-education of the public as to the true meaning of homelessness—including this silent class of families that are living in a relative’s basements or garages.

In your territory what is roughly the demographic breakdown of the faith groups?

The countywide population is about 650,000 people. The city of Grand Rapids is just over 200,000.

It is a politically conservative area that is also highly religious. Religious service attendance typically trends 15 to 25 percent higher than national averages depending on the study. It is a community in transition, especially from a cultural or ethnic perspective. For many years, 20 percent of our urban population was African American. Within the last 10 years that has quickly changed so that we now have a very strong Latino and immigrant population, and some white flight into the suburbs. Currently, in the city of Grand Rapids, the Latino/Hispanic population is estimated at about 20 percent, with African American at 19 percent, and Caucasian at 57 percent. Another element that really shocked everyone in the results of the last census is that the fastest growing religion in the area is Islam, which grew 18 percent in the past 10 years.

The result of this transition is a faith landscape that is still predominately Christian, with a stable Jewish population (three congregations represented locally), a growing Hindu population (one congregation locally), a new Sikh population (one congregation), and a fast-growing Muslim community (five congregations within the last 12 years). It is also a faith community that shows the results of different types of immigration—both highly educated and highly skilled researchers and engineers and low-income refugees. So our faith demographic contains a lot of the nuances of the countries and faiths from which the new residents originate—as has always been the case.

We recently transitioned economically as well. The area is big into manufacturing. We lost a lot of jobs about five to six years ago, but we have gained back a lot recently as our many of our businesses have shifted to more technical manufacturing in health and science fields. The economy is doing quite well for those who do have jobs. We also have three substantial publishers in the town of scholarly evangelical books. A lot of evangelical media is produced here, including video, music, and print material.

Do you know where each demographic group originates from outside of the United States?

Our foreign-born population is broken down as follows: 60 percent come from Latin America (mostly Mexico), 16 percent from Europe (think Serbia, not Belgium), 1 percent Asia (think central and south Asia), and 9 percent from Africa and the Mideast.

A Brookings Institute Study found that Grand Rapids’ Latino population tripled between 1990 and 2000. It is estimated that as in more than one-third of Midwestern U.S. counties, Kent County, Michigan would have a negative growth rate if it weren't for immigration.

Thus far have you witnessed any tensions between faith groups in the efforts to bring faith to action?

I have certainly encountered Christians who do not understand or see the need for interfaith efforts. I think many people still think of their community as being as it was 20 or 30 years ago. However, when it gets down to it—concerning interfaith work—I think that it goes back to their fear that interfaith is some sort of syncretistic effort to water down their faith. That seems to be the predominate tension or concern. And to be completely honest, the most tension on the job site was the tension I brought to it by being overly concerned in my desire for there not to be any tension! A wide variety of cultural, economic, and faith backgrounds came together on the job site, and I spent far too much time worrying about potential problems when in the end there was none.

What did you do to get started on integrating interfaith into Habitat’s work?

About a year and a half ago our mayor, who was a founding member of this Habitat [affiliate] 30 years ago, declared that 2012 would be our “Year of Interfaith Dialogue.” This was in response to an initiative put out by President [Barack] Obama at the national level. The mayor really did an outstanding job of challenging the local educational institutions, cultural centers, and social service organizations like Habitat to develop some way of participating in an interfaith endeavor.

We decided that to get involved, we would open up one of our job sites to have an interfaith build. We first wanted to allay the fears in more conservative circles that the word “interfaith” aims to be some kind of syncretism, or blending of faiths. I wanted everyone to know that our goal was to create an environment where people of different faiths can build and serve together.

The first plan of action was to create a symposium and invite the community. We called it the “Interfaith Lunch Forum.” At the forum we had a Hindu person, Muslim person, Jewish person, and Christian person explain what their faith requires of them in terms of issues of poverty. This was the first time community-wide that poverty had been discussed in an interfaith context. There have been many cultural events. For instance the symphony did a piece on the reconciliation after the Holocaust. Different theater groups have performed plays on faith issues; and musicians have come from all over the world to perform. However, none of these have ever focused on or discussed poverty, so we wanted to fill that gap. Our luncheon had four studious and scholarly people describe to the community what their faith required of them in serving the poor. It was very well attended.

We used that as a springboard and emphasized that all faiths require that their followers care for and help those who are less fortunate. With this in mind, we are opening up our job sites to people of different faiths to work on a house for a family in need. We had a full weekend—Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We wanted to be sure that the schedule was arranged so that people could work around their holy days. In the end Saturday was the most attended day and Sunday was the least attended. We had a good time and a well-attended work schedule.

Why did you decide to take part specifically in the Interfaith Toolkit Project, and what are you hoping for as a result?

There are several reasons. The toolkit builds upon some work we have already started.

When we heard about the pilot we thought it would be a fun way to do more and to be sure that we were doing it “right.”

