“It has turned a desert into an oasis,” says Pastor Sedgwick Daniels, referring to the newly opened multi-million dollar Daniels-Carter Family Center in inner city Milwaukee. He might as well be talking about his own work. When Daniels established Holy Redeemer Church in 1986, it is unlikely he imagined the extent to which the church would transform the neighborhood where he grew up. The area was wracked by all-too-typical problems: broken homes, drug abuse, gangs, and blight. But the problem Daniels noticed most was the community’s tangible lack of hope.
Fifteen years later it is easy to see a renewed sense of hope in this community. The original church of eight parishioners has grown to over 3,000 and administers an impressive array of community outreach programs, including four schools, a health clinic, an assisted-living center, and counseling programs, among many, many others.
Daniels is quick to point out that the church faced numerous challenges and setbacks along the way, but everything they did sprang from a need identified by those in the community. For example, when he started his outreach there were no gyms or educational facilities nearby, even though the immediate area has a disproportionate number of young people.
“There is an enormous need to service and empower a community,” Daniels says. Judging by the success of Holy Redeemer’s programs, the community’s needs are being addressed. But as the need for these services has increased, the church has felt the need to expand.
A few years ago, a 76,000-square-foot industrial building near the church was suddenly vacated by its owner. The opportunity for further outreach was clear. “We’ve had more and more demand for the programs that we offer,” says Alton Townsel, director of educational services at Holy Redeemer. “Our purpose and intent are to serve as many residents as we can; so it was to our advantage to acquire [the building]. It flows right into our present location.”
But buying the building wasn’t that simple. Other churches in Milwaukee had attempted to buy industrial properties only to have the city refuse to rezone the land. So the church proceeded slowly and carefully. Starting in 1998, Holy Redeemer developed a strategic plan for the property and then formed a task force that conducted analyses, researched environmental concerns, and determined community support. The local support was overwhelming, and they went ahead with their plans.
“Churches from across the city, businesses, numerous charitable organizations, and thousands of individuals have contributed to make this center a reality,” says Daniels.
Although the center has received several large grants from charitable organizations, the first $1 million was raised by ordinary folks, by laypeople. Daniels fondly recounts the $10 contribution of a man who only made $7.50 an hour and that of another man who one day donated $40,000 out of the blue.
The church operates Daniels-Carter Family Center, but it is truly a citywide effort. The state-of-the-art facility is designed to meet the most pressing needs of the community, which Daniels identifies as technology, education, and recreation. The center won’t be fully functional until 2002, but many of its programs—the food pantry, classrooms for educational training, a business center run in conjunction with the Milwaukee Area Technical School, and several social service programs—are already serving the community. Future programs include opening a gymnasium, lecture center, fine arts symposium, swimming pool, and instructional media center. Some classrooms are already designated to handle overflow students from overcrowded Milwaukee public schools. The center is projected to serve over 4,000 families.
This kind of impact was enough to attract government attention. The city of Milwaukee has thrown its support behind the center and the state of Wisconsin recently earmarked $1.5 million for the project.
For those who wonder, the center is not named after Pastor Daniels, and he is quick to defer any praise directed to him. He explains that the Daniels in the name refers to his deceased mother. “It’s fitting,” he says, “because she spent her life redirecting the lives of individuals to hope.”