ABHMS awards second grant to Sympara in support of its community building in the spirit of Christ

In furtherance of its mission to support the empowerment of Christian leaders as well as the healing and transforming of communities, American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) earlier this year awarded a grant to Sympara, Inc., the second since 2020. Sympara, a nonprofit, works to repurpose church properties and sacred spaces for the common good.

Eager to leverage technology to connect community partners who wish to share their resources, Sympara used its first ABHMS grant to fund initial development of a mobile application. The more recent grant is going toward upgrades to the app to increase its functionality. This includes the addition of a Spanish-language version, story-mapping tools and collaboration features. The grant will also fund training for clergy and lay leaders to enhance their sacred and civic placemaking capacity and enable storytelling about the app’s impact.

The Rev. Dr. Lauren Ng, ABHMS director of Leadership Empowerment, explains that churches and faith organizations that engage in innovative ministries in their communities must also recognize that their collective accomplishments outside of Sunday morning are of vital importance. Yet, identifying and connecting like-minded partners can be a problem. Daniel Pryfogle, Sympara cofounder and CEO, was driven by his vision of interconnected, collaborative communities in his quest for a solution.

As an interim pastor of an American Baptist Churches USA church in Austin, Texas, Pryfogle saw many unused church spaces in his neighborhood. Upon hearing of groups in desperate need of space, his immediate thought was to put them together. As a result of subsequent conversations between Pryfogle and other Sympara co-founders, Sympara’s mission was reformulated to include repurposing underutilized religious properties for social impact.

Pryfogle explains that the theology that guides Sympara’s interpretation of asset-based community development, or, in other words, the approach to strengthening communities in a localized, bottom-up manner, is twofold: acknowledging the movement and energy in communities and recognizing that we are endowed by our Creator with individual gifts and talents.

Two users of the Sympara mobile app, the Rev. Cameron Dunn and Father Eric Grubb, who both serve in Clinton, North Carolina, praise its impact on their communities.

Says Dunn: “I was at a meeting of local leaders, which Eric Grubb was also part of, and we were talking about the growing concerns in our community and the needs within it. And very quickly, we realized people in our community have a great resource of assets [but lack] a communication platform that connects them together. And the Sympara app solves that problem.”

Significantly, the usefulness of the app extends beyond simply connecting community leaders. Both Dunn and Grubb applaud its ability to help individuals in need who might come to their churches.

“Most weeks, I’ll have a handful of people who come by the church who are in need of some kind of assistance: rent assistance, utility assistance, food,” says Grubb. “We have resources at the church to help people in those kinds of crisis moments. We can help someone pay a light bill or something like that, but often I was wondering, is this the most helpful way?”

For Grubb, the Sympara app has been a game-changer. Through it he can conveniently access a comprehensive list of local resources for people in need and contact them. “I can connect people with better, more long-term solutions,” he says. “It’s great if the church can help someone pay a light bill for a month, but if there’s a resource that might help somebody keep the lights on longer, that’s going to be more helpful.”

The app has also had a personal effect on Grubb. He says it has helped him to better understand his role as a priest and the role of the church more broadly. The church is a safe place where people can knock on the door and ask for help. In addition, it is part of a broader community network within which it can be a signpost that provides guidance.

As he pondered expanding the base of Sympara app users, Pryfogle shared a story of how it was taken up by one church’s youth group: “In this single congregation, the youth wanted to identify mental health assets in the broader community, so that it could be beneficial to LGBTQ youth. And so, they started mapping themselves. So, you know, you can run [the app] without partners, but it’ll be better as more people come into the process.”

Pryfogle sees the Sympara app as helping churches to recognize that overt attachment to buildings and property can be toxic. When a congregation shrinks down to five people on a Sunday, while unhoused people struggle to survive in the surrounding neighborhood, such attachment is toxic. It is also toxic when a church’s history reveals anti-Black racism or when a congregation is closed off to the needs of its neighbors. Pryfogle believes that such recognition is but the first step in a lengthy process of reconciliation and that the Sympara app is a proven solution that will help galvanize more churches to take practical steps.

Such steps may include sharing the existing space with those in need; building affordable housing on church property; selling the church to an organization that converts it into affordable housing; or demolishing the church altogether to make way for affordable housing. For example, in 2016, the historic church building of the Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia was torn down to make space for a building housing 173 units for low-income residents.

Pryfogle is confident that the Sympara app when coupled with the broader principles of asset-based community development has the potential to strengthen the agency of local actors, be they individuals or organizations. In addition, the Sympara curriculum—co-created by ABHMS and Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina—is expected to increase the number of communities that harness the connective power of the app and the resources that are its driving force.

This fall, Campbell University students will be evaluating a new story-mapping feature that the ABHMS grant made possible. They will also research how community leaders in Harnett County, North Carolina, move from mapping assets to acting. The students will explore what helps and hinders leaders from leveraging assets across organizations and congregations. They will present their findings at a community summit in November.

ABHMS, through its grants, strives to identify and support projects such as the Sympara app that have the potential to be transformative in multiple ways. The ABHMS mission, which addresses diverse groups of believers, is, at its roots, one of interconnection. Through its partners, it empowers faith and community leaders to equip the disciples in the wider project of healing and transforming the communities of Christ.