Here in San Antonio, we hear a lot about the work being done through federal and state grants to address inequality. Much of that work is performed by large nonprofits or government agencies.
But as people like Pastor Jimmy Robles know, many smaller groups also strive to create a big impact on their communities, attending to both ongoing needs and systemic issues.
As pastor of Last Chance Ministries, Robles two years ago founded Bridging the Gap (BTG), a weekly meeting attended by about 20 pastors, residents and community leaders whose mission is to bring reform and resources to San Antonio’s most distressed neighborhoods.
These meetings often cover prevalent issues nobody is talking about.
This was the case on a recent Tuesday morning at a Bridging the Gap meeting at Last Chance Ministries on the West Side, a large part of which is in the 78207 zip code.
This zip code was the most distressed in San Antonio according to the 2016 Distressed Communities Index, a study conducted by the Economic Innovation Group. Its poverty rate is 42 percent. In this zip code, 47 percent of residents have no high school degree, and 57 percent of adults aren’t working.
To kick off the meeting, one attendee worried about children in her neighborhood losing access to food once the semester ends because their main source is free lunches provided at school.
“They’re not going to have any food,” said Pamela Allen, founder and president of Eagles Flight Advocacy & Outreach, an initiative to assist special needs families. “These kids depend on those free meals.”
When asked why he started BTG, Robles recalls a sense of urgency he felt from the death of a nearby West Side resident in December 2014.
The victim, Natalie Chavez, had been raped, strangled and left for dead underneath a bridge in Robles’ neighborhood while the murderer was still at large.
Robles says he formed the group because he felt the stagnation. He felt a lack of community leadership actively advocating for change and speaking up for their side of town, and he wanted a channel to start that conversation.
While BTG is sometimes housed at Last Chance Ministries, the group is a separate entity from the church. On the West, South and East sides of town, where BTG is heavily concentrated, other pastors offer to host BTG meetings at their churches.
One example is Gene Loeffler, senior pastor of River of Life Church on the Eastside of town.
Since Loeffler moved to San Antonio from California in 2014, he’s attended Bridging the Gap meetings to find resources for his church building and his congregation.
“Bridging the Gap, first, has been a network of relationships—but also in those relationships is a network of their resources,” said Loeffler.
In two-plus years, the committee has donated $250,000 worth of food to various communities throughout San Antonio. As a part of BTG, each Wednesday and Friday, Last Chance Ministries opens its doors to an average of 80 people for free meals.
“One of the things we accomplish is that we want no child to go to sleep hungry,” said Robles. “Now we have five other churches that are feeding their community.”
In addition, BTG organizes back-to-school fairs for local students and provides sports opportunities for kids through their latest outreach, Christian Sports Organization (CSO).
The program works with various churches, like Loeffler’s, to provide children access to organized baseball, boxing, soccer and football.
“We want sports to obviously be competitive,” said Loeffler. “But we really work on connecting parents with their kids, kids with their parents, and helping mom and dad be a coach.”