A heart for Southeast

Pastor Ben Anderson poses for a photograph at Solid Rock Christian Life Center, the church he founded in Southeast Colorado Springs. [Courtesy photo/Colorado Springs Business Journal/Erinn Callahan]

Pastor Ben Anderson, CDC on community-focused mission

By Erinn Callahan
Special to the Southeast Express

Pastor Ben Anderson’s personal and professional philosophy is best summed up by a quote plastered on the Solid Rock Christian Center meeting room.

“Some of you will rebuild the ancient ruins of your cities,” it reads. “Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.”

The omittance of the quote’s origin — the biblical book of Isaiah — was deliberate, Anderson said. He wanted all the church’s visitors, regardless of religious affiliation, to relate to the words.

“I didn’t want people to be intimidated by the scripture,” Anderson said. “I wanted them to be able to accept the thought and accept the concept.”

Of course, Solid Rock Christian Center is much more than a church — it is the nexus for the rebirth of Southeast Colorado Springs, a neighborhood at once steeped in culture and historically bogged down by crime and poverty. Anderson serves as executive director of the Solid Rock Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit he founded to collaborate with all sectors of the community to help facilitate economic opportunities to the Southeast.

“[The SRCDC] is a vehicle, a tool, and it’s an organization that can be effective in working with other different entities in promoting healthy environments, healthy communities,” Anderson said. “We can do that with a [community development corporation] rather than a church structure.”

A Baltimore native, Anderson came to Colorado Springs 30 years ago by way of the U.S. Army, from which he retired as a sergeant first class. He has a master’s degree in business management from Webster University, as well as a master’s in divinity from Denver Seminary.

Anderson sat down with the Colorado Springs Business Journal recently to discuss SRCDC’s role in the revitalization of the Southeast.

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Did you always plan to enter the ministry?

Not really. … I know I wanted to be involved with helping people. Pastor was probably the vehicle to do that. … I’ve always wanted to do something significant in community, in making a difference in people’s lives. It just happened to be pastoring, and I enjoy doing that.

What drew you to Southeast Colorado Springs?

This is sort of like the neighborhood I grew up in. … Although I grew up in [housing] projects, we don’t have projects here, but some of these apartment complexes are similar in terms of social issues that reside in them.

… This is where the work needs to be done and so, as a community activist, as a pastor, as someone who has a desire to improve community, this is my assignment. This is where it needs to be happening, so I was drawn to Southeast. Obviously this is where our church and work has been over the years, so this is where my heart is.

Talk a little bit about the Solid Rock Christian Center.

We’ve been in Southeast Colorado Springs for approximately 25 years, 15 of which I’ve been pastoring. We have quite a bit of social capital in Southeast Colorado Springs in terms of community work. We’ve put on back-to-school health fairs. We’ve done the Colorado Springs Music and Art Center, which is providing free music lessons for underprivileged youth. We partner with Harrison School District 2 on that. We’ve done scholarship programs for Sierra High School. We’ve supported District 2 through Panorama Middle School. … We put in an audio visual system in their auditorium. Our partnership has been really strong with [Harrison School District 2].

What is the mission of Solid Rock Community Development Corporation?

I think in order to do community and economic development, we needed an organization that was designed to do community revitalization. … The church can’t do a lot of that. It’s limited in its scope of developing community. These CDCs were created to work more closely with the city to receive different types of grants that churches cannot receive — private donors and different types of HUD money that a CDC can receive for community revitalization that a church can’t. That’s why I created the Solid Rock Community Development Corporation.

… Now our focus is affordable housing, infrastructure improvement and business development. Under business development, we have a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation through El Paso County Health to revitalize Mission Trace Shopping Center. What that means is, we’re creating a community hub, so Mission Trace will be the center for communication, recreation, entertainment — it will be a business hub as well. Then the affordable housing piece, we are building a 78-unit affordable housing here on this property, and we’re working with the city to improve the streets and sidewalks in Southeast Colorado Springs.

Also under business development, we have a grant through Transforming Safety to teach formerly incarcerated [people] and their families how to own their own business. We’re in four prisons as of now teaching those classes. One of the objectives that the Department of Corrections and the Department of Labor feel is that … those individuals who come out of the DOC, if we invest in their lives through business development, then we can reduce crime and recidivism. That’s been ongoing for a year now. … The objective is to start their business in Southeast.

On the revitalization of Mission Trace, why is it important for Southeast residents to have that community hub?

This is what the residents have decided. The community would like to have a place that can be the center for Southeast Colorado Springs. The community would like to have, hopefully, a place where they can shop and do business and entertainment right here in Southeast without having to go anywhere else. I think the community would just like to have self-containment — to be able to do all that they love to do and stay in Southeast to do it. There are not many options for that, and that’s why we have to build it.

What are some of the biggest challenges to revitalizing the Southeast?

… I’d like to dwell on the great things of Southeast. We have great culture, a diversity of people, we have neighbors who are very neighborly and have an interest in rebuilding Southeast. The residents are engaged in rebuilding Southeast. Although Southeast has its challenges, I think the best of us rises above all of that. Sometimes we only hear the bad stuff of Southeast and we don’t hear all the great things that are taking place.

… Our objective is to work with the city to rebuild Southeast. … We hope to work closely with the city of Colorado Springs to bring jobs and businesses to the Southeast, because in order to do community development, I believe one of the tools is through business development. So if we can bring businesses into Southeast that provide jobs to individuals here who reside [here], then those dollars remain in Southeast.

The challenge with urban renewal is gentrification. We have to ensure that there’s a balance of affordable housing being done at the same time we’re talking about rebuilding community so that we’re not displacing people, because that’s what one of the by-products of urban renewal can be. … We don’t want that happening, so there has to be a balance of affordable housing for people also.

But the great thing of urban renewal too is, hopefully when we’re planning… there is some forward vision in terms of, what will this be in 50 years? Hopefully this community can be where people live, and where people shop, and where people work — all in the same community. That’s the goal, I think, of urban planners, is that we all can live and work and shop in our own communities.

How does your role as a pastor position you to help with community development?

I think my role as a pastor helps in terms of understanding people — the social needs of a community and how do we meet those needs? How can the CDC meet the needs of our community? Because those social issues that are in our community are in my church also, so I see them weekly. My objective has always been, how do I improve the lives of people? That’s what pastoring has taught me over the years, is less the theology and more of meeting the needs of people. That’s what Christ is all about. Some people might call that social theology, but that’s OK — that’s what I believe I’m called to do.

How do I meet their needs? How can the church do that? We can do that spiritually in some ways, but the CDC can do it in a larger way by creating opportunities, making their lives better by where they live, helping the education system, being an advocate for them with the city. ‘Hey, streets need to be better, sidewalks need to be better.’ … Those are the types of issues that I think Southeast needs advocates for. We believe we are an advocate for the city — for the people.

Any parting thoughts?

My thing is, how do I make people’s lives better? That’s essentially why I’m here on Earth, to be honest. I’ve tried to make that my mission. I hope I’m doing a good job of it — I’m trying to.

There are still many things to work on and it’s just a collaborative process with a lot of different organizations that we work with, a lot of nonprofits that we work with, to make things happen. We can’t do it alone. We’re all in this together and we’ve got to work together to make it happen.

Erinn.callahan@csbj.com

This story first ran in the Sept. 13 edition of the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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