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