Pastor Mack McCarter thinks communities change for the better one relationship at a time.
"Criminal activity, domestic violence, child neglect, substance abuse, high school dropout rates ... are all symptoms of a society with a fundamental lack of caring relationships," he said.
"Cities rest on a foundation of relationships," said McCarter. "When relationships disintegrate, a city begins to sink."
McCarter, right, saw a community foundering when he created Community Renewal International in Shreveport, La., in 1994. Ten years in the planning, the non-profit was aimed at building on the good that people already were doing and the relationships they had formed.
The first step was having people who were helping their community post "we care" yard signs, bumper stickers or buttons. From there the group helped put teams together to help with community projects.
"People were already out there caring, but we just didn't see them," said McCarter, who will present a workshop Saturday and a lecture Sunday at Central Christian Church in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
McCarter said King preached that all communities were bound inextricably, and that is a message Community Renewal International has adopted and built on.
One of its key programs is Friendship Houses, in which employees of the non-profit move into impoverished and embattled neighborhoods to help change the communities.
This reinforces the common bond of all humanity — caring for one another — that has been diluted as communities become more fractured and less connected.
"We can email people all over the world, and we don't know who is living and dying five houses down from us," he said.
The Friendship Houses become miniature community centers, offering structured activities such as tutoring and basic neighborly help.
"It's kind of like sending missionaries, but we don't send them overseas," he said.
Community Renewal International has been honored by the White House, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Partnership for Civic Change.
Criminal activity has dropped as much as 50 percent in some of the neighborhoods targeted by the group, McCarter said.
His lecture and workshop are aimed at people who want to help change their communities for the better, he said. "The fundamental theme is to kind of share the challenge to all of us. Let's connect together in very concrete ways and reconstruct community foundations.
"When we rebuild the right relationships, "the dysfunction begins to fall away."