“The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a man. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!” Joshua 10:13-14
This Relay’s theme is about getting healthier, and that encompasses getting healthier in mind, body and spirit. Part of that journey includes making connections—making connections to God, each other, within our congregations and stretching out to the wider community and the world. It seems to be that it’s this connection that many of us are feeling is tenuous as we face challenges and do our best to keep ministry and mission vital and transforming.
As our churches continue to do ministry that changes lives, we are thankful for the connections we can make that together make us stronger and more equipped to be fruitful disciples. Starting in 2012 when superstorm Sandy ravaged the Northeast, A Future With Hope (AFWH) embraced its mission to provide solutions, care…and hope to the neediest. Eight years later as the pandemic bared down on our communities, our hope centers stepped in to be that glimmer of hope that was so sorely needed, particularly in those places that were already vulnerable.
Now in 2021, AFWH is continuing to grow with the addition of two new members, First UMC Vineland and Joshua’s House.
“Hope emerges where residents, businesses, organizations, government and institutions work together to heal communities” is the vision statement for AFWH. Much like it was seen when groups banded together to form AFWH, that hope emerged again in 2020 when the pandemic put a stranglehold on communities.
For Rev. Dr. Dawrell Rich, pastor at Clair Memorial UMC in Jersey City and founder and president of Joshua’s House, being a new hope center of AFWH is an opportunity to connect with the wider community and to expand the work they have been doing since 2009 when the group first started to roll up their sleeves to bring solace and solutions to its community.
Back then the group’s first mission was to provide backpacks to low-income families. From there, it grew into a mentoring program and so much more.
“As I had more conversations, I realized that it was a community development operation,” said Rich as he recalled the early days of Joshua’s House. One of the projects he is most proud of are the health and hygiene kits they provide to women and children in emergency shelters and the LGBTQ homeless.
This initiative continues today, in part due to the success it has imparted on the Greater Bridgeport Prevention Program (GBAPP), a collaborative agency that serves the greater Bridgeport region for adolescent sexuality-related issues, which includes prevention of adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV/AIDS. They do this through education, intervention and collaboration.
Rich recalled how GBAPP recently reached out to him to let him know what an impact those kits had on their vulnerable population. A letter dated Feb. 10, said “Your gift that most people take for granted will help many adults who will use these essential kits. Your donation will provide our clients with a feeling of dignity by feeling comfortable and confident in the learning or working environment.”
As Joshua’s House continues to grow and stretch its outreach to a broader area, Rich is recognizing what an inordinate need there is.
“Jersey City is rife with homelessness. We’re wrestling with how to provide services to them,” said Rich. “We’re trying to use what’s in my wheelhouse and in the wheelhouse of my board.”
He added that his board brings experience in mental health and public health among other fields. Rich brings experience in urban planning and development, having studied architecture and environmental leadership earlier in his career before attaining a M.Div. and D.Min. from Drew in 2012 and 2020, respectively. It was at Drew where he earned the 2019 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Social Justice Award.
Through partnerships with local colleges and universities, Joshua’s House is nurturing the next generation of social change leaders. Currently, they have a student chapter at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ. Also in its effort to sustain communities, the hope center provides community indicator reports and asset-based revitalization strategies to support health and resiliency through comprehensive research and analysis.
Looking ahead to the future with a keen insight and a tireless energy to be that catalyst of change for his community, Rich said he hopes to expand Joshua’s House so that they can make a bigger impact on the homeless community by providing job training and housing development.
One way he sees that happening is by tapping into the youth that he teaches. While teaching a course to teens at the W.E.B. Du Bois Scholars Institute of Princeton University, he realized an opportunity. He assigned them the task of creating a nonprofit.
“There were some amazing ideas that came out of this assignment,” said Rich. “Now I’m working on shepherding my students into making an organization a reality. There has to be an incubator for these ideas, and Joshua’s House could be that incubator.”
Rich said he also plans to include his own congregation in the growth of Joshua’s House. Once the pandemic hit, Rich said he and his congregation jumped into action to provide an effective hybrid worship. The newly created website and bolstered social media presence also helped to increase engagement.
“I asked myself how do we keep all the sheep together? I taught myself video editing, and we offered six different ways they could connect.”
The result was a sharp uptick in viewers, from about 40 people in person to about 450 online viewers last May and even a peak of about 700 one week in 2020. A survey sent a couple months later revealed that three platforms were primarily being used, so they pared down their options to three.
Now as they look toward reopening their doors of their sanctuary this September, Rich said he is preparing his congregation to be mentally ready for the next transition and to be more hospitable.
“We see in the Bible that their bodies left oppression and trauma in Egypt, but for some their minds didn’t. I want to make sure this isn’t the case here,” said Rich.
With an unwavering spirit for his community both inside the sanctuary and outside in the places where people are hurting, Rich is committed to being that leader who will continue to provide hope and comfort.
For more details, visit Joshuashouse-nj.org.
Learn more about the new hope center at First UMC of Vineland and Rev. Yeika Huertas in the September issue of The Relay.