April 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As director of inCOMMON, a nonprofit organization located at 13th and William streets, Christian Gray thrives on building relationships in the Omaha community. Growing up in the affluent suburbs of Orange County, Calif., Gray was rarely exposed to the hardships many Americans face, but somehow he got the message that material wealth is not what life is about.

“When I began to juxtapose a wealthy lifestyle with the lifestyle of millions around the world, and even here locally in the United States, it began to bother me,” Gray admits. “It began to make me uneasy about what life is, and I began asking questions like ‘What is the purpose of life? Is it to be comfortable? Successful?’ I began to challenge a lot of those notions that I think were just part of the culture growing up.”

After graduating from the University of Arizona, where he met his wife, Sonya, Gray began seeking out places where he could help. His passion for helping the poor has taken him from Romania to India to South Africa and back to the U.S. During the process, he had time to really self-reflect on the bigger picture.

“I’m still trying to figure it out, but I think the purpose of life is to live wholly and richly,” he says. “That doesn’t mean you have a ton of stuff or even a ton of success. It means you’re an authentic person, and you care about other people, and you’re part of a greater global community and humanity. I think that’s the answer. I think the way we go about that all looks differently. Locations can change and reflect how we can live that out. I think that’s the purpose of life, to really be a part of enriching the global community.”20130321_bs_8688

Once settled in Omaha, Gray got to work on inCOMMON, which specializes in uniting and strengthening vulnerable neighborhoods. He spearheads many subsidiary programs, such as The Listening Project and Neighbors United.

inCOMMON incorporates Asset-based Community Development (ABCD) practices into its work. ABCD is a best-practice that dates back to the 1970s. “We try to build upon a neighborhood’s pre-existing strengths,” he explains. “We have the Listening Project, where we train volunteers to go into the community and hear from its residents and try to build solutions to their problems.”

As a result of information gathered from The Listening Project around the Park Avenue neighborhood, inCOMMON is preparing to open a community center in June called Park Avenue Commons. Located on the corner of Park Avenue and Woolworth Street, the dilapidated Acme Rug and Carpet Cleaning building is getting a new life as a part of Gray’s vision.

“When I began to juxtapose a wealthy lifestyle with the lifestyle of millions around the world, and even here locally in the United States, it began to bother me.”

“I had a growing compassion for the condition of people that are poor, and I wanted to be a part of creating better futures for our communities in that way,” Gray says. “Park Avenue Commons will provide easier access to social services, emergency and preventative services, and a place to come together as a community.”

Gray has many dedicated volunteers that share the same passion for helping the less fortunate. For example, Omaha resident Leslie Wells is gearing up for a recycling program, in which he provides bikes for the homeless to collect recyclables from downtown businesses. Gray emphasizes it’s about building those relationships in order to cultivate community development and empowerment.

“‘The single greatest cause for sustained poverty is isolation,’” he says, quoting Dr. Robert Lupton of FCS Urban Ministries. “If we look at poverty, at least in an urban context, as people living in an isolated community that are cut off from opportunities, then relationships are key because they allow people to bridge outside their limited ranges to a greater opportunity. Strong neighborhoods require that people know each other and people are cooperative with one another and working to solve problems together. The key to overcoming poverty is to have residents that know each other and work together.”

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