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Faith-Based Community Development in America’s Heartland: An Interview with Seven Baskets CEO Jeff Mansel

Seven Baskets is a faith-based nonprofit focused on community development in Columbus, Ohio whose mission is “to transform Ohio’s urban centers through dynamic partnerships with neighborhood schools and community involvement.” Seven Baskets embodies seven guiding principles for transformation in their work: neighborhood, presence, dignity, empowerment, holistic, team and faith-based. This vital, community-based ministry recently became a member of the 2019 Sacred Sector Community.

Sacred Sector encourages faith-based nonprofits to consider innovative ways they can collaborate with other civil society groups, including government in specific instances. Governmental partnerships should only be considered by faith-based organizations when these groups’ religious identities will not be compromised. As Sacred Sector’s resource on Faith-Based and Government Partnerships states:

“As a general rule these days, government creates partnerships with faith-based organizations (FBOs), including churches, based on the effectiveness and quality of their services, without requiring these organizations to surrender their distinctive, religiously-based contributions to the public good. Despite this, religious organizations may have their own reasons to stay away from government funding in general or from particular funding programs. A church or an FBO should be guided by its religious mission when considering potential funding, whether from government or other sources.”

The Seven Baskets website further describes how the organization embodies its commitment to faith-based values: “Seven Baskets’ values and motivation for service are grounded in our belief in God. We operate out of that commitment to be inclusive of each person who weaves together the threads and strands, branches and roots of the unique neighborhood.”

Seven Baskets CEO Jeff Mansell (JM) recently shared with Sacred Sector Director Chelsea Langston Bombino (CLB) some of the exciting ways God is moving in this community:

CLB: Jeff, you explained to me that Seven Baskets has two seasons: the school year and summer programming. Can you expand upon that?

JM: During the school year, we are involved in partnership with the Columbus City public schools. We assist through tutoring, afterschool programming and supporting teachers in the classroom, among other things.

CLB: And during the summer session, I understand that Seven Baskets hosts a seven-week summer program for about 50 children.

JM: The program offers academic content, arts education, spiritual formation, and free breakfast and lunch. Our summer day camp has a morning and afternoon program. Morning is for students in grades one through six. Afternoon is for middle school. We are in our seventh year with the day camp.

CLB: Your faith-based ministry partners with the federal government, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to serve as a host site for free lunch for children aged one to 18 in the local community during the summer. This is an example of an innovative partnership that benefits the local community, exemplifying a faith-based and government partnership without the exchange of money. Can you elaborate on the value of this?

JM: The Columbus Parks and Recreation department provides the food, and Seven Baskets provides the venue and the personnel to serve the food. Our summer lunch program participates in the overall efforts throughout the city to provide free meals to children in need during the summer. Columbus has the largest feeding program across the state of Ohio. Together, we feed a total of 50,000 children during the summer. This program is quite valuable, considering that, in our particular urban area, food scarcity is a problem. During the school year Seven Baskets sends home weekend nutrition bags with approximately 50 children each week; we call it the Plus2 Pantry. Each child is part of a household with food security challenges.

CLB: Seven Baskets also engages in a workforce development program for young people throughout the summer, correct?

JM: Yes, we hire local teens to provide free summer lawn care for 25 senior citizens on a weekly basis in the neighborhood. The lawn mowing and day camp programs, therefore, kind of dominates our summer calendar. [To learn more about this lawn care program, visit Seven Baskets’ website.]

CLB: How does Seven Baskets navigate spreading the Gospel through professional activities?

JM: Some of the things we do are intentional to give us the opportunity to be presenters of the Gospel. So obviously, during the school year we cannot use the Bible as we tutor and mentor during school day class periods, but our after school program does not have those restrictions. During the summer we don’t have those restrictions at any point in the day except when we are feeding children — because that food comes from the USDA. This year’s Camp theme is “Your Word is So Sweet” and will be a focus on the promises of God. We try, in both our explicitly religious programming and in our services in the classroom, to embody this theme.

