In response to the incendiary and blatantly misleading front-page story in the Oct. 20 Chicago Tribune, I feel compelled to explicate my answers and provide the other side to this very one-sided article.
As one who grew up in the Austin community, I have always been alarmed about the economic conditions and plight of the residents.
As a pastor for over 23 years, I am deeply motivated to minister to the holistic needs of people, which comprise the spiritual, emotional, physical and economic well-being.
I strive to make a difference in the lives of the people I serve both as a pastor and a leader through empowerment, education and, more importantly, faith in God.
Needless to say, I do have failures, regrets and shortcomings. The Bible admonishes us “to not let our good be evilly spoken of.”
Unfortunately, there are some who levy vitriolic and false claims against the labor and the sacrifice I wholeheartedly give. I live a transparent life before my congregants and use my personal frailties, successes and experiences to teach them the importance of obedience and belief in God.
Because of that, outside, hypercritical individuals unfairly judge my life and my story. To question my integrity and my sincerity as a man of God is grievous, hurtful and malicious.
As a man, a father and a priest, I would in no ways knowingly allow a sexual predator to run rampant in my church, as the Chicago Tribune reported last month.
Upon discovery and with evidence, I immediately reported it to the police whom I deem are the appropriate authorities for a case such as this. I vehemently deny that I ignored or will ignore serious allegations.
I never spoke to a DCFS agent concerning any of the victims regarding this issue. However, I did speak to a DCFS agent on a personal matter involving my son. I avow that I do not permit sexual misconduct in the church and/or the workplace. Indubitably, I would never condone immoral and despicable behavior especially committed against children.
Secondly, my belief that economic empowerment begins with land ownership led me to purchase real estate in the city. My organization employed the strategy to buy distressed and/or foreclosed properties in the area. We inherited the risk and the exposure from the existing building violations.
However, we committed our resources to renovate these buildings and to provide safe, decent and affordable housing in the community. With a heavy reliance on bank financing and owner capital, we often experienced cash flow shortages.
As a non-profit agency with a double bottom line mission to serve the needs of the community as well as generate revenues to meet our financial obligations, we often faced challenges.
None of our properties are subsidized by the city, the state or HUD, although we are a small developer on the West Side of Chicago.
Then-Chicago Department of Housing Commissioner Jack Markowski opposed our efforts to apply for long-term operating support from the city of Chicago due to unsubstantiated claims and unfinished renovations on a building project in progress.
Afterwards, Commissioner Ellen Sahli continued the blacklisting of our organization from any city programs and assistance.
Nonetheless, we continue to operate and to manage our properties with limited resources. Our mortgage holders frequently inspect our properties and find them to be in good, habitable conditions.
My compassion for the poor many times superseded the business principles to collect rent. Tenants remained in units for up to six months for free as a means to help them obtain a fresh start. Tenants who fell behind in monthly rents were given payment plans as an opportunity to catch up on payments.
In order to help people, this was and is our first alternative instead of the immediate choice to evict. These decisions on my part caused financial hardships at times for the organization.
With the market conditions and the economic recession beginning in 2008, we, like most of America, suffered a great deal of financial loss. I acknowledge we had some deferred maintenance issues, but we have since made renovations. We are remediating the remaining building violations and are paying debts owed to the city.
Personally, my entrepreneurial spirit keeps me active in seizing new business opportunities. I undertook a huge risk to build the A&W/Long John Silver in the Austin community.
From the onset, the development costs were astronomical, as I was forced to pay a premium price for the land instead of receiving TIF funds. The city required special building materials and design, which increased the construction costs to $2.2 million, far higher than the average price of $1.5 million to build that type of structure in the suburbs.
The general contractor did not complete the building within 90 days as the contract required but delayed the project for an additional six months.
The contingency and the working capital were depleted to cover the interest expense on the construction loan. So, I was obligated to open a new restaurant without any working capital.
I personally invested over $500,000 into a restaurant that was not supported by the community, but I hired the people from the community. I eventually sold the building and its fixtures and equipment to another developer who has yet to commence any rehabilitation on the site.
Somehow, I am still held personally liable for the vacant building, which I agree, is a sore spot in the neighborhood.
My personal income is derived overwhelmingly from my business ventures as the president of a minority-owned construction firm and my personal real estate holdings.
I do not receive a salary from the non-profit community development corporation in which I am the executive director. I do, however, receive a small pastoral stipend from the church.
Our ministry and business entities fully comply with all laws with sound board governance practices and financial accountability. With that said, my lifestyle is supported by profit-driven sources and not the revenues of the non-profit sector.
My house and my vehicles are reflections of the diligence, perseverance and personal risks of a private business in a market economy. My personal assets and income have been highly leveraged to support my enterprises in hopes of remaining viable and successful.
Throughout the years as a business owner, I have employed hundreds of people in various roles and responsibilities. Because I am a proponent of hiring those from a less than stellar background, I am more forgiving than most corporations.
I believe all people deserve a second chance or the first chance in life to succeed and to prosper. Therefore, I employ former substance abusers, ex-offenders, high school dropouts, at-risk youth, unwed teenage parents, the mentally disabled, unskilled and undereducated laborers, and all others society have deemed as castaways.
My mission and that of our church is to make a difference, one life, one family at a time. I preach it, I live it, and with God’s glory it is manifested in the lives of my parishioners and employees.
It is a sad commentary to not highlight or to mention those who are positively affected by the work we do in the community. We give to the poor, we feed the hungry, we provide assistance for households facing foreclosure, we create job opportunities, and we collaborate with others to stabilize the community.
To recapitulate, an assault of my character and my good intentions may make a good headline but an unbiased portrayal of the mission and the altruistic work would make a far greater impact for those who live and work in Austin.
Apostle John T. Abercrombie