5:00 P.M. ET Oct. 18, 2011
Jackie Heim, volunteer coordinator at First United Methodist Church of Lenoir, N.C., presents a scrapbook at the dedication of the Harper home. Church volunteers worked with Wesley Community Development Corporation, which led the project. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of Roy Helm, Wesley CDC.
Life changed dramatically for Antigua Stewart when she learned a local church was offering her its parsonage to live in until she got back on her feet.
“When I found out, I felt stunned and blessed,” says Stewart, who had been staying at Three Oaks Shelter with her 6-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter.
The two-bedroom parsonage at First Saints Community Church’s St. George Island campus, in St. Mary’s County, Md., had been vacant for years, fallen into disrepair and used for storage. “Three years ago, the congregation started talking about how we have this great asset, and how it could be better employed for the kingdom,” says the Rev. Keith Schukraft, associate pastor of the United Methodist congregation. The church decided to use it for housing a transitional family that had fallen on hard times.
United Methodist churches, conferences and the Board of Pension and Health Benefits are finding creative ways to help people find homes — and stability — one family at a time. Some churches, like First Saints, are using resources already within congregations. Other United Methodists are building new homes — or multimillion-dollar developments. These are just a handful of the ministries across the country working to help people get back on their feet by starting with a place to call home.
Rolling out the welcome mat
To get the parsonage move-in ready, members of First Saints donated hours of labor and resources to transform the old parsonage into a new furnished living space with a new kitchen, new bathroom, new carpet, fresh paint and more.
“It’s made a big difference to have a decent roof over our heads, and it’s helped me to be independent and not depend on anybody,” Stewart said. “My kids are happy, and we’re comfortable.” Stewart has been able to take classes in medical records technology so she can start a career.
Volunteers with Meshach's Carpenters set the end wall on a new Wesley Community Development Corporation home in Liberty, N.C. A UMNS photo courtesy of Roy Helm, Wesley CDC.
Members of the church have befriended Stewart’s family, bringing food and checking in on her. “A couple of church members even babysat when I was taking classes,” Stewart said.
Just a few hours north, Harford Homes For the Homeless, a new nonprofit Christian ministry in Harford County, Md., is just getting started, but its goal is to end homelessness in Harford County by 2015.
About 250 to 300 homeless people live in Harford County — and about the same number of churches. The project’s goal is for every church in the county to come up with a housing unit — and work with county social services — to help a majority of homeless find stability. Options discussed include churches buying an apartment, members offering unused living space, or churches buying foreclosures and fixing up the properties.
“The idea is not to start one new ministry but to start 250 new ministries,” said Senior Pastor Craig McLaughlin of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air, Md., whose vision sparked this ministry.
Asked whether he thought ending homelessness in the county by 2015 was realistic, he responded: “Nothing is impossible for God’s people.”
Backing big projects
Other initiatives aim to build new residences. Since 1990, the United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits has funded the rehabilitation, construction or preservation of more than 30,000 affordable housing units in the 50 states through the Positive Social Purpose Lending Program. The program has invested more than $775 million in the creation and preservation of affordable housing and community development, making the board among the biggest affordable housing lenders in the country.
One project, 53 Columbus, saved an existing residential building in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood that was to be demolished. Residents joined forces to form a community land trust, and the board purchased a permanent mortgage on the property.
“The financing we provided helped them to stay in their homes and not be displaced,” says Michael Lohmeier, director of the Positive Social Purpose Lending Program.
Volunteers with Meshach's Carpenters take a break from their work on a Wesley Community Development Corporation home in Liberty, N.C. A UMNS photo courtesy of Roy Helm, Wesley CDC.
The board works through a network of third-party partners, usually nonprofits, which present the board with loan opportunities. Affordable housing projects range from transitional housing to apartment complexes that house moderate-income individuals and families within a mixed income project.
“In many cases, families are able to move into a safe and sanitary home that’s better than the options they had before the housing was developed,” Lohmeier said. “Sometimes the groundbreakings for these projects can be full of emotions for people in need and can be emotional for us as well.”
Wesley Community Development Corporation in Statesville, N.C., has been building affordable low-income housing as a nonprofit ministry of the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference since 2002.
Rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Floyd brought to light the need for affordable housing, explained Roy Helm, president of Wesley CDC, which is backed by the billion-dollar Duke Endowment. “They realized there was a major need for housing across North Carolina whether there was a hurricane or not.”
In nine years, Wesley CDC has built some 80 homes, as well as an affordable six-unit rental project open to those with disabilities, homeless or struggling with addiction. All of the new houses are built in small towns of less than 1,500 people in rural North Carolina. To qualify for one of the $125,000 three-bedroom, two-bathroom houses, future homebuyers must be employed. Special financing from the endowment and other sources help homebuyers afford their down payment and mortgages.
Like Habitat for Humanity, the Wesley CDC uses volunteer labor to complete the houses. Houses come with front and rear porches, vaulted great room ceilings, a dishwasher and Energy Star-approved efficiency to help create more value in the home.
Perhaps the most valuable way Wesley CDC helps homebuyers is training in financial planning and budgeting. “Many of the folks said that probably the most important thing they got out of the program was learning how to budget and plan a little,” Helm recalls. “They were much more financially secure because they had a little bit of savings, rather than living paycheck to paycheck.”
*Madren is a Washington-based freelance writer who specializes in environmental and sustainability issues.
News media contact: Maggie Hillery, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 472-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.