CLB: It’s to be appreciated your organization’s diligence in reaching your students and other constituents with the Gospel, even if in a way which requires discretion. Is there anything we at CPJ can pray for you specifically?

JM: Pray that each chapel that is offered will have a more plenary impact on the kids. Each chapel is providing the bulk of their religious teaching. We have a lot of partnering churches who send people to lead our chapel times. We are trying to restore hope and provide social services to those we serve, but we never stray from the fact that we are a faith-based entity and we want to make sure that the love of Jesus shows through in all that we do.

CLB: Seven Baskets exemplifies an organization that has sought transformation in its local community through partnerships with a diversity of churches and faith groups, but also with a variety of government entities, including public schools and the local department of parks and recreation. How has this diversity of resources felt for you?

JM: My previous professional circle was largely in the church world, so moving into more of the public sector has been really more of an education for me.

CLB: I know that Seven Baskets has engaged with Sacred Sector on resources related to their faith-based staffing standards. In particular, how has Sacred Sector equipped you in regards to employee practices?

JM: I spent the summer working on an employee handbook based on Sacred Sector resources. That said, we are trying to ensure our faith is at the heart of what we do. During the school year, we have five employees and during the summer, with the teens, it is about 20. In procuring the employee handbook, we are going through what you provided from Sacred Sector as a model. We are asking our employees to adhere to standards of faith since we present ourselves as a Christian organization.

CLB: What challenges do you think faith-based organizations face, particularly regarding making distinctions on which positions require a shared faith basis?

JM: The summertime is a little bit different, and I think perhaps part of that, depending upon what the role is, is based upon how closely we want them to adhere to our faith standards. Everyone who has become involved with us has some sort of faith orientation.

CLB: And how do you navigate this?

JM: One of our teens who participates in the lawn program is a Muslim. We would not ask her to sign onto adherence with our Christian theology. We view our interaction as an opportunity to show God’s love. She also helps us as a volunteer in our afterschool program. We were transparent with her about what we do and who we are. Though we gave her the opportunity to excuse herself during our chapel time, she remains in the room and is hearing the Bible lessons along with everyone else.

CLB: Can you explain the meaning behind your organization’s name, “Seven Baskets?”

JM: Seven Baskets is named after the Biblical passage of Jesus’ miracle to feed 4,000 people from just a few initial loaves of bread and pieces of fish. Mark 8:8 states that Jesus’ miracle provided for the people in abundance and yielded significant surplus: “The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.”

CLB: Have you experienced anything unexpected while leading Seven Baskets?

JM: One surprise for us was that while we knew we would be impacting children — the way we have impacted staff was pleasantly unexpected. In the urban setting, there is not a lot of support for teachers and school staff. One of the things we are able to do is be a support for the staff. When we provide classroom supplies to teachers we always let them know that the items have come from people who love God and love the children they are serving. It is always very clear for people who are believers. It is a witness to them and to people who have held Christianity at an arm’s length. That has held in several situations where those who were not always pleased at first that we were there are now welcoming us in a more cooperative fashion.

CLB: How are you able to offer pastoral support in the school community?

JM: I am able to serve as a quasi-chaplain in the public schools. We offer devotional series before school begins. It is not uncommon for someone to approach me in the school and ask for prayer. This applies to teachers and students. The faith radiates out of the schools. Our plan is based on the premise that schools are a central part of the neighborhood. The public school is our entry point but now we are attempting to influence an entire neighborhood. And parents are predominantly comfortable with that.

CLB: Overall, it’s clear to me that Seven Baskets is motivated by faith, and that in turn empowers the organization to seek community transformation for people of all faiths and none.

JM: That’s right. And in particular, I think Sacred Sector has helped us understand how we can maintain our Christian identity while pursuing partnerships with public schools and other public entities. I am a little more understanding of this. Advocacy is something we need to be giving more attention to. That said, thank you, Chelsea, for being there for us in working to optimize Seven Baskets’ influence.

Chelsea Langston Bombino serves as the Acting CEO of the Center for Public Justice and Director for Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. Chelsea also serves as Director for the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), a division of the Center for Public Justice.

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