By LORETTA FULTON
A funny thing happened after Abilene Hope Haven lost 70 percent of its funding.
The loss of $278,000 in Department of Housing and Urban Development funding didn’t force Abilene Hope Haven to close. Instead, it forced its leaders to take a fresh look. While Hope Haven was receiving HUD money, it operated under certain rules. Without that money, Hope Haven could set its own rules.
So, the policy manual was tossed out and a new vision appeared–a vision of the gospel. Board members asked themselves a question.
“What are the ways we believe Jesus would minister to these folks?” was the question posed, said Stephen Baldridge, past chair of the board.
Baldridge, director of bachelor of science in social work program at Abilene Christian University, and John Cooper, director of Abilene Hope Haven, presented a program Feb. 23 as part of the National Urban Ministry Conference that met at Highland Church of Christ.
They talked about how dramatically things changed at Abilene Hope Haven once it adopted the “housing first” concept that stresses that when basic needs are met–food, clothing, and shelter–then people can dare to hope and dream of a better life. The new model is opposite of what American Christian culture stresses, Cooper noted, a mentality of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”
“But when we talk about ‘housing first,'” he said, “we see the gospel there.”
In the past, under the old transitional housing model, it was just the opposite. People had to follow rules and prove themselves before earning their own home or apartment. The administration and board of Abilene Hope Haven adopted what they believe is the way Jesus would operate Abilene Hope Have, by basically tossing out rules.
There still are rules, of course, such as no weapons, drugs or alcohol on the premises. No one with a history of domestic violence is allowed to live at Hope Haven. But other rules such as a curfew and no laundry or no kitchen privileges after 10 p.m. are gone.
“How many of you have a curfew in your home?” Cooper asked.
Residents are now called “neighbors,” not clients. Other changes included fresh paint and replacing fluorescent lighting to make Hope Haven a cheerier place. Welcome mats were placed in front of the door to each room, emphasizing the “Welcome Home” concept of Hope Haven.
Neighbors are not required to do anything except to set goals, Cooper said. Classes are offered such as cooking and nutrition, budgeting, and lifestyle, but no one is forced to attend.
“We have a lot of services that are offered,” Baldridge said. “None of them are required.”
For a year, Baldridge, his wife, four children, and their dog lived at Hope Haven, serving as hospitality coordinators. They learned something significant right away. To emphasize the concept of radical hospitality, a biblical concept, they thought they would do the cooking for the neighbors living at Hope Haven. But the neighbors wanted to do meal preparation and cooking. One neighbor explained why.
“We haven’t had a kitchen in a while,” she said. “We want to cook.”
Soon, neighbors started helping each other out. One would offer to cook for another in exchange for a ride.
“We don’t do community like these people know how to do community,” Baldridge said.
Doing away with restrictive rules and letting the neighbors be self-governing instilled a sense of empowerment and dignity in the neighbors–something Jesus would approve of.
Living at Hope Haven and serving as hospitality coordinators was not without its challenges, Baldridge said. He and his wife are vegetarians, bordering on vegans, and one day a woman knocked on the door with a plate of friend pork chops in her hand. She was proud of those pork chops and wanted to share with the Baldridge family.
Despite their strict adherence to a vegetarian diet, Stephen graciously accepted the pork chops and ate them, probably similar to what Jesus would have done.
The challenges were not insurmountable and Baldridge said the family wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. They learned from it and so did their children.
“They were able to see Jesus through people who were broken,” he said.