Photo by James Allen Walker for WORLD

Southern hospitality

Compassion | South region winner Challenge House brings 'local missionaries' to poor neighborhoods and finds ways for them to help

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

HOPKINSVILLE, Ky.-Wally Bryan, 64, spent years as a successful realtor trying to get people to move out of Hopkinsville, Kentucky's poor neighborhoods. Now he lives in one himself-and has for almost seven years.

He still looks out of place-an energetic white man in khakis and a polo shirt walking the streets of run-down neighborhoods, many of them predominantly African-American. But he is treated as a fixture. Bryan knows and speaks to everyone he sees. They know him and the Challenge House ministry he founded.

Sometime after serving for nine years as mayor of Hopkinsville in the 1990s, Bryan experienced some "blue periods" and began to study. He read books like The Purpose Driven Life and John Perkins' Rescuing At-Risk Communities. Perkins stressed how Jesus came to earth, a rough neighborhood, to be with those who needed Him. His message to some affluent people: Relocate to poor areas.

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Bryan believed God wanted him to be one such person. He got on his bike and peddled his way to the poorest neighborhood he could find. Without any real plan, Bryan on June 1, 2004, moved into a $225-per-month "Hoptown" apartment with roaches. He sold his own home in a nice neighborhood to burn his bridges.

This move eventually resulted in Challenge House Inc., a privately funded nonprofit providing homes and volunteer support for Christians who want to move into poor neighborhoods and become "local missionaries." The Challenge House initiative involves everything from giving Popsicles to kids on a hot day and inviting neighbors over for a family dinner, to helping someone study for the GED, holding a bicycle workshop, tutoring after school, and teaching residents how to grow tomato plants.

Bryan said the organization's goal is to "have a critical mass of these houses so that people know a Challenge House is like a house church, a neighborhood school, and a work-over-welfare program. The government wants to come in and fix up the houses, but you've got to fix up the people."

After recently drafting bylaws, the board of directors is working to develop standards for Challenge House families-called Neighborhood Ambassadors-that would include, among other things, intentional time in the streets. Many inner-city residents do not have cars and are easy to meet by sitting on a porch or walking the neighborhood.

Neighborhood Ambassadors pay $100 per bedroom per month to live in a Challenge House. Part of the home is private, and part is public-and is open to visitors in the afternoons. Three Challenge Houses are now in adjacent neighborhoods.

The first Challenge House emerged in 2007. Bryan and others convinced a local bank to give Challenge a crack house in the Durrett Avenue neighborhood that was going to cost $9,000 to tear down. Residents like Angelique Victor, who lived across the street, thought Bryan was "kooky." He would visit the area and tell neighbors of plans to restore the dilapidated structure. But after substantial work Challenge House No. 1 opened with a party for neighbors.

Challenge House volunteers surveyed neighbors and asked what type of programs might be most beneficial. Jobs, they said-so the mainstay program for Challenge House became Jobs for Life (jobsforlife.org), a proven, Christ-based program targeted toward the unemployed that teaches biblical principles about work and how to apply them in the workplace.

One day, Angelique invited Challenge House folks into her home. After learning about the jobs class, she signed up. "I treated the class like it was a job," Angelique said. It helped her learn discipline and practice being on time. Before the class, "It was whatever Angelique wanted to do, and Angelique did it when she wanted to do it. . . . But I learned that everybody else's time is just as important as mine."

Angelique was a Christian who felt "stuck" in her faith. The Bible study that accompanied the program helped her gain a greater biblical understanding. She also benefited from being around people she could trust and who cared for her: "One thing I like about the Jobs for Life class-even after you graduate, they keep on calling you. What are you doing? Are you coming to Bible study this week?"

Angelique finished the class in 2008 and soon got a job at the YMCA for three hours a week. She slowly was promoted and is now Outreach Coordinator at the YMCA, managing after-school tutoring programs in neighborhoods high in federally subsidized housing and gang activity.

Other Durrett Avenue neighbors were starved for father figures, Bryan found. He met a child in the street and invited him to come over and learn to play chess some day. Not expecting the child to take him up on the offer, Bryan was surprised to see the boy come back with four other little boys. As a single man, Bryan thought it wise to leave his apartment door open and tell the children they could only stay inside for a minute. They were fascinated with his laptop computer, globe, bicycle, and golf clubs.


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