Burlington, Vermont’s most populous city, sits on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain in northwestern Vermont, 45 miles south of the Canadian border. Champlain is the sixth largest freshwater lake in the country and a waterway that connects to the Atlantic Ocean, the five Great Lakes, and the Hudson River. The history of Burlington has evolved from a steamship travel and shipping port in the 1800’s to the culturally, economically and educationally rich and diverse, small livable city it is today. It is frequently compared to other desirable small cities including Madison, WI, Boulder, CO, Eugene, OR and Portland, ME.
Burlington’s population is 43,000, and Chittenden County, in which it resides, totals 165,000. Burlington is the economic center in the state. The two largest employers are the University of Vermont Medical Center, and the University of Vermont. It is a two hour drive to Montreal and four hour drive to Boston. Two private colleges, a community college and the state university provide a rich culture of academic and social life. Burlington International Airport provides daily nonstop flights to top destinations and major airline hubs.
Burlington and Vermont are consistently ranked high in national polls for quality of life, including:
• Ninth best state to live in, US News & World Report, 2018
• Second best state in Gallup’s “Sharecare Well-Being Index”, 2017
• Vermont tops Bloomberg’s annual ranking of the best states for gender parity, 2019
• Kiplinger’s Top 10 Greatest Places to Live, 2013
• Top 10 Cities for Outdoor Recreation, Outdoor Magazine, 2011
• Top 10 Downtowns, Livability.com Magazine
Burlington offers a strong public school system with a number of neighborhood elementary schools, including two magnet schools. There are two middle schools and one high school, whose ethnically diverse student body has the highest college admission rate in the state. A total of three local parochial schools are available as well as several private primary and secondary schools within Chittenden County. Housing and real estate prices are considered high compared to the rest of Vermont. The rental vacancy rate is around 1.6%.
The county continues to grow more rapidly than the rest of Vermont and is more racially diverse. African American, Asian, Hispanic and those with backgrounds of two or more races together total 11% of the population. Burlington has been designated a refugee resettlement area since 1989. Before the Trump administration, we welcomed an average of 300 refugees into our city each year. That number has fallen dramatically to just 115 in 2019. While our refugees have enlivened our city culturally, the influx of people with multiple languages and various needs has strained the city’s resources and impacted the poverty rate in lower income neighborhoods.
The median age is highly skewed due to college students so that the average age of 26 years is not representative of long-term residents. It can be said that there are over 3,000 homes with one or more people under 18 years. Over 16,000 homes have one or more people over the age of 60 years. Vermont’s percentage of elderly is one of the highest in the country, according to the Census. US Census data predict that 24% of Vermonters or 91,000 people will be 65 or older by the year 2030.
While Vermont experienced some economic downturn with the rest of the country in 2008, housing values in the Burlington area fell little, and job loss was not as severe. Although Burlington has recovered, housing costs remain high and many still rely on community assistance for basic services.
Vermont the Most ‘Unchurched’ State
A 2010 Gallup Survey found that only 23% of Vermont respondents attend church weekly or almost weekly. In 2016 Time Magazine reported that Vermont continues to be the least religious state in America with just 22% of its population qualifying as “very religious” according to Gallup surveys. These figures made Vermont the most “unchurched” state in the country.
Our Collective Understanding of Our Community
Christ Church, Presbyterian meets in downtown Burlington at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in a dedicated space with its own outside entrance. This location is at the center of a diverse community. It faces Lake Champlain and the Adirondack mountains to its west, four high-end hotels within three blocks to its south, the business district to its east, and the oldest and poorest part of the city to its north. This unique location challenges our faith community as we ask, “how do we serve our neighbors?”
In response to that question, we have made efforts to become familiar with the area. It began six years ago when a group of us met with the General Manager of the hotel across the street from the Cathedral; the leader of Spectrum, an organization which provides services to at-risk youth; and a leader of COTS, the organization at the forefront in combating homelessness in this area. Because of community-organizing efforts of Vermont Interfaith Action’s (VIA), we have learned about systemic challenges facing our downtown community and its most vulnerable citizens. We have also learned more about the lives of the poor from our community’s ongoing volunteering and support of JUMP (the Joint Urban Ministry Program), neighborhood fundraising walks that included tours of homeless shelters, and other activities in which individual community members have been involved.
In 2014, Mike Brown, our former pastor, helped create “Movement Toward a Moral Economy,” a statement by the Clergy Caucus of Vermont Interfaith Action that describes the attributes of a moral economy and makes recommendations for policies and actions to be taken by the State government.
In addition, several members and participants in our community, through personal involvement, have helped sharpen our awareness and understanding of a number of important issues including immigration relief at the Mexican border, Northern Lights’ assistance to women newly released from prison, and TeacHaiti, an educational assistance program for Haitian school children.
These initiatives keep us abreast of the needs of the wider community and allow us to target our mission efforts to the greatest needs.