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HOPKINSVILLE, Ky.-Wally Bryan, 64, spent years as a successful realtor trying to get people to move out of Hopkinsville, Kentucky's poor neighborhoods. Now he lives in one himself-and has for almost seven years.
He still looks out of place-an energetic white man in khakis and a polo shirt walking the streets of run-down neighborhoods, many of them predominantly African-American. But he is treated as a fixture. Bryan knows and speaks to everyone he sees. They know him and the Challenge House ministry he founded.
Sometime after serving for nine years as mayor of Hopkinsville in the 1990s, Bryan experienced some "blue periods" and began to study. He read books like The Purpose Driven Life and John Perkins' Rescuing At-Risk Communities. Perkins stressed how Jesus came to earth, a rough neighborhood, to be with those who needed Him. His message to some affluent people: Relocate to poor areas.
Bryan believed God wanted him to be one such person. He got on his bike and peddled his way to the poorest neighborhood he could find. Without any real plan, Bryan on June 1, 2004, moved into a $225-per-month "Hoptown" apartment with roaches. He sold his own home in a nice neighborhood to burn his bridges.
This move eventually resulted in Challenge House Inc., a privately funded nonprofit providing homes and volunteer support for Christians who want to move into poor neighborhoods and become "local missionaries." The Challenge House initiative involves everything from giving Popsicles to kids on a hot day and inviting neighbors over for a family dinner, to helping someone study for the GED, holding a bicycle workshop, tutoring after school, and teaching residents how to grow tomato plants.
Bryan said the organization's goal is to "have a critical mass of these houses so that people know a Challenge House is like a house church, a neighborhood school, and a work-over-welfare program. The government wants to come in and fix up the houses, but you've got to fix up the people."
After recently drafting bylaws, the board of directors is working to develop standards for Challenge House families-called Neighborhood Ambassadors-that would include, among other things, intentional time in the streets. Many inner-city residents do not have cars and are easy to meet by sitting on a porch or walking the neighborhood.
Neighborhood Ambassadors pay $100 per bedroom per month to live in a Challenge House. Part of the home is private, and part is public-and is open to visitors in the afternoons. Three Challenge Houses are now in adjacent neighborhoods.
The first Challenge House emerged in 2007. Bryan and others convinced a local bank to give Challenge a crack house in the Durrett Avenue neighborhood that was going to cost $9,000 to tear down. Residents like Angelique Victor, who lived across the street, thought Bryan was "kooky." He would visit the area and tell neighbors of plans to restore the dilapidated structure. But after substantial work Challenge House No. 1 opened with a party for neighbors.
Challenge House volunteers surveyed neighbors and asked what type of programs might be most beneficial. Jobs, they said-so the mainstay program for Challenge House became Jobs for Life (jobsforlife.org), a proven, Christ-based program targeted toward the unemployed that teaches biblical principles about work and how to apply them in the workplace.
One day, Angelique invited Challenge House folks into her home. After learning about the jobs class, she signed up. "I treated the class like it was a job," Angelique said. It helped her learn discipline and practice being on time. Before the class, "It was whatever Angelique wanted to do, and Angelique did it when she wanted to do it. . . . But I learned that everybody else's time is just as important as mine."
Angelique was a Christian who felt "stuck" in her faith. The Bible study that accompanied the program helped her gain a greater biblical understanding. She also benefited from being around people she could trust and who cared for her: "One thing I like about the Jobs for Life class-even after you graduate, they keep on calling you. What are you doing? Are you coming to Bible study this week?"
Angelique finished the class in 2008 and soon got a job at the YMCA for three hours a week. She slowly was promoted and is now Outreach Coordinator at the YMCA, managing after-school tutoring programs in neighborhoods high in federally subsidized housing and gang activity.
Other Durrett Avenue neighbors were starved for father figures, Bryan found. He met a child in the street and invited him to come over and learn to play chess some day. Not expecting the child to take him up on the offer, Bryan was surprised to see the boy come back with four other little boys. As a single man, Bryan thought it wise to leave his apartment door open and tell the children they could only stay inside for a minute. They were fascinated with his laptop computer, globe, bicycle, and golf clubs.