Next, I have friends at Habitat International, and I heard about this project, and I said, “You need a place like Habitat Kent County," because we are more reflective of the 1,100 Habitat affiliates that are scattered across the country. If it can work in Kent County it should be able to be work in most midsize cities. And in a worst-case scenario, I was hoping that even if we were unsuccessful in getting an interfaith program off the ground we would at least learn enough to better conduct our work in a multifaith environment. I have noticed that more and more of the families we serve are foreign-born, and many of these are of non-Christian faiths. And I’ve never felt as if we have really thought through this aspect to our work. So I had a secondary goal for the project, and that was to become better equipped to serve our families from other faiths. And that is another aspect to the toolkit that needs to be looked at. Even if an affiliate is from a small area where there might not be enough representatives from other faiths to pull off a big joint building effort, I would imagine all affiliates will be encountering interfaith issues in one way or another.

To me one of the most appealing aspects of Habitat is that it gives us the ability to work with people who we might not otherwise be able to socialize or associate with in such a casual setting. This is sometimes due to socioeconomic disparity or educational differences or skill differences. Habitat is a place where we have had reconciliation builds where predominantly white and African American churches get together and build houses. It is a place that opens its doors to anyone who is willing to do something good for low-income folks. Habitat creates the foundation for an environment where a wide variety of people can be found on a job site.

The pilot program offers an avenue for people from a variety of backgrounds—in this case faith traditions—to get together and do something that is contrary to the popular idea that faiths cannot get along. It enables people actually to do something together in the name of helping low-income families. It’s very encouraging and enjoyable work. It is a new highlight of my time with Habitat.

What will the initiative look like in a practical sense?

It seems that affiliates with larger and more diverse populations have a goal of getting to a place where they can build a whole interfaith house together. My goal right now is in the educational element. I want to create an environment where, twice a year, we can devote a weekend to a Habitat interfaith build. The rest of the time, I want to create a revolving committee comprised of representatives from a variety of faiths whose responsibility is to advocate on issues of poverty and shelter in their home congregation. As our population grows and becomes more diverse, this will be the springboard for eventually having a typical joint sponsored build.

When you have your interfaith build, how do you mobilize the different constituencies that come together?

I relied heavily on the fact that there was already work done to fulfill the mayor’s proclamation of this being the year of interfaith understanding. There is a whole organizational structure in place for his initiative, so I tapped into that existing framework. Habitat is also a member of the mayor’s Interfaith Community Council, which includes other social service folks like the public library or the symphony. The council includes any non-religious and non-educational organizations in the community. I meet monthly in the council meetings with representatives of different faiths and congregations. Meeting with them allows me to develop a network of friends and people who I can really count on. They opened all of their doors to work with us on this project.

The other way that I identified people, (and this might be more appropriate for those working in communities where there is not already a strong interfaith dialogue) is to talk to the families that the affiliate already serves. My guess would be that in any metropolitan area, there will be an immigrant population served by that local Habitat affiliate. Encouraging Habitat home buyers to bring out their friends from their faith tradition (and creating a safe environment for them to do so) is a great way to engage their congregations and communities.

What is the focus of your chapter’s advocacy work?

Every state has a Habitat state support organization, which is centrally located, and their job is to support the different affiliates. They are in our state capital, and we rely on them to keep their ear to the political issues going on related to housing. Then, when necessary, we get our membership involved to take a stand.

Many of our advocacy issues have been related to property tax issues, or tax issues for non-profits, since we hold a lot of properties. We are not really as fully developed as a lot of the other affiliates in terms of advocacy. A lot of that is due to being in the state of Michigan and the fact that we are still dealing with the results of the foreclosure crisis and losing so many manufacturing jobs.

Wherever I go and whatever I produce with media, I try to present the problem, then present the program that we offer to remedy the situation, and then invite people to participate. All of our advocacy is centered around showing the need for affordable housing. We also use education as a primary form of advocacy. The mayor’s homelessness study looked at folks’ hourly wage and the accessibility of affordable housing. For instance, if you are making $15 per hour at an entry-level manufacturing, or if you are not spending more than 30 percent of your income on housing, how many units are out there in the city that this person can afford? The study was a very empirical approach. It goes all the way up and down, from minimum wage to the area’s median income. This is an example of how we take an empirical approach of what the facts are and what we need to do to improve the situation.

At this early stage of the pilot project implementation, what has been the role of the interfaith toolkit provided to you?

The toolkit has been a fabulous resource. Interestingly, the side bars of the document—the warnings, advice, and examples—are my favorite part. Another interesting thing about the toolkit is that it gave me confidence (or I should say just enough confidence) to make the effort to engage non-Christian (often foreign-born) congregations. It has helped me avoid mistakes, but the confidence is the key. I didn’t feel like I was on a cold call when I met with folks quite different from myself.

If you were asked now how someone could evaluate whether you’ve been successful come July, what would be a reasonable way to measure and make that judgment?

I think that the most important element would to have a revolving, functioning, motivated steering committee that is educating people on interfaith issues as well as poverty. I can open up a job site anytime, but if I can get to that place where there is a program in place for the steering committee to educate themselves on issues of faith and poverty then I think it would be a success.

I also think that success would be that we have a program in place that is going to be sustainable: a program that gets people into an interfaith context where they can work together and break down barriers, and at the same time do something for poor people. I do not know how you would quantify that other than by the number of people involved in building and developing relationships. Personally, I am not as interested in quantifying the results, as being sure that it is able to be replicated and has that built into its structure. My goal is for the program to be something that community members want to do and want to pass on to others who are also eager to get involved. It should not be reliant on my energy. I don’t know how to quantify that, but I know it when I see it.

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