Roberta Green Ahmanson
WHAT CHRISTIANS DO: PART 1
Evelyn Turner left New Orleans so late on Saturday night, Aug. 27, 2005, that it may have been Sunday morning. With her two daughters and one’s fiancé, she headed to family in Charlotte, N.C.
Unlike most people who fled the city in fear of Hurricane Katrina, Turner already knew she had no home to come back to. In the midst of a divorce, the New Orleans native had agreed that her soon-to-be ex-husband would keep their house and pay her what he could when he could.
Now, two years later, Turner owns her own home in the hard-hit Holly Grove neighborhood. Like millions of others over the centuries, she gained help from Christians who responded to the teachings of the prophets and of Jesus that what we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him. In Turner’s case the faces of God’s help were Kevin Brown and the Trinity Christian Community (TCC) network.
TCC operates within New Orleans’ Holly Grove neighborhood, which seven years ago was home to 7,000 people (94 percent of them African-American). About half owned their own homes, but even before Katrina, Holly Grove was falling on hard times. “The middle class moved out white and black. Housing became rental and began to deteriorate. Lots of crime,” said Paul Baricos, who is starting a center to encourage home ownership.
Kevin Brown grew up in TCC: His father founded it in 1967. After some years away, Kevin came home to be executive director in 1998. “We’ve been living this all our lives,” he said. Unable to re-enter the city after Katrina, Brown said he spent most of his time on the phone, talking with Christians around the country. So many responded, he said, that “a church around here hired somebody to come and help with the emails.”
Then Brown tracked down people he had worked with before-Turner, who had once worked in the center’s youth programs, was one of them-and created a team. They worked out of the second floor of the Trinity center, since the lower floor was in shambles, as was Brown’s house nearby.
Churches sent men and women with tools, equipment, and cooking supplies, Turner said. “We started housing people in our building. People had cots in the building, cooking grills and barbecue pits, makeshift showers. You looked at it and thought, ‘If these folks can go through this, we can do anything.'”
So far more than 6,000 people have come to help, logging more than 200,000 volunteer hours. In addition, federal AmeriCorps members joined the project. They gutted 1,700 homes all over the city, Brown said. So Trinity has rebuilt 25 in Holly Grove and plans to do a total of 150. One of those homes now belongs to Turner.
“We’re rebuilding a neighborhood. We’re rebuilding lives,” said Brown, whose staff has grown from three to 12. “Now people are on their second, third, fourth mission trip down here because they’re excited.”
Those volunteers made Turner’s new home possible. Living in a Holly Grove apartment Trinity had restored early on, Turner had seen a little house that she really liked but didn’t think she could afford. One day Brown came and told her, “There’s a church that wants to help a family get back in their home and I gave ’em your name.”
Turner bought the house. Then, one church group came to build a kitchen, stayed to put up dry wall, and purchased the flooring, too. The next week, Turner said, Mennonites came and put in the floors. “They never stopped. They worked till dark,” she said. Other, smaller groups came after that. Turner moved into her house on March 25, her 56th birthday.
Much remains to be done. Two-thirds of Holly Grove’s former residents have not returned. Five of the neighborhood’s 12 pre-storm churches are back. But Turner in her new home is rejoicing at the restoration to this point: “It’s a tiny little house, but it’s absolutely perfect for me. The things that have happened to me-it’s just an affirmation of God’s plan.”
In the history of Christianity, Turner isn’t the first person to experience such care.
By a.d. 568 Rome was in ruins, ravaged by 150 years of Goth, Vandal, Byzantine, and Longobard invasion. Once a city of perhaps 1.5 million, Rome bottomed out at 30,000. Outside the city, continual wars turned fields back into swamps. Invaders threatened and sometimes took over once-productive church-run farms. Malaria, cholera, and bubonic plague followed. Jobs evaporated. Once-flourishing estates were abandoned. Famine became a fact of life. Floods covered the city three or four times a century. Sewers and aqueducts needed repair.
The wealthy fled to the safety of Ravenna or even faraway Constantinople, but one son of an old Roman family, Gregory the Great, became pope in 590. Building on the existing infrastructure, Gregory set out to restore life to the city. He revamped rural papal estates to provide food for citizens, pilgrims, refugees, and urban poor, all in fair and orderly ways.
Gregory also made peace with the invaders. He provided soup kitchens for the sick and infirm. He set up welfare offices or diaconiae in populated areas within the walls, administered by monastic congregations.
