UCC Haven beats the cold and the odds by ‘working with’ instead of ‘providing for’

A year ago, things looked uncertain.

Denison Avenue United Church of Christ was keeping people out of the cold, giving them meals and a place to sleep. A Cleveland City Council member complained. City fire officials almost shut the project down. But the Ohio community rallied in support of the church and things looked better.

The Cleveland Fire Department posted a cease-use notice on Denison Avenue UCC’s door, Christmas Eve, 2019. Photo by Hans Holznagel

Then COVID-19 arrived. The church’s partner — a shelter provider — dropped out. The ministry kept going. But the Rev. Nozomi Ikuta, Denison’s pastor, wasn’t sure how long it would last.

From guests to members

All the while, something was shifting, Ikuta said. The project evolved into The Haven, “a co-op of healing, hope and freedom.” A steady group of about 15 people still benefit from the shelter — and help run it. Additional daytime guests stop by for coffee, meals, groceries and conversation. With COVID precautions, it’s a safe space for young people.

Staff and volunteers have shown up from the neighborhood. Surprising funding has emerged, too.

It’s working, she said, because of all of that — and God.

‘They occupied the center’

Last spring was “a kairos time, a divine inflection point, for our church,” Ikuta said. “While COVID kept most of our regular church members at home, the Haven members, as we had come to call the shelter guests, became Denison’s primary denizens.” What they’re called matters, she said. “Guests don’t usually clean bathrooms and sweep hallways. Members do.

“The church had become their ‘pod,’ and they had the run of the building. They shot hoops in the gym, had birthday parties, and cooked out for Memorial Day.” The church’s Fellowship Hall became their home base. Rigorous precautions kept the coronavirus at bay.

For many members, Ikuta said, it was “the first time in a long time — perhaps years, decades, lifetimes or generations — that they had a place to call home, where they occupied the center instead of lurking on the periphery.”

“They formed a critical mass that shifted our ministry from ‘providing for’ people to ‘working with’ them,” she said. “As we opened our hearts to each other, we shifted from providers and clients, to friends and co-workers.”

A multiracial circle of people was at the center of a team-building thought piece seen during the development of shelter and other programs at Denison Avenue UCC, Cleveland. Rev. Nozomi Ikuta is seen behind it. Photo by Hans Holznagel.

‘People’s power’

The Haven now has a daytime “outreach” program and youth activities as well as an overnight shelter. “A lot of churches give out coffee, lunch, groceries, clothes and showers,” Ikuta said. “But ever since the Haven inverted our world last spring, we have tried to do the ‘how’ of these programs with a twist.

“Call it self-determination, grassroots leadership, people’s power or participatory agency — we want to maximize the input, wisdom and participation of the people we are supposedly trying to help.” She gave these examples:

  • Haven members “have a say regarding the time of the last smoke break and lights-out, and whether to use the gym or watch a movie if they don’t want to go to Alcoholics Anonymous.”
  • Outreach staff and volunteers sit down (using COVID guidelines) with guests who come for coffee and lunch “and treat them more like friends than clients.”
  • A youth program, now being set up, “will give them media production skills, a revenue stream and a creative outlet to tell the truth about their life experiences.”

Funding ‘from heaven’

Over the course of 2020, money was getting scarce. The church had been on its own to fund staff and supplies ever since the loss of its early shelter partner, The Metanoia Project. Dollars, volunteers and in-kind donations from people and churches helped. A $25,000 boost came in May from a local foundation’s COVID-response fund. The same fund gave another $14,000 in November, just as money was running out.

The Rev. Nozomi Ikuta (left) speaks with Jonathan “Two Braids” Harris, a staff member of The Metanoia Project, in the early days of what has now become The Haven at Denison Avenue UCC, Cleveland.

Suddenly, more appeared. “On Dec. 5, I woke up thinking about my mom, since it was her birthday,” Ikuta said. “She died last year, and we had a joyous celebration of her life. By the time I went to bed, six people from three different churches, a business owner, and the new councilman had all reached out to us, including someone who made a monthly pledge via our Paypal account.” Next, days later, came another foundation grant and a bequest — $30,000 each.

“In a week and a half, more money fell down from heaven for the shelter, outreach and youth programs than we had seen in the previous 16 years,” Ikuta said. “For the first time, we have enough money in the bank to imagine writing a budget. The shelter is now fully funded, and our day and youth programs have about 65 percent of their projected budgets covered with cash on hand.”

Leaders from the neighborhood

Janet Cintron works in The Haven’s kitchen, January 2021. Photo by Nozomi Ikuta

And the local people who showed up to help have been as important as the funding. For example, Ikuta described:

  • Janet Cintron, “a brilliant, compassionate, firm, Puerto Rican mother and neat freak.” “She has morphed from custodian to cook to outreach worker, and picked up a chemical dependency counseling certificate along the way.”
  • Latrelle Hairston, who came asking to use the church gym for his children and now leads the youth program. “He and his friends had grown up in an after-school teen program run by Americorps before I got to Denison, and he has run various youth programs elsewhere ever since. His passion is to keep them out of gangs.”
  • Jake Streeter, whom Ikuta recruited to share Sunday preaching duties. “Jake helped run that Americorp program where Latrelle grew up some 20 years ago, and then ran an open gym program when I first got to Denison.” Ordained a Baptist at age 16 and now a graduate student in counseling, he brings a Black Studies degree, teaching experience, a gift for poetry and “a word that not only combines the gospel, personal transformation, and social and racial justice.”

Ikuta, hoping to retire in a couple years, sees the Haven’s future in them.

An ‘anti-racism, anti-classism’ lab

Ikuta wants to add a fourth program. She calls it the Equity Lab. Inspired by events of 2020, it will be a way in for people who want to help.

Pantry volunteers, Denison Ave. UCC, Cleveland, Jan. 2021
Volunteers, Haven members and church members load in pantry goods at Denison Avenue UCC, Cleveland, January 2021. Photo by Nozomi Ikuta.

“In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, much of white America began waking up to the 401-year-old reality of racism, slavery and genocide,” Ikuta said. “Many of my white, liberal, compassionate friends suddenly found themselves wondering what they could do and how they could help. A subset of them also asked themselves why it took them so long to even think about any of this, and what to do with their discomfort.

“I am thinking that our regular programs could give them ample grist for their anti-racism and anti-classism mills.” The Lab, she said, would be a “portal” for people “who haven’t had to think much about race, class or where their next month’s rent or next meal would come from.” It would encourage people who want to support the Haven to open their minds — “not just to giving materially, but to receiving, spiritually. To learn, and be transformed.”

Charity vs. justice

Ikuta said December’s “money from heaven” has given her courage to “dare to dream” of three more fundraising goals:

  • Another $13,000 a year to hire three more part-time staff help with outreach.
  • $2,600 a year each for a part-time property and office manager.
  • And $10,000 a year to launch the Equity Lab. 

The aim of it all, she said, will be “to keep the program participants at the center, not at the margins, of our work.” Everyone learned the value of that in 2020. “The difference between charity and justice was harder to ignore once we had real people give it faces, names and voices.”

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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