Even though they are located mere blocks apart, one would be forgiven for assuming that the Austin and Oak Park communities were separated by a much greater distance.

Austin,the largest community in the city, has the unfortunate reputation of being a hotbed of crime and social disorder. It is a community housing few commercial establishments and the ones that do exist are often decorated with a distinctive scissor-gate design.

Meanwhile, Oak Park, is decorated with lovely plants, murals, and boasts a vibrant downtown business district.

“One of the primary motivating factors in working with the Vineyard Church on this project was to begin to break down the superficial barriers that exist between these two communities,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Baptist Church.

Rev. Hatch was referring to the July 16 “Call to Life Fest,” the first collaborative effort the church has forged with Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church of Oak Park, a community outreach program that provided food, spiritual guidance and evangelism to Westsiders. It specifically targeted those suffering from problems related to substance abuse.

The project began as a community picnic, hosted by the New Mount Pilgrim Church (4301 W. Washington Blvd.).

However, many constituents of the church congregation are involved with the “Call to Life” ministry at the church, a monthly outreach day at New Mount Pilgrim Church, where those facing issues with substance abuse and hunger can have their needs adequately addressed individually.

Rev. Hatch worked with Vineyard Church’s Rev. Ian Carroll to plan the outreach fest, which included a food drive, the idea for which from Vineyard’s volunteers.

“We distributed over 400 bags of groceries,” said Rev. Hatch. “That might not have been possible had we not been able to blend the contributions of the two churches and create teams of contributors dedicated to this important event. Everyone from both churches were eager to be a part of the project.”

This was especially good news in light of the fact that the temperatures climbed over 100 degrees during the fest. Nevertheless, the group maintained its itinerary, which also included a neighborhood clean-up from Pulaski to Kostner along Jackson Boulevard.

“It was a wonderful day,” said Sonji Cooks, director of community ministry at New Mount Pilgrim. “We also had a stage for Deacon Stephen Dunn, Minister Tammie McNeal-Brown, and Clark Davis, speaking to those in attendance about their own battles with substance abuse and how they were able to overcome them.”

The outreach fest promises to be only the first of many future collaborations between the Austin/West Garfield communities and Oak Park.

Recently, First Bank of Oak Park invested $4 million in a project titled “The Family Empowering Initiative.” In this initiative, a 62-unit building, located at 4444 W. West End, which has been completely rehabbed, will house residents of the community who are looking for a financially practical way to achieve their dream of homeownership. In the initiative, residents of the building will pay a base unit rent and have a portion of it entered into a special escrow account allowing them to build equity on a home while paying rent.

Many of the kinks in the project are still being worked out though. For example, it is not clear what happens to the money if a tenant moves early, or how long it takes to have enough equity for the investment, or will there be a waiting list and who is most likely to be chosen for this program?

Nevertheless, the initiative could allow many residents of Austin and West Garfield an opportunity to realize their dream of homeownership.

“We hope to bridge the gap between Austin and Oak Park by removing one brick at a time,” said Rev. Hatch. “It starts with our churches and spiritual advisers to lead the march towards that goal. Through our efforts together, we can finally obliterate that wall separating us.”