“The Church rather than the Byzantine state . . . was responsible for providing for the urban population,” historian Richard Krautheimer wrote in his classic Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308.
Gregory’s concern was not unique. Nearly 900 years later, in 1521, the Bavarian city of Augsburg faced a housing crisis for its working poor. The Fuggers, Europe’s most powerful banking family, a Catholic family, responded. The Fuggerai, the first low-income housing development in Europe, provides housing for the poor to this day.
Through history, the pattern is the same. Trinity Christian Community stands in that line of Christian responses to crisis. Turner remembers what happened after Katrina and what is happening now: “The church poured into the city. Here it is two years later, and who’s still coming? The church.” -Roberta Green Ahmanson
WHAT CHRISTIANS DO: PART 2
NEW YORK CITY-The Bowery Mission since 1879 has served New York City’s dire side, its thousands of homeless men and women. Three branches of the mission have developed over the years: A men’s Transitional Center and a Women’s Center serve alongside the oldest branch, still called The Bowery Mission, located in the Lower East Side.
The oldest branch is known for giving people such as 20-year-old Sergio Reyz a chance to walk away from a world of drugs, gangs, and death, and into the arms of God. At age 16, Reyz had by dealing cocaine become richer than his parents. His mother gave him a choice: Move out or stop dealing. He left home, continued a gang life of drugs, sex, and violence, and figured he would die. He called his mother to say goodbye-but she challenged him to get help from the Bowery Mission.
“Every day the Lord has to remind me of what I left so I don’t go back,” said Reyz, the youngest man at the mission. He has earned his GED, walks with a joyful step, and smiles when he talks about his mother: Their relationship has grown as he has proceeded through Bowery’s Discipleship Institute six-month program of counseling, addiction recovery, relationship restoration, career education and training, and required chapel.
Many of the 70 Discipleship Institute participants started out in a Compassionate Care program that provides chapel services, meals, clothes, showers and haircuts, counseling with a chaplain, and medical care. The program has only 25 transient beds: Bowery President Ed Morgan said the mission’s biggest failure is not offering more.
Morgan measures Bowery success in Positive Life Outcomes, an idea he took with him from his 20 years of work at General Electric. Last year 149 men left the Discipleship Institute exhibiting PLOs, defined as restoring relationships, remaining clean and sober, establishing positive goals, continuing an education, and exhibiting Christian character.
Bowery funding comes from private donors, only 40 percent of whom profess faith in Christ, but the board of directors is made up of Christians and emphasizes continued biblical commitment. The mission staff is made up half of program graduates and half of “people who have the gift of mercy.” Morgan said staff members have “the chance to see lives change. Not many people can do that for a job and get paid. They are also doing it for spiritual reasons-God commands us.”
James Macklin, Bowery’s director of outreach, is a Discipleship Institute graduate; before coming to Bowery he owned a business in New Jersey but lost it to cocaine. He said he has done every job in the mission, from kitchen staff to maintenance, and spent five years as assistant director of the program: “Ed Morgan saw more in me than I saw in myself. I proved myself and by God’s grace I made it.”
When Macklin, now 67, walks through the halls of the Bowery Mission, residents greet him with respect-they know he has been where they are. He wears a suit but no tie, and a smile. He knows the men and their stories, shares meals with them, and strives to be the “father figure” many of them never had: “Your attitude can determine where you might go in life. That’s what I like to give to men: I don’t care where you start, it’s where you end.”
For many residents, ending homelessness takes more than six months. Macklin said the residents stay as long as they need to but must keep progressing. Resident Eric Freeman, 48, spent 30 years living on the streets and is now in his third month in the Discipleship Institute. He battled substance abuse, lost connection with his family, and lacked self-confidence. He has now found a new way of living: “Man was trying to change me, but now God has.”
Less than a mile to the northeast, the Bowery Mission runs a city-funded program. When former Mayor David Dinkins asked for more homeless shelters in 1990, the Bowery Mission responded and opened the Transitional Center on Avenue D in 1992. The staff members work to instill Christian values in a place reliant on city funding that restricts evangelism.
This center is across the street from housing projects built in the 1960s that house many residents on welfare. Unemployment and high crime plague the neighborhood. Hector Pabon, the center’s associate director, said many residents lack hope to leave the area. Upon entering the center, men receive a dorm room and key-personal space, a novelty for homeless men. A resident signs a contract and, with the help of a counselor, develops an individual living plan that changes every month.
