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Touching lives in tough places

"Touching lives in tough places" Continued...

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

LeRoy Barber was a church leader in Atlanta but felt that the lives of members often fell far short of biblical teaching. He and his wife, Donna, became the first administrators of Atlanta Youth Academies, established in 1997 to offer low-income families a Christ-centered education. He is president of Mission Year, which attaches an 18- to 29-year-old to a church for one year in a program of community and neighborhood service. The program has been going for 15 years, with 75 people participating each year in six major cities.

While Crissy Brooks was living in Venezuela, working with a program that started and built new schools, she found herself thinking about pockets of poverty in her home community, Costa Mesa, Calif. Inspired by CCDA, Brooks and others started the Mika Community Development Corporation in 2004. It emphasizes mentoring and after-school efforts through a community center and a youth action team. Mika also sponsors a healthy marriage initiative, organizes home visits to listen to residents and pray-all building friendships and trust.

Noel Castellanos grew up on the Texas border, became a youth worker in San Francisco and San Jose, and started a church in Chicago's Little Village, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. He notes that suburban churches are realizing that "the poor are coming to us," and are often helping blighted neighborhoods by bringing volunteers, financial support, and services from lawyers and doctors. Castellanos is now CEO of CCDA and a member of President Barack Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Matthew Watts looks at prison population growth rates, like the high rate in his state of West Virginia, and sees a mission field that churches miss: not those already incarcerated but those rapidly on the way. Educated as an engineer, Watts now works to improve West Virginia neighborhoods through youth programs, job training, re-entry programs, and housing improvements. He notes that children who fall behind in reading are much more likely to end up facing a judge: "I'm trying to get churches to realize we've got to be involved early."

Finding hope

Men's recovery center boasts new starts

By Joel Hannahs

Photo by Scott Strazzante/Genesis Photos

When the phone rings at Lawndale Community Church's Hope House, 25-year-old Adonnis Johnson answers. A moment later he is offering reassurance. He's been to jail too, he tells the caller. He came to Hope House with a bag and a willingness to change.

Johnson is cheerful. He's been out of jail for nearly a year and at Hope House Men's Recovery Home for 60 days. He has a small wooden cross on a leather cord around his neck, a Bible close by, and a Gospel hip hop music disc in his CD player.

"Hope House teaches you to be a better man," he says. Under the leadership of "Pastor Joe" Atkins, the program's director, most of the bunks are full. At any one time he's helping 20 or so men with troubled pasts get a new start through the six- to nine-month program.

The men wake up at 5 a.m. Five days a week they have Bible study and prayer. Each week, they help convert the gym across the street from the church offices into a worship space for a day. Some work at the neighborhood pizzeria, Malnati's.

George Clopton, 54, finished at Hope House in 2009. He now works full time doing maintenance on the restored housing in the neighborhood, but he also shares his story with Hope House newcomers. "I'm a living witness that change can take place in one's life," he says.

He tells newcomers that a few years ago, he was struggling with drugs and alcohol. Then he rode his bike past Hope House and wondered whether there was something there for him: He ended up coming back to ask. "I wanted out of that lifestyle I was in," he said. "I began to build a relationship with the Lord through the Bible program."

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