By Warren Bird
Lisa Johanon is demonstrating the true meaning of “pay it forward” as her community development organization is helping Ward Presbyterian Church, in greater Detroit, transform one of the hardest-hit areas of the city.
Lisa’s Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC) and Ward Presbyterian are partnering to buy condemned homes in a blighted area, rehab them and help low-income residents settle into the houses.
“I meet at least monthly with leaders at Ward, and they are very involved,” says Lisa, CDC’s executive director and co-founder, who came to Christ at Ward’s Vacation Bible School as a child and led the rest of her family there. “It’s been fun to develop the process together.”
Central Detroit Christian CDC is a faith-based non-profit organization committed to empower people and create positive opportunities through education, employment and economic development.
It’s been so impactful for Ward Presbyterian that the church is making an ongoing habit out of it. Ward is rehabbing its seventh house in the area, and the congregation has raised $1 million and found 36 homes it wants to purchase and renovate. Ward has a goal of buying 15 houses each year, and employing local workers and volunteers to get the job done.
“For the last several years, we would buy one home in the area, renovate it, and put in a family who would be a great neighbor,” says Ward Senior Pastor Scott McKee. “Then we started thinking, ‘What if we could raise $1 million and buy a bunch? What would happen to an area if they could say there were no more homes for sale? “It’s made good progress. You can see this community changing slowly.”
Bringing Life and Light to the Community
Ward got into its extreme makeovers when Lisa’s organization defined a 24-block impoverished area of Detroit as its principal target. The condition of the community because of vacant and abandoned housing is stark. Ward saw the opportunity to have an impact in housing and has been beating that drum faithfully ever since. Church leaders dream of building a greenhouse, nursery school and even planting a church in the area.
“This is something tangible that everyone in our church knows about,” Scott says, “and they can say, ‘We are helping Detroit come back to life.’ ”
Lisa Johanon (center) celebrating Anthony Beauford, accompanied by his wife Pandora, who graduated from Central Detroit Christian’s training class for people who want to start their own business. Anthony came to faith in Christ through the ministry’s job-training program.
Ward leaders want that to be the case spiritually, as well as economically. The church looks for Christians who have been through counseling with CDC to occupy the homes. Before a family is matched to a house and mentored by the church, the CDC makes sure it’s a good match with faith, family size and financial stability.
“We’re looking for Christian people, people to be a light for Christ, people with a vision of community transformation,” Scott says.
To qualify to purchase a home, a family must have at least a modest income (the average household income in this area is $17,000/year). And every family who is approved for purchasing a home must put in some “sweat equity” and help with renovation. The new homeowners make modest payments on the house for five years, must keep it in good repair…and then it’s all theirs.
“All of the homes are success stories so far,” says Dan Jones, Ward’s staff champion for the initiative and the church’s pastor of Next Generation and Students. “There’s definitely a spiritual element in every part of what we do.”
A Personal Touch
“Open Doors Detroit” was the campaign the church launched to raise funds for developing the low-income community. Part of the funds will go to purchasing and renovating homes, while the rest will fund the start of a preschool, maintenance of year-round community gardens and the new church plant.
Each aspect of Open Doors Detroit—housing, preschool and church plant—has (or will have) its own church staff champion. Full-time staff members of the community development group serve as project managers for the renovation, and are funded by Ward and other churches, plus corporate donations and grant money.
Two homes were purchased in January 2015 as part of the “Open Doors” program and several more are on the list to be purchased and renovated.
“About four years ago, we decided not to take missions trips outside Detroit until we’ve first served Detroit,” says Dan, adding that students work in the area during spring break and for eight weeks of summer day trips. “We’re getting our hands dirty.”
Church members who are involved get to meet every family moving into one of the renovated homes, and they usually get the chance to rub shoulders with the new homeowners. During one intensive week, a middle-school group scraped and painted an entire house that was near an earlier-rehabbed home.
The students got to know the mother and children in the refurbished home, as they came to help get the new house ready for a new neighbor. “We get to meet every family, and hear a great story of each family coming in,” Scott says.
Homes Bringing Life Change
Ward would love to see an ongoing connection between the new homeowners and the church, but there is no requirement or expectation that the residents will be involved with Ward.
Church members, students, and future home owners work together to renovate the houses in the blighted neighborhoods.
“The cultural difference between here and there is significant—racial, socio-economic, education,” Dan says. “Practically, we’re 17 miles away and there’s no public transportation and the majority of residents don’t have their own car.
“There’s a need for another new, healthy, thriving church in that area.”
Lisa looks forward to that day, so that she can see the ministry of Ward come full circle—from leading her and her family to Christ, to ministering to people such as the single mom who came to Christ at a CDC Bible study.
The woman was selected to receive a renovated house, and for the first time she was able to provide a home for her three daughters—who had been living in the basement of her ex-husband’s parents home for several years.
“On the celebration day of moving to their new home, the girls were each in their bedrooms, laying in their beds, each lavishing in the pleasure of having her own room,” Lisa recalls. “That experience was the party for them.”
The mom went back to school, got remarried and the oldest daughter attends attended college.
“Someone believed in them enough to help them get a home,” Lisa says. “The impetus for their life change was a home with support from the church community.”
Andy Williams contributed to the writing of this report.