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THE BRONX, N.Y.—This University Heights block of New York City’s poorest borough has seen good times, but more recently they’ve been bad. On one street Bronx Household of Faith is completing a new church building, though someone busted out a ground-level window. On the next street is a home that the city has designated as a juvenile prison, with bars on the windows and fences around the property.
Down the street is the deep green campus of Bronx Community College, which was New York University’s northern campus from the 1890s until the neighborhood declined in the 1970s. (NYU consolidated in Greenwich Village.) University Heights is still recovering from the crack cocaine and HIV devastations of the 1980s, and still bears a disproportionate share of the city’s homicide deaths, even as New York’s overall murder rate has dropped.
Jack Roberts moved to University Heights four decades ago and has lived through violence and crack epidemics. He heads up Hope Christian Center, a ministry on the block for homeless or addicted men. Roberts is also co-pastor of the Bronx Household of Faith, the church in the center of the major case about whether churches can rent public schools in New York for worship services. (See WORLD, “Reckless prudence,” March 24, 2012.) He studied at L’Abri with Francis Schaeffer in the 1960s and describes Hope as not a rehab center but a discipleship course.
The Hope program has four phases. Phases one through three happen in the yellow brick house, which holds 25 residents at a time. Phase four—for those transitioning to normal life—happens in a house across the street, which Hope used in the 1980s as a home for men dying of HIV. The residents start by going to discipleship classes, praying through the afternoons, and learning to refinish furniture. They deal with ordinary problems: On a Wednesday afternoon one staff member helped a resident go to meet his new probation officer across town, and another brought a meal to the bed of a resident who had just had a hernia operation.
Part of discipleship is work. George Stewart, a graduate of the program who refinished furniture before he got into “drinking and drugging,” now teaches the other men to refinish. “This furniture comes in messed up, and they can see their accomplishment,” said Stewart. “I take a dead piece of furniture and I bring it back alive, just like Jack take a dead soul and bring it back to life.” Stewart also has a pie business, Brother George’s Sweet Potato Pie (“With That Heavenly Flavor!”), and is working on his college degree.
Another part of discipleship are the men’s weekly studies, which include time to talk about the evil of abortion. Many of the men in the program have impregnated women, and Roberts wants them to “commit to never putting a woman in that position again.” One of the graduates, Dwayne Hobbs, wrote a rap song about abortion titled “Death Roe,” a reference to Roe v. Wade: “I’m on death row, convicted for breathing, haven’t been charged with murdering or stealing, but they tell me I don’t have the right to live. …”
A third part: volunteering at places like the Relief Bus (a ministry to the homeless) and a World Vision warehouse in the Bronx. Hope wants residents to get a sense that they can help others and not just accept help. When the men reach phase four, they’ve almost graduated: They move across the street to rooms where they pay room and board ($50 a week, a steal for New York) and look for jobs. Only after a year in phase four, when the men have a jobs and are staying involved in a church, do they graduate from the program.
Part of the men’s discipleship is a certain asceticism: No cell phones, and phone calls from the house limited to 10 minutes. No television, smoking, or psychotropic drugs. (Roberts acknowledged that some men could use medication for their psychological demons, but they will have to go elsewhere: “We’re not a psychiatric ward.”) No welfare checks or food stamps. Hope Christian Center, like a more famous Bronx institution, the New York Yankees, even has a “no beards” rule.
“I don’t think it’s that strict but some of them think it’s mad strict,” said Roberts: “We’re not into behavior modification, we’re here to change hearts.” Hope gets referrals from probation officers and church relatives and other rehab ministries in the city, like the Bowery Mission. Few problems surprise Roberts and his wife Patricia, who have given birth to six children and adopted seven more, one of whom is a mentally retarded adult continuing to live at home. Both are former probation officers who wanted to work with troubled people, but with the freedom to talk about the gospel. Hope doesn’t take any government funding for that reason. (Residents don’t pay anything unless they’re in phase four, so Hope relies on contributions.)
Mennonites started the ministry in 1969, in a different part of the Bronx, but Hope moved to a yellow brick house on this particular block of University Heights in 1984. Several years later Hope bought another house across the street to use for people who came to the ministry with HIV. Much of Hope’s work during those years emphasized giving a home and the gospel to people who were dying. One man with HIV reconciled with his wife the year before he died: Roberts remarried them in his living room. Hope stopped housing people with HIV as the city developed public services in the 1990s.
Today, Hope has no one type of resident—it has hosted illegal immigrants, the homeless, and the well-to-do who fell prey to one substance or another—but the story of one graduate, Dwayne Hobbs, shows how stress and grace often work. Abandoned at birth and then adopted, Hobbs as a teenager joined a gang on Long Island and started selling drugs. Living in a crack house, which he described as “100 percent chaos,” Hobbs became desperate to escape his situation and called out to God to help, if He existed. A Catholic nun showed up in the kitchen of the crack house one day and asked to host a Bible study there.
Hobbs says God began working in his heart through that study, but he wasn’t convinced yet. He tried going through one rehab program, but it frustrated him, and someone mentioned Hope as an option. He contacted Hope and began to think about recognizing and responding to God’s calling in his life. Hobbs ate up the teaching at Hope—“I wish I had went to this place right out of high school, with no drugs or baggage,” he said—and changed his rap name to Malachi Monster: Malachi meaning “my messenger” and monster, in Hobbs’ interpretation, means he “went hard for the other side.”
Hope’s close tie to Bronx Household of Faith helped too: Hobbs would recognize people from church in the neighborhood, which he said helped hold him accountable. Two years out of the program he went to work for Youth With a Mission, but the University Heights neighborhood kept pulling him back. He loves the kids there and volunteers at a local youth sports ministry: A little posse follows him around. At 37, Hobbs just received his undergraduate degree in the mail from Liberty University, after doing all the work online, and he’s now looking for a new job, hoping to work with young people in the neighborhood.
Listen to a report on Hope Christian Center that aired on The World and Everything in It:
• 2012 income: $325,113
• 2012 expenses: $296,892
• Net assets at the end of June 2012: $136,416
• Executive director Jack Roberts’ salary: $50,000
• Staff: Five employees and three regular volunteers
• Website: hopecenterny.org
Jack Roberts’ L’Abri experience helped to make him a Reformed evangelical, but he notes a problem: “The whole Reformed model has been geared toward the educated elite. … It can’t be just for educated people.” He guesses that out of several thousand men who have come through his program, fewer than five had college degrees.
Roberts thinks Reformed churches should start addressing the gap by offering seminary scholarships to minorities–especially to African-Americans and Latinos–on the condition that they return to minister in neighborhoods like University Heights for five years. He stipulates that the seminaries must be biblically faithful: “I know an African-American who received such a scholarship to a liberal seminary and has been in a liberal denomination ever since.” He wants Reformed denominations to support minority church planters in these neighborhoods, and churches to pool resources to create evening Bible schools.
He concludes that church worship services should help those in the community feel at home—not exactly reflecting the surrounding subculture, but “The language of the messenger must be in words that are accessible to the listener.” Reformation doctrines should be explained “in ways that are faithful to the content … and yet not with vocabulary that is foreign to the student.” —E.B.