The Urban Mission: Listening with Compassion, Serving with Love

By Rick Wolcott*

“We at the Urban Mission feel a deep passion to connect with the community,” says Kelly Jeffers, director of New Initiatives.

The community the Mission serves has seen its share of hard times.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the population of Steubenville in 2017 was 18,003.  That’s a significant drop from the 30,771 people who called the city home during the 1970 census, taken not long before the city and its neighbors along the Ohio River fell on hard times when the steel industry waned and thousands of people across the Ohio Valley lost their jobs.

“Steubenville is another of Ohio’s left-behind cities:  we can see the grand buildings left behind from the era when industry boomed; we can see the bones of a thriving and populated city; we can see the people who were left behind to try to make things work when all of that left them.  The Urban Mission really sees those people, and sees them as beloved of God who want the dignity of helping to provide for themselves,” said the Rev. Abby Auman, superintendent of the neighboring Mahoning Valley District.

“We are on a journey,” Cynthia Lytle explained to Bishop Tracy S. Malone, Auman, and the rest of the East Ohio Conference Cabinet when they spent a day at the Urban Mission.

Lytle, the Urban Mission program director and community developer, shared that the Mission’s ministry team has been guided this year by Joshua 3:5, which states “Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.’”

She said the verse “continues to provide us with courage to move forward, ready to do His work and His will. But most importantly this scripture reminds us that God wants to do amazing things through us.”

For more than 50 years, Urban Mission ministries have provided assistance to the people of the Ohio Valley in numerous ways.

The staff partners with volunteers, churches, local agencies, and the community to provide those in need with hunger services, homeless services, neighborhood community development services, worship services, medical services, holiday services, and the JOSHUA work mission program.

Rev. Ashley Steele speaks before meal,to those seated at the tables

“It takes all of us working together as a team to minister to the community,” said Urban Mission Ministries Executive Director the Rev. Ashley Steele.

The ministries provide help now while offering life skills that produce hope for the future.

“I thank God that he chose me to be in ministry here,” said the Rev. Toni Hubbard, who is in her fifth year leading the Mission Rejoice worship service on Saturday night.  “The Urban Mission is a lighthouse.  Upon this corner we show and share the love and the compassion that God has for all mankind.”

Hubbard began her work with the Mission 20 years ago as a cook in the Unity Kitchen, which, every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, provides hot meals served in a café setting to anyone who walks through the door.

During their visit, Cabinet members served and ate with community members in the Unity Kitchen, and visited the Urban Mission’s many ministry sites in Steubenville.

“I want us to learn and celebrate together how our various mission centers are living into the East Ohio Conference vision and to help create partnerships between these ministries and the local church, and I want to encourage and provide opportunities for us as a Cabinet team to engage in mission work together,” Malone said.

In September 2016, during her first month as resident bishop of the Conference, Malone and the Cabinet visited Flat Rock Homes in the Firelands District.  Last year they spent the day at the Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland in the North Coast District.

“Sharing the meal with folks gracious enough to share bits of their lives and their heart with me was filling,” said the Rev. Gail Angel, superintendent of the Southern Hills District.

“A lasting impression on me was when my tablemate said, ‘the mission has us recite the Lord’s Prayer and now I know it all but the last two lines.’  So I encouraged her to take a picture of the last two lines of the prayer that is painted on the wall so that she can learn it quicker.  She got up and took the picture.  Wow!” said Tuscarawas District Superintendent the Rev. Benita Rollins.

Praying in circle

Prior to the meal, diners asked for prayers.

“I pray that I can find a place for me to live, hopefully with my cat,” one woman said.

“I ask for prayers for good news at the doctor’s office,” said a man.

“I pray for my family,” another man said.

“I pray that I can find a job,” a woman added.

Jeffers is leading the Urban Mission’s initiative to answer the prayers of those who are out of work.  No job means no money, which means no opportunity of breaking free from poverty.

“Jobs for Life is a biblically-based program that helps to connect people who are unemployed and underemployed to their God-given purpose of working,” she said of a program being offered at the Urban Mission.  “Jobs for Life believes the church is uniquely positioned to help with work readiness first, before providing other forms of assistance, so that people can be equipped to provide for themselves.”

