In what could provide a blueprint for similar efforts across the country, four local churches will repair at least 10 dilapidated homes this summer with the cooperation of city officials and money and manpower from the nation's second-largest Lutheran denomination.
The worst of the homes – a 150-year-old brick structure vacant for at least two years – is at 829 W. Jefferson, just across the street from Emmanuel Lutheran Church. And to the Rev. Thomas Eggold, restoring that house and the others gives the participating congregations and opportunity to fulfill their biblical mandate of proclaiming the Gospel through service to others.
“We are called to be good neighbors, but several years ago people in the neighborhood perceived (Emmanuel members) is a people in the suburbs who come in to tear down homes (to expand the church),” he said. “We've been working for the past several years to change that perception.”
In one sense, the seeds of the “Helping Hand” initiative planned for sometime between June and August were planted not long after Emmanuel paid $24,000 for the vacant house and contacted the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's National Housing Support Corp. for renovation assistance.
But in reality the program was born in 1997, when Zion Lutheran and St. Peter's Catholic churches teamed up to tackle blight in the Hanna-Creighton neighborhood, which at the time was known for low property values and a high crime rate -- conditions that negatively affected both residents and church attendance. Thanks to their efforts (full disclosure: I'm a Zion member) and the help of the city and many others, things have improved dramatically since then.
Nicole Ridley worked with the St. Peter's-Zion Project before becoming executive director of the LCMS housing agency, so when Eggold called about his project, and with St. Peter's and Zion still engaged and with Redeemer Lutheran on Rudisill Boulevard wanting to get involved in housing, she realized they might be able to accomplish more by working together than by working separately.
So at least nine homes identified by the congregations or the city's Neighborhood Code office will receive minor repairs in addition to the complete reconstruction of Emmanuel's house, which is receiving $50,000 from Lutheran Housing Support toward the $75,000 budget.
Lutheran Social Services will help by providing financial training and other assistance, and Laborers for Christ – the Missouri Synod's volunteer construction agency, will provide manpower. The city's Parks Department is helping by making the campground near the Coliseum available for the laborer's trailers.
The entire project, Ridley said, is expected to cost about $150,000, mostly for materials, and will be funded through her office, grants and other donations.
“It's a pilot project, and we'll see how it goes. It could be done again locally or across the USA,” she said.
The homes targeted for renovation are in the 46802, 46803 and 46807 ZIP codes. Four are occupied by single mothers and their families, the owners of three are elderly and one owner is disabled. Laborers for Christ participants will be paid minimum wage in order to qualify for worksite insurance, but their participation is expected to reduce overall costs by 30 percent.
Eventually, Eggold said, his church hopes to sell the restored home, using any profit to buy and restore another home, then another. “We do this so we can do that,” he said, pointing first at the house, then at the Gothic sanctuary across the street. “This sort of things gives us credibility and hopefully opens hearts to the message (of Christ). It gives people hope.”
I can tell you from personal experience that the changes begun by St. Peters and Zion in the Hanna-Creighton neighborhood have yielded benefits no one could have imagined in 1997. Several homes have been built or renovated, and what was originally planned as a soccer field for Zion is now home to a library, Community Action of Northeast Indiana and the Urban League. And all of that was followed by the city's Renaissance Pointe project, which has brought additional new homes, a YMCA and other improvements to the area.
Interestingly, my pastor at Zion in 1997 was Matthew Harrison, who today is president of the Missouri Synod and is using that position to support on a grand scale what he helped begin in Fort Wayne.
Soon, another Fort Wayne experiment may be duplicated elsewhere – the fruit of Christians who united to put their faith into action in service to God and to each other.