The nine-month program has three phases. For the first 30 days, residents work at the center and attend meetings while staff members get to know them. In Phase Two, months two and three, residents look for jobs and attend fewer meetings. In the last phase, residents stay employed, save 75 percent of their income, and find housing. Many of the staff members, including all four counselors, are Christians. They build relationships with the residents and create opportunities to evangelize outside of the official program.
New York City has made recent internal changes that allow the center to move out unproductive residents who are “playing the system,” Pabon said. Such residents, used to the streets, want a bed and a warm breakfast but have no intention of changing their lives. When a resident must be transferred to a different shelter, Pabon said, counselors must “let go” and pray the resident will realize in some other way his need for Christ.
The center has both failures and success stories. Pabon speaks of a taciturn man named Anthony who came to the shelter last year and, helped by counseling, came to profess faith in Christ. He found a job and lined up an apartment-which he almost lost after a fight-but with the help of Pabon he moved in and began a new life.
Almost 70 blocks north of the Transitional Center, the Bowery Mission Women’s Center at Heartsease House is a home for 17 women in the process of transforming their lives. The 19th-century brownstone blends in with the surrounding homes. No sign marks the Women’s Center, but behind the red doors are stories of struggle, hardship, and grace.
Melissa Alcorn lived a life of drugs, alcohol, and abuse. Fourteen years ago she became a Christian, she said, and God showed her a glimpse of her future: working with those in need. After the Women’s Center opened in 2005, Alcorn came to work there and became director.
The center rents the building from a Mennonite organization for $1 a year and has refurbished it into a 10-bedroom home with warm colors, comfortable couches, and a garden filled with flowers and tomato plants. Spiral staircases guide residents through the home: They move from the dining room, up to a chapel and career center, and through two floors of bedrooms to a living room where meetings are held.
Most of the women come from a substance- and domestic-abuse background: When they walk through the red doors they enter Phase One of the program, which helps the women to become acclimated to living in a community and obeying rules. That’s their biggest obstacle, Alcorn said.
The Women’s Center program helps the women with their spiritual, emotional, and economic life. Each woman must attend chapel, memorize scripture, and attend meetings. The center offers counseling and budgeting, computer, and resumé training to help the women enter the business world.
When the women enter Phase Two, they begin seeking employment and save 75 percent of their income. They have to demonstrate character through telling the truth, participating in the community, and respecting others. The seven staff members work together to monitor the women’s progress.
Belieda Pringle, 51, came to New York from Virginia after using drugs and turning her back on God. “In Virginia, my life wasn’t like it should have been. Now I have a relationship with God and I see things differently.”
When the women enter Phase Three, they begin to prepare for graduation. It’s hard; since September 2005 nine out of 98 women have graduated from the program and six have left exhibiting PLOs.
“The staff tries to help you as much as they can. While you are here you should excel because you can get whatever you need: schooling, GED, tutoring. You just have to be willing to take advantage of it,” Pringle said.
Alcorn said she hopes the women will not just conform to the program and its expectations, but that their lives and hearts will transform. She said there is a tension between “holding people accountable in truth but also having grace.”
Resident LaVerna Johnson, 57, is gaining confidence by living at the center. A native New Yorker, Johnson was living in Florida, unemployed, and in “bondage to fear.” She said God directed her back to the city and, after calling churches, she found the Women’s Center. Johnson said she has started writing poems again, always has her notebook on hand, and is teaching herself to play the piano, something she always wanted to do. She spoke of finding her confidence and power in Christ: “I always knew God, but I found myself here.” -Julie Ryan
WHAT CHRISTIANS DO: PART 3
Hebron, a short-term homeless shelter for single women, seems out of place in affluent Loudoun County, Va., west of Washington, D.C. Modest single-family homes there now cost over $500,000; even tiny apartments rent for $1,000 per month. “This is one county that has so much money and is thriving so much, it’s hard to believe we have this homeless problem,” said Jayda Roberts of the Good Shepherd Alliance, a Christian organization that has worked with homeless individuals since 1983.
Single women and their children can stay for up to 89 days at Hebron while they work, save, and try to get back on their feet. Hebron’s porch smells heavily of cigarettes, but a sign on the front door reads, “Through these doors walk the greatest residents in the world.”
One young resident, Michael, seemed shy at first, but it only lasted five minutes. “Are you new?” the 7-year-old asked a visitor with a hopeful grin. “I’m moving tomorrow,” Michael announced later as he demonstrated a Star Wars video game his grandmother bought him. But he’s not excited about the move. “I’m gonna miss people.” His face fell a little, but his eyes never left the game screen. “This is the fourth shelter I’ve been in,” he exclaimed. “[At] the last one they were just mean.”
