GREENSBORO, N.C.—Twenty-five years of ministry on the streets confirmed for Frank Dew that there are myriad reasons why someone might fall on hard times.
But he is certain about one thing: A place to call home can make all the difference in helping a person turn his or her life around
“We used to make housing an outcome,” says Dew D’76, a chaplain at Greensboro Urban Ministry and founding pastor of New Creation Community Presbyterian Church. “If you keep a job, if you stay clean and sober, then you can get a place to stay.
“What we’ve realized is that if you have a place to stay, you’re more likely to get a job, keep a job, stay clean and sober, stay on your meds, keep your family together, and so on. We’re really working to move toward this idea of housing first.”
A family’s journey from this city’s streets might begin at Weaver House, the emergency shelter operated by Urban Ministry, followed by a two-year lease at Partnership Village, a community that offers well-maintained apartments for single adults and families for between $200 and $300 a month.
“This project is part of our continuum of care,” says Dew during a tour of the like-new apartment complex, which opened in 1999 and features 32 studio units for singles, and 12 two-bedroom and 24 three-bedroom family apartments. In addition to housing, Partnership Village offers substance abuse counseling, parenting classes, credit counseling, Sunday school, and worship services.
“It gives us a chance to be with people for up to two years,” says Dew, 58. “Things don’t get the way they are overnight, and they don’t change overnight either.”
But getting people off the streets and into a place of their own, Dew says, increases the long-term odds of overcoming poverty. In a best-case scenario, a family might move from Partnership Village into a Habitat for Humanity home.
When he began preparing for ministry, Dew imagined leading a large congregation of affluent Christians. But while at Duke, where he earned a master of divinity degree, a question kept coming up: “If we are following Jesus, why do we have so many friends among the affluent?
“I was pretty sure that God had a wood-paneled office and country club membership for me,” Dew wrote in a draft for his book Improving Our Acoustics. “Little did I know what God’s true plans were for my life.”
Dew works from a cramped office in space New Creation rents downtown at Greensboro’s First Presbyterian Church. Rather than invitations to the country club for golf outings, he gets calls from the local jail, sometimes from members of his own congregation. Most days, he hangs out with the homeless. He makes sure they know about Weaver House, where there is emergency shelter and other resources.
He invites them to New Creation, the church he founded in 1985. From its beginnings, Dew envisioned a congregation that stretched itself beyond the bounds of traditionalism—a faith community that offered its members a new way to be church.
Using Washington, D.C.’s Church of the Saviour as a model, Dew had what he calls a “Matthew 25 vision of community,” one that would go beyond the usual congregational disciplines of tithing and charity. Relationships needed to be developed. Prejudices had to be named. White privilege had to be acknowledged, and vulnerability and community had to be embraced as gifts.
A quarter century later, Dew’s leap into uncharted waters with New Creation remains a work in progress. He situates the church in the reform tradition, citing Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Clarence Jordan as reformers whose vision inspires his own. “I hope that we are part of that tradition,” he says. “The spirit of reformation is ongoing.”
Among Presbyterians, he admits, New Creation is an anomaly. “Some people look at us as a laboratory for a different way of doing church life, and others see us as irrelevant because we are so different.”
Despite New Creation’s modest membership, the church pays annual rent of $8,000 to First Presbyterian, and last year contributed $10,000 to its presbytery, one of five in North Carolina.
‘When things go bad’
Arriving early for the 5 p.m. service on a Sunday in late March, Dew pulls chairs off stacks and arranges them into two tight ovals around a modest wooden altar table draped in a Lenten purple cloth.
Soon New Creation members Alan Wilson and Rick Tatum, both of whom have lived on the streets from time to time, join Dew, working side-by-side with a smooth familiar rhythm. Wilson, whose bushy beard makes him look lionlike, places a Bible in each chair. Tatum rolls large round folding tables into place for the simple meal that New Creation shares after the service.
Soon, others arrive. Two Wake Forest University divinity students, who travel from Winston-Salem each Sunday, come in and chat with friends. Amy Robinson, a 42-year-old woman who joined New Creation in 1992, greets Wilson.
“Alan, I have a coat for you, and I meant to bring it tonight,” she says. “It’s sitting on my bed, and I forgot. Will 2X be too big?”
“It might be,” Wilson replies. “I’d like to try it on if you don’t mind. Thank you for thinking about me.”
Robinson says she joined New Creation because the folks there “walk the walk. They say, ‘You know we are Christians by our love,’ and I can see that in our congregation in the things that we do."
Three years ago, Robinson found herself in the intensive care unit at Baptist Hospital. A life-threatening infection caused by flesh-eating bacteria required 12 major surgeries in 21 days. She had to learn to walk and talk all over again.
“I don’t remember a whole lot about the surgery, but what I do remember is waking up, and every time I opened my eyes there was somebody from New Creation there, as well as my family,” she says
New Creation flourishes, she says, under Dew’s leadership. “He always shows us a sermon, and then preaches it to us. He’s believable because of what he does with his life.”
Rick Tatum, 56, who has a grown son, a stepson, and six grandchildren, agrees.
“I know that at three o’clock in the morning I can get an answer whenever I got a problem. I got Frank [Dew] on speed dial. I got people I know I can call. Sometimes that’s all I need. When things go bad, I just need somebody to talk to, and they will always listen.”
Anne McKee, 82, and her late husband, Charles, spent years living as missionaries in Africa, where church was nontraditional, something they liked. At New Creation, she says, “We have no edifice complex. We’re not putting money in building. We’re not putting money in stuff. We’re putting money in people.”
McKee is proud of the fact that New Creation foots the bill for two black Presbyterian students from South Africa to attend the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “We just have a lot of hands-on stuff,” she says
Seeing with New Eyes
These stories of New Creation members are balm for Dew. In the early years, he says, “We weren’t connecting with the people at Weaver House."
Hoping to remedy that, they began holding worship at Weaver House on Sunday mornings. The ties formed during these services have been a bridge, says Dew. “When someone needs God hourly, daily, to deal with substance abuse, to deal with unemployment, to deal with health circumstances,” he says, “they are teaching us about dependence on God.”
In return, New Creation tries to help those at Urban Ministry “see themselves as God sees them,” says Dew. “In the process of that exchange, we come together, building bridges back and forth between the church and the poor.”
He acknowledges that the view from those bridges isn’t always flattering. When members of New Creation’s sister church in Managua, Nicaragua, came to visit, the contrast in lifestyles was stark.
“We had experienced going to live in their homes, but it was kind of weird when they came to where we live,” he says. “It helped us to see ourselves through their eyes. We realized more and more the disparity between their standard of living and ours. We were feeding them meals on disposable plates. They were asking us, ‘Why are you throwing those things away?’”
Gayle Wulk, 66, a retired professional and the mother of two adopted Guatemalan children, ages 11 and 17, has worshipped at New Creation for 20 years.
“You don’t do community without participation,” she says. “Unlike the churches of the past that I’ve gone to, where they were perfectly happy to have you on the rolls as long as you sent a check in periodically, this church demands presence, and that does stretch you.”
New Creation is trying to extend the circle to involve more people in the life of the church, but at the same time to deepen relationships, says Dew, making them more peerlike.
“Trying to be in relationship with people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from is not easy,” he says. “But I really believe we have deepened those relationships. I know we have, but there’s a whole lot more that I hope can happen.”
It helps, he adds, to recognize the reality of the neediness of all people, however that need is expressed. “When we recognize that we are in need of God, that brings us together on an equal relationship: as lots of my friends like to say, ‘The ground is level at the foot of the cross.’”
Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer based in Garner, N.C.