Steele explained that at the end of the two-month program participants are surrounded with a group of people that helps them find jobs, matching their skill sets and their gifts.

“We see possibilities where others see problems,” she said.

It’s that attitude that led Steele to the vacant plaza at the corner of North Seventh and North Street, three and a half blocks from the Urban Mission.

Cabinet inside vacant building

The Mission signed a lease-to-own contract with the building’s owner earlier this year.  Unused for 12 years, the former a Save-a-lot store will soon be home to many of the Urban Mission’s community outreach ministries that are currently housed in separate buildings.

“The new building will give us more room but most importantly it will provide learning opportunities for volunteers coming in to learn how to work and cook in a kitchen, to learn how to enhance their computer skills, and learn how to work with people one on one,” said Linda Costello, Urban Mission Hunger Services director.

She oversees the Client Choice Pantry that is open every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and also distributes food to seniors on the fourth Tuesday of every month.  Families are assigned designated weeks, based on their last name, to come to the pantry for groceries.  Last year 2,381 families living at or below the poverty level were served by the pantry.

Some of the items available in the pantry and some of those served in the Unity Kitchen are grown in the Mission’s Unity Garden, now in its 11th year.

In front of building wall painted with cross and encouragement Justice Slappy speaking, while raking

“It’s about feeding people, first, but it’s also about healing people spiritually, mentally, and physically,” said Urban Mission Unity Gardener Justice Slappy.  “People can come off the street whenever they want and eat.”

The peppers, tomatoes, basil, black raspberries, strawberries, corn, beans, onions, squash, cantaloupe, and other fruits and vegetables grown in the garden are nourished by compost made from food waste and by rain water that is collected in barrels.

Slappy told the bishop and the Cabinet, “It’s all about asking, ‘How can we sustain as a community?’”

“Throughout the day I was humbled and inspired by the passion and faith of the staff and volunteers of the mission!  They do more than help others, they truly care that others have hope,” Snode shared.

Community is at the heart of everything the Urban Mission does.

When the owner of the 100 year-old City Rescue Mission announced plans to retire, the Urban Mission drafted a plan to expand its ministries and ensure that the homeless shelter and thrift store would continue to be available to those in need.

Client Engagement Director Jodie Feezle said that in the first three months the Urban Mission operated the shelter it served more people than were housed there all of last year.  A major reason for the increase in occupancy is that the Urban Mission made the shelter low barrier, meaning individuals do not need identification and do not need to be drug-free to stay.

Since changing the Mission’s shelter to low barrier “unsheltered people in the county dropped by 77%,” Feezle said.  Those seeking shelter can stay for 30 days, and depending on the work they do at the shelter while they are there they can seek a two-week extension.

“The goal is for people to leave having a place to stay and some type of job so that they have money and hopefully won’t need to use a shelter again,” Steele said.  “In years past we have had at least a success rate of 80% of folks not necessarily needing to utilize the services again and that’s due to the relationships that we continually cultivate with landlords and local housing authorities.”

“I love how the hospitality of low barrier is pervasive; how anyone can come for lunch at the Unity Kitchen and those who come can also be the servers; how their garden is not locked up so anyone can come for food; and how they recognize that those who need a place to stay may not have documents,” Auman said.

“What impresses me most about Urban Mission ministry is the deep spirituality of the staff. It is obvious that this is not just a job to these folks; every member of the staff has a clear sense of calling to their work. They light up when they talk about it; and they share the love of Jesus in the way they do their mission,” said Three Rivers District Superintendent the Rev. Dr. Brad Call.

In 2017 the Urban Mission provided food to 2,381 families, clothing to 1,561 people, back-to-school backpacks to more than 1,400 students, Christmas toys to 1,605 children, and needed repairs to 30 homes in the area.  None of that would have been possible without the generosity of East Ohio Conference pastors, congregations and faith communities, and people from across the state of Ohio and beyond, who donated $701,831 worth of food, furniture, clothing, etc., and volunteered 16,180 hours of their time.

“The effort and witness of the Urban Mission shines bright and clear,” said the Rev. Bruce Hitchcock, superintendent of the Ohio Valley District and past director (2002-2011) of the Urban Mission.  “Together, we can follow Jesus, serve as Jesus served, and love as Christ loves.”

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.