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PEORIA, Ill.-Inching his minivan up the worn streets of a quiet neighborhood on the south side of Peoria, Philip Newton pointed out the window at a house with old white siding and cinder-block porch pillars that were peeling gray paint. The occupant's only income was the foster care check she got from raising her six grandkids, but "we got her two refrigerators, a washer and a dryer, four beds, several couches"-and fixed the plumbing.
Newton, the breezy executive director of the 83-year-old South Side Mission, was talking about the work of "Adopt-A-Block" teams, one of his ministry's outreach strategies. In a high-poverty, low-graduation-rate area, South Side Mission uses acts of service to improve lives and open hearts.
One dilapidated home Newton pointed out was that of a registered sex offender nicknamed Boxer-Shorts Bob for how he used to answer the front door when Adopt-A-Block teams came by: "He now prays with us. He went out to church with us. And when his dad passed away we were the first people he called."
Newton pointed out a home where the mission donated a washer and dryer so the occupant could quit renting a set for $90 a month. Near another home Newton stopped and yelled out the window, "Hi, Gloria! We're going to do your roof!" Last month Gloria was scheduled to be one of many local residents getting their crumbling roofs replaced for free by the mission's Hope Builders program: Each July Hope Builders organizes volunteers and donated materials for a week of home repairs that, last year, were worth an estimated $50,000.
In his office, Newton unrolled a map showing ZIP code 61605, then held it to the floor with CD cases and a basket of markers. Under the organizational care of South Side Mission, 28 mostly evangelical churches--a gamut that includes Assembly of God, Church of Christ, Baptist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Nazarene, and nondenominational congregations-in and outside the city have adopted 125 of the ZIP code's 309 blocks: "At least twice a month we go out and we pass out home-baked banana bread, we clean up garbage, we rake leaves. And over time we earn the right to share Jesus."
Founded in 1925 as a Sunday school for poor children, South Side Mission grew to include a women's shelter, boys' and girls' clubs, a camp outside the city, and a benevolence center with free food and clothing. Today the mission runs 49 programs on a $2.9 million annual budget, providing counseling and physical help to an estimated 15,000 people each year. The daily bustle at South Side Mission headquarters includes daycare, day camp, culinary arts training (directed at the homeless and jobless), and free soup with specialties like minestrone (courtesy of the chefs-in-training) for any walk-ins willing to slouch through a 15-minute chapel session that may include singing and topics like the sovereignty of God. Of one dozen Peoria residents I questioned both within and around the south side, only one had never heard of South Side Mission. Most offered directions.
This year the mission launched Elderly Services, directed by Robin Winfrey, a registered nurse in a white coat and sandals who visits seniors in their homes to check blood pressure and medications, answer medical questions, and sometimes just chat a while. Winfrey met one diabetic who had four glucose monitors but had never checked them: He couldn't read. Elderly folks may not understand a doctor's instructions and may underestimate the consequences of not asking-or may try to save money by cutting corners on meds. Winfrey convinced Geraldine Autman to quit taking cheap aspirin for hip pain and resume co-payments on her prescribed medication after explaining the effect aspirin would have on her blood and stomach. ("I hate taking medicine," Autman said.)
The mission is also reaching public schools and public housing projects. The mission runs a satellite office at Harrison Homes, a housing project where one of the red brick buildings closed due to a cockroach infestation. Residents come to the South Side Mission's baby blue office for medical checkups, chapel services, and free food bags at the end of the month when money is tight. Newton plans to have satellites within walking distance of every 61605 resident: "We're going to be the Walgreen's of rescue missions."
Through the efforts of South Side Mission, four of the ZIP code's seven public schools now host prayer groups for staff and students before or after school, and once a week the mission brings a "power breakfast" to schools like Trewyn Middle School, where, according to Principal Cheryl Ellis, as many as 90 percent of the kids don't eat breakfast before leaving home. "To be at Trewyn, you have to want to be there," said Ellis, who freely shares her Christian beliefs with staff and students. "We have to be a father, mother, sister, brother." Ellis organizes a food drive each year to encourage students to reciprocate the giving.
"We know that there will always be some of those who will never be in a position to give back," said Newton. He named Cindy Passwater and Steve Swearingen (see sidebar), who plan to volunteer with Adopt-A-Block and Hope Builders, as examples of people whose lives and attitudes changed after receiving acts of service and God's grace: "They were consumers, and now they're givers. I wouldn't be surprised if those two were hitched by the end of the year."
Up from rock-bottom
Cindy Passwater, a muscular woman with windy, brown hair and Blackfoot blood, didn't like missions of any kind, and would jump on her bike and pedal in the opposite direction whenever Adopt-A-Block teams visited her neighborhood. She and her partner, Steve Swearingen, moved often because they spent their money on dope and alcohol instead of rent. When Swearingen's mom left him enough money to buy a modest home, he and Passwater made three years' worth of payments but "screwed it up" and lost possession. When the previous owner boarded up the house with all their belongings inside, they moved into a shed in the backyard and used power from the neighbor to run a fridge.
"We hit rock bottom," reflected Passwater. She and Swearingen began attending the South Side Mission's free dinner and professed their faith during chapel. They also befriended Craig Williams, the mission's director of external ministries, who does Three Stooges impersonations and often rolls down the window to yell at acquaintances while driving around town. Williams helped them legally repossess and then repair their home, and now the couple has attended Williams' church for eight months. "God has blessed us in so many ways," Passwater said. "We're not crack-heads no more. The police just stop by to visit us because we never get in trouble anymore." Their new friend Williams is pushing for one more change. After 28 years and four kids, the couple is still not legally married. "You know what I'm working on," Williams told them.