By Kim Plummer Krull
“The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod painted my house.”
That’s what Tim Jeffries told the Rev. Thomas Eggold when the pastor asked what brought the guest to worship at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Ind.
“I was greeting people coming through the receiving line and had never seen him before,” Eggold said of Jeffries. “He asked questions about what Lutherans believe, and we had a great conversation about baptism and forgiveness.”
The pastor calls that exchange with Jeffries — one of seven homeowners getting a helping hand from LCMS National Housing Support Corporation in collaboration with Emmanuel, Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s Laborers For Christ and other partners — “the reason we’re doing what we’re doing in our neighborhood.”
“We’re trying to make connections with people for exactly that kind of conversation,” Eggold said.
LCMS National Housing Support Corporation — which does business as Lutheran Housing Support — launched the “Helping Hand” rehab project in June, assisting homeowners in urban neighborhoods near three LCMS churches — Emmanuel, Redeemer and Zion Lutheran Churches. St. Peter’s Catholic Church also is a project participant.
Each home is in violation of Fort Wayne building codes or at risk for health and safety issues. Each homeowner is low-income or elderly and lacks resources to address needed maintenance.
The project also includes renovating a vacant house purchased by Emmanuel with the help of Lutheran Housing Support. The congregation wants “to move the property from being a liability to an asset for the neighborhood,” Eggold said of the house, which the congregation plans to sell, using the proceeds to buy and improve another vacant property.
“There’s no shortage of empty houses in our neighborhood,” said Eggold, adding that two houses across the street from the church were scenes of arrests and meth-making charges.
Laborers For Christ: ‘invaluable’
As work moves toward an expected July 30 completion, Helping Hand partners say their accomplishments are more about newly built relationships than newly repaired houses.
“This is what we’re all about: finding a way to share the love of Christ with neighbors and love them unconditionally,” said Nicole Ridley, chief executive officer for Lutheran Housing Support.
Along with the participating congregations, Laborers For Christ has been “invaluable” in connecting with church neighbors, Ridley said.
She got “such great feedback” from homeowners when Laborers worked for Lutheran Housing Support on another revitalization project — the Campaign for College Hill in North St. Louis, Mo. — that Ridley sought a repeat partnership.
“Laborers handle the construction and repairs, doing quality work, but it’s the impact they have on those we are assisting and the opportunities they have to share the Word that mean the most,” said Ridley, who hopes to make Helping Hand a pilot project that can be replicated nationally with more congregations.
Veteran Laborer Tim Brettin, a former electrician from Knox, Ind., says opportunities abound to get to know the homeowners and oftentimes to witness.
“They are so appreciative and you get to talking and, hopefully, get to see them in church,” Brettin said.
In Fort Wayne, residents getting assistance include single mothers, a former carpenter disabled since a serious accident and elderly residents.
The physical work, tackled by Laborers and assorted volunteers, involves power-washing, scraping and painting houses; replacing doors and repairing foundations.
The most hazardous challenge: removing poison ivy that all but obscured a porch, a task that left two Laborers with some “irritating” consequences.
Planting a Gospel Seed
The Helping Hand project was inspired several years ago when Emmanuel participated in a “Planting Gospel Seeds While Serving Human Needs” program led by the Rev. Dr. Carlos Hernandez, now director of Church and Community Engagement with the LCMS Office of National Mission.
The church sits in the city, but many members travel from the suburbs. The congregation wanted to better connect with neighbors who viewed Emmanuel “as a group of outsiders that came downtown to worship” but had little interest in the area and its challenges, Eggold said.
Spurred by Gospel Seeds, Emmanuel congregants went door to door, listening to residents about community concerns.
Likewise, Redeemer took part in a Gospel Seeds program and gleaned similar results: Church neighbors longed to improve their property values and make their streets safer.
When those two congregations and Zion Lutheran Church — already a church pioneer in Fort Wayne neighborhood revitalization — contacted Lutheran Housing Support about potential efforts, Ridley got the ball rolling “on one project, with us all working together.”
Along with property improvements, Helping Hand also is assisting homeowners on financial management. Congregation volunteers trained by Lutheran Social Services of Indiana are working with residents on budgeting and saving money.
Benefits ‘out of this world’
The youngest of the seven Laborers working for Lutheran Housing Support is Heidi Wilkinson, 23, a Bloomington, Ind., teacher on summer break.
Wilkinson previously worked with Laborers when she was a Concordia University Nebraska student and participated in NAILS, a former Laborers For Christ summer work opportunity for college students.
“It’s been neat getting to know all the Laborers,” said Wilkinson, who is at least a couple decades younger than many of the Laborers she’s working alongside.
For Laborers, a Helping Hand high point was when homeowner Tim Jeffries began talking with them about God, joined them for devotions and took them up on their invitation to attend worship at Emmanuel.
“We were all very excited about that,” said Wilkinson, whose fellow Laborers, along with Brettin, are Larry Goeglein and Bob Scheimann, of Fort Wayne; Stephen Reif, of Valparaiso, Ind.; A.J. Hunter, of Parma, and Gary Trombley, of Harrison Township, in Michigan.
Helping Hand differs from the traditional Laborers For Christ project, where Laborers work for LCMS congregations and other organizations to build or expand their facilities.
While spiritual-renewal opportunities thrive when Laborers take part in a congregation’s life on and beyond the construction site, working for Lutheran Housing Support to help homeowners has opened another door to “more evangelism opportunities,” says project manager Brettin.
In North St. Louis and now in Fort Wayne, people asked Laborers the question Laborers love to answer: Why are you helping me?
“We tell them it’s not for the wages but to share benefits that are out of this world,” Brettin said.
Lutheran Housing Support received financial support for Helping Hand, including a domestic grant from the LCMS Office of National Mission. It also received grants from the Mary Cross Tippmann Foundation, Charlie Tippmann Foundation and the Central Allen Chapter of the Tippmann Foundation, all in Fort Wayne.
Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
Posted July 24, 2014