I’ve been asked to speak a little bit tonight about Community of Faith’s work with the Petersburg Urban Ministries in Petersburg, Virginia. I actually spoke about the ministry a year ago at our Charge Conference, so I apologize if you’ve heard some of this before.
This church has been sending teams to work with the Petersburg Urban Ministries regularly over the last few years. If I’m counting correctly, I’ve had the opportunity to go on four of those trips now.
Petersburg is one of the most economically disadvantaged parts of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Unemployment rates are high; home ownership rates are low. There’s a lot of drug use; a lot of crime and violence; a lot of vacant lots; and a lot of houses that have fallen into such disrepair that they are no longer suitable for occupation. In the part of town where the ministry is located, the high school dropout rate hovers near eighty percent.
Needless to say, Petersburg is a place where it is easy to be hopeless.
The Urban Ministry, a project of the United Methodist Church, works to combat that hopelessness in a variety of ways. They provide GED training, teach computer skills, and provide affordable, safe, quality housing for people with limited income.
The way they provide the housing is by purchasing vacant homes in the area. Then, participants in the Ministry’s programs and volunteers like us fix them up and then they get sold at low cost to people who might otherwise be unable to afford a home.
The first time I joined volunteers from Community of Faith on a trip to Petersburg, I had no idea what I’d gotten myself in to. We pulled up in front of a house that was, well, almost beyond description. It was ugly, run down, and almost completely gutted. Standing in the front doorway, you could look clear through the back windows.
We did a lot of good work on it—digging a foundation for a new addition, building a railing on the back deck, and more—but at the end of the day I still had trouble imagining the house being habitable. Sometimes I can be a real cynic, and on the way back home from Petersburg I couldn’t help wondering if what we had done had really made a difference for anybody.
But when I was asked to speak to the Charge Conference last year, prompted with the question, “Where have lives been transformed this past year at Community of Faith?,” that house was the first thing that popped into my head.
On my third trip to Petersburg with this congregation, I spent most of my time repairing and tuning up the computers they use for their training programs. Luckily, the people at the ministry had figured out that I’m much more useful fixing their computers than trying to figure out how to operate power tools without hurting anybody.
But in the middle of the day, our group went on a tour of houses the Ministry had worked on, and among them was the one I had helped with on that first trip. I could hardly believe my eyes.
The run down, dilapidated, uninhabitable house was no more—and where it stood was a beautiful two-bedroom HOME. It still wasn’t quite finished, but walking through it, I was totally in awe at what wonderful work the Ministry—with this congregation’s help—had done.
Somebody probably lives in that house now—possibly somebody who has never owned a home before. We, as a church, helped make it possible for a family to have a nice place to live. Think about how powerful a gift that is. Think about how that changed somebody’s life for the better.
Petersburg still has lots of problems, and probably will for long time. In fact, we had planned to go down last week, but the trip had to be canceled because people involved with the ministry had been affected by a violent crime.
But every house the Petersburg Urban Ministry has worked on, many with our help, has made somebody’s life a little more stable and a little better. Every student who completes their GED program has better educational and work opportunities available to them. Imagine, over time, what a impact these efforts could have on a community.
Sometimes—like right after that first trip I took to Petersburg—I wonder how much of a difference we are making. But then I think about that one house and the huge difference in one family’s life that it has made. And then I think about all the other houses Petersburg Urban Ministries have worked on, and all the other work they do and that we do here at Community of Faith. And then I think about all the other churches and ministries all around the world that are out there doing God’s work.
Suddenly, the idea of bringing hope to a place like Petersburg doesn’t seem so far-fetched.