The first time Pastor Javier Mondragon read about the broken windows theory was in 2006, in a book by Malcolm Gladwell.
The first time he experienced it was as a gang member at age 12, growing up in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, just south of Mexico City, in the early 90s.
"It was the most neglected area in the city, just like southeast Fort Wayne is here,” Mondragon recalls.
Looking back, he remembers walking outside his family home, seeing everything falling apart in his neighborhood with broken windows and blighted houses, and he internalized that feeling.
“I remember thinking: This is who I am. I have no future. I am hopeless.”
To some extent, it’s something we all do — looking at our surroundings, and seeing them as part of who we are, what we’re worth, and what’s expected of us. The places we live shape us, and we shape them in return.
“I saw the broken windows, and it made me feel like, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ So I broke more windows because nobody cared,” Mondragon remembers.
Today, 25 years later, he's pastor of Many Nations Church and founder of the nonprofit Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center on Fort Wayne’s southeast side, living and working in the Mount Vernon Park neighborhood only 10 minutes from downtown.
Here, 57.4 percent of residents earn $25,000 or less per year, 89 percent are people of color, and 46 percent are under age 25. So as a boy who grew up poor in Mexico, Mondragon sees himself in his surroundings again, and this time, he's working to be part of the change — fixing broken windows, rebuilding broken houses, restoring broken lives.
“If you fix something, that’s a signal to people that you care,” Mondragon says.
When he moved into the neighborhood in 2008, he started cleaning up the area with his church’s Adopt a Block program, collecting trash along the streets, mowing lawns, and mulching. Then in 2011, Mondragon established Bridge of Grace as a nonprofit organization, so the church could take on bigger projects.
Working with the City of Fort Wayne and Allen County, as well as other local churches and sponsors, Bridge of Grace bought and restored five blighted houses in Mount Vernon Park, not including Mondragon’s own. Now, they’re in the process of selling those houses back to community members, and their work is far from finished.
They own five more houses that they are waiting for the time and resources to fix up, but the challenges of poverty, segregation, and violence continue.
In 2013, a shooting broke out two doors down from Mondragon’s house. But while crime — or the perceived danger of it — might have scared some away, it gave him more reason to press in.
A fan of Gladwell, he talks excitedly about another one of his books, David and Goliath, a story about underdogs, like the Bible story where the boy took down a giant with only a slingshot.
Mondragon thinks it holds a strong comparison to Bridge of Grace’s work in southeast Fort Wayne.
If you want, you can see it as the story of a small church with few resources up against a giant list of challenges.
“But if you look at the weaknesses and the strengths," Mondragon says. "And if you convert those weaknesses to opportunities, the challenges become an opportunity,”
What if an entire city — an entire region — thought like that? What if people saw challenges as opportunities, and decided to tell a better story?
--Republished with permission from Input Fort Wayne