"We want to be Tiger! Show us how to play golf ball!" they said. Bryan explained it was just "golf" and took them outside to show them how to swing and hit a ball. Afterward, he gave them a Coke and a candy bar. Bryan had only spent about 12 minutes with the children. One hung back and grabbed his hand. "I wish you were my daddy," he said. Bryan later learned the child's father was in prison.
Paige and Heath Wilson, the Neighborhood Ambassadors of Challenge House No. 2, plan to focus on children's programs and single moms. The home is conveniently located near a bus stop.
The Wilsons fell in love with the Challenge House initiative while staying at House No. 1 during a summer with kids from their church youth group. They took eight youth group members to stay in the house and do some neighborhood painting, tear down a building, and hold a block party for area kids.
The Wilsons became House No. 2 residents in August 2010. With a 2-year-old and another baby on the way, Paige Wilson said she was initially concerned about safety when they considered moving their family to the neighborhood. God comforted her with a passage from 1 John: "Perfect love casts out fear." They have had no problems with crime and chose not to get an alarm system.
Retired elementary-school teacher Wanda Jones has also become involved with Challenge House. She had a friend who wanted to attend Jobs because it addressed conflict resolution, so Jones went along for moral support. She has since found herself teaching classes in "a place that gives the whole neighborhood hope. . . . Just because someone has a drug problem or some other kind of issues they're dealing with doesn't mean they don't have dreams and aspirations. God puts something in everybody."
Jones got to know Michelle Brown, who also attended a Jobs class after dealing with addiction to crack cocaine. The Challenge community, the Jobs class, and Bible study helped Michelle, who was in drug court at the time, to stay clean, grow spiritually, and get a job. She now works at a women's center where she helps women struggling with problems she knows all too well.
"We all go through something, but if you can have just one person there to give you some kind of positive outlook, it can mend some things that people aren't even aware are torn down within a person. And that's what it took with me," Brown said: "I knew I had problems. I didn't know exactly what they were. But I knew by myself I couldn't solve them. When I let God in, He just started putting the right people, places, and things in my path."
-Amy McCullough is a Mississippi journalist
Video and photos by James Allen Walker for WORLD (jamesallenwalker.com)
Challenge House Inc.
Location: Hopkinsville, Ky.
Size: One director, 12 board members, numerous volunteers, all unpaid. Number of participants hard to measure, as nearly every person encountered on the street of three inner-city neighborhoods is reached in some way by this ministry.
Annual Budget: $78,900 ($48,000 comes from donations from individuals)
Read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2011 on WORLD's Hope Award page.
Greene County, Ga., has a racial and economic divide. "The town" of Greensboro is not a wealthy one, and it includes many from minorities. That contrasts with "the lake," Lake Oconee, a community that has grown in recent years as retirees from Atlanta have relocated to its beautiful scenery and nationally know golf courses.
But Jimmy Long, pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist church, which has members from the lake, pushes for a "Christian spirit" that transcends church and community lines: "We want people to become more like Christ daily in their attitude and actions. . . . There's a certain level of expectation that you will be connected in ministry, serving others in Jesus' name, and missions."
That focus on community has led Grace Fellowship members to start several ministries, one of which is ATLAS-named not for the mythological holder of the world but for "Attaining Truth, Love And Self-control." This Christ-centered ministry, modeled on an ATLAS that began in Iowa in 2000, tailors its program to individual needs. ATLAS staff members sit with potential clients and discuss goals that can include growing spiritually, improving a marriage, getting a GED, managing anger, developing interviewing and life skills, joining a choir, or being a better parent.
Those who seek help from ATLAS, like former client Cursheena, usually come through referrals from friends. ATLAS then draws up a two-year contract outlining the agreed-upon goals. The client, who is free to cancel at any time, is assigned a mentor, called a "Christian friend," who becomes an extended family member.
Cursheena was experiencing some depression when she came to ATLAS. She developed goals to pass the GED and grow spiritually. ATLAS didn't see her from the outside as just another single mom but "built up my motivation with life," she said. Cursheena now encourages others, attends church regularly, uses her cooking skills in the community, and is considering becoming a Certified Nurse Assistant.