Michael and his mother Keri were moving to grandma’s house, a four-hour drive away. “I’m not worried about her,” Grace Magor, the 71-year-old live-in monitor at Hebron, said about Keri: “Her mother is there to pitch in and can help her if she needs.” But Keri is unusual; many have been rejected by their families.
This past summer a pregnant mother, 21-year-old Stephanie, was working 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. shifts, then coming home to Hebron and cooking dinner for herself and her 2-year-old daughter, who pranced into the kitchen in a pink nightgown and tiny strap sandals, a Barbie DVD in hand. The girl’s dark pixie-curly hair matches Stephanie’s, but her dark complexion comes from her father, who Stephanie followed to Loudoun Country from her home in Rhode Island. He is no longer around.
For Stephanie and other single, expectant women, a newborn baby could mean months of not working and falling further behind. Half of Stephanie’s paycheck already was going to daycare.
But in August Stephanie moved into another home GSA had just completed renovating, a small one in Purcellville, Va., called Mary’s House of Hope. It is designed to house three single pregnant moms or single moms with newborn babies for two years or more. These women must have completed several of GSA’s program steps at Hebron before moving to Mary’s House.
Volunteers participated in gutting and remodeling the 100-year-old abandoned house, rented from the town of Purcellville for $1 a year. “All I had to say was ‘homeless, pregnant, unwed women,’ and I had a number of people ready to help,” said Mike Emerson, the pastor in charge of outreach ministry at Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg.
It’s what Christians do. -Cherise Ryan
Cherise is a journalism major at Patrick Henry College. Removing barriers
A frail man with a scraggly beard sat on the side of Avenue C in Manhattan’s East Village. He slumped back in his rickety wheelchair with his belongings in a plastic bag strapped to one handle. He raised one hand to shade his brow from the afternoon sun. With the other he held out a plastic cup to collect coins and cash from the people passing by. Dressed in a gray sweatshirt and ragged jeans, he was just another homeless man.
But unlike most of New York’s homeless individuals, this man cannot walk. In a city with more than 35,000 homeless people, some who are able-bodied turn away from the help they need, but others with disabilities can’t find it. According to the Urban Institute’s Martha Burt, “No one cares. No one wants to pay for it.”
Some disabled receive help from Christian organizations or end up in nursing homes. Others end up in one of the 221 federally funded homeless city shelters in New York. Yet only one is exclusively devoted to those with physical disabilities.
The Barrier Free Living transitional shelter is a reminder of “common grace” good works. Barrier Free, with a mix of staffers and volunteers from different beliefs, offers its residents home-care services-a need that goes unmet at many other shelters.
Barrier Free’s four-story complex originally served as a nursing home, so its hallways, doorways, dorm-style rooms, and showers already are big enough for those in wheelchairs to move about freely. All the shelves are low enough for someone in a wheelchair to reach. Each corridor has a railing built into the wall. The front entrance has a ramp.
Barrier Free began in 1983 as an alternative to nursing homes. CEO Paul Feuerstein said before his organization came along, a disabled homeless person never progressed toward independence because of a “constant, vicious cycle” of going from hospital care to the inadequate care of a traditional homeless shelter: “Because they didn’t have the appropriate supports, they were spending six months of the year in a hospital bed and six months of the year in a shelter.”
The Barrier Free transitional shelter has 48 beds-half for men, half for women-and each year serves over 200 individuals with a variety of disabilities, including quadriplegics and those with multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, severe arthritis, and blindness. Shelter director Cathy Gormley said many homeless people spend time on a waiting list. Six triage-style assessment shelters in the city contact Barrier Free when they come across homeless people with severe physical disabilities; a mobile outreach team interviews those individuals and sometimes brings them in.
Gormley wants residents to learn to perform daily activities on their own-dressing, showering, brushing teeth, and other “basic things most people take for granted.” A psychiatric consultant visits the shelter every month to meet with the residents. Every three months, the shelter hires at least three occupational therapy students from local universities to train residents in basic life skills, such as managing an appropriate diet, budgeting on a fixed income, and staying out of debt. The shelter offers classes and workshops for those with disabilities getting ready to move out and live independently.
Barrier Free receives all of its funding from the government, but residents have held Bible studies and hosted religious speakers. It is those living at the shelter who initiate such activities.