Faith Mission forming roots in east Gainesville neighborhood




GAINESVILLE—When it comes to defining Faith Mission, one or two words simply won’t do. It’s the legacy and former home of the once-vibrant Faith United Methodist Church. It’s a haven for young and old in a neighborhood where poverty presents daily obstacles. It’s the building you’ll find sitting at 3701 N.E. 15th St.—housing much-needed community programs such as Kids Count in Alachua County—but one with a value that extends far beyond brick and mortar.

Most importantly, Faith Mission is an active community of faith comprised of men, women and children serving alongside each other in the N.E. 15th Street Corridor on the east side of Gainesville.

Established in 2014, Faith Mission began with what program director Ward Simonton termed "an open slate," working first to build relationships and trust among those who live here.

“It’s about relationships and trust building,” Director Ward Simonton said. “That’s the priority. That’s always the priority. You can’t connect with someone about faith, you can’t listen well or hear about a life struggle without those things being there.”

A Delicate Balance

Faith Mission was established in the summer of 2014 after Faith UMC was transitioned to a mission site. “It was decided it would be a nontraditional church,” Simonton said. “Faith-based, but very much an open slate about what the work would actually become.” Although Trinity United Methodist Church, located on the north side of Gainesville, provides administrative leadership, it’s run by a Faith Mission Leadership Team, which features an equal number of people from inside and outside the N.E. 15th Street neighborhood.

“We have come to understand that is just very, very important,” Simonton said. “It’s a delicate balance. It’s not Trinity dictating. It’s everyone on the leadership team working together.”

It’s people like Vickie Leggett, a longtime neighborhood resident and former Faith UMC member. “I just stayed around,” she said. “I’m not college educated, so I didn’t know what I could do. God just put it in my spirit to help out.” It’s local professionals like Rawlings Elementary School Principal Daniel Burney, whose school sits across the street from Faith Mission, as well as Johnnie Dennard, a retired civil engineer and Trinity member, and Mae Griner, a retired nurse and deaconess at Bartley Temple UMC. “There’s not a day goes by that I’m not connecting with at least one of the leadership team members,” Simonton said. “It’s a very dynamic group.”

The northeast Gainesville neighborhood where Faith Mission is located includes close to 1,000 children. Many come from low-income or single parent households.

A Lot to Learn

That team has no interest in duplicating services or taking a one-size-fits-all-approach. “There are challenges that are similar or the same in all low-income neighborhoods, but all low-income neighborhoods are not the same,” Simonton said. “They have different needs, different priorities.”

In the N.E. 15th Street Corridor, the needs are daunting. According to 2015 data gathered by community engagement specialist missionunite.com, the area of N.E. 15th Street, from 23rd Avenue to 53rd Avenue, is home to roughly 700 families and 1,000 children. Nearly a third of these residents live on less than $25,000 a year and 80 percent of the lower-income households are headed by single parents.

Across the community, which has three subsidized housing complexes, only 40 percent of adults hold a high school diploma or GED. “It’s very hard,” Griner said. “The people who are in those apartments, a lot of them don’t have cars, and they have to rely on bus routes. The next grocery store is probably about 2 1/2 miles away.”

With those realities in mind, Faith Mission’s entire first year was devoted to learning and helping where needed. “We partnered with the health department,” Simonton said. “We partnered with the school system. We partnered with an apartment complex down the street. We knew we had a lot to learn, so we didn’t go out and create anything new just on our own.”

Love in Action

Today Faith Mission still moves slowly and surely, but it has established strong ties with the neighborhood as it partners with a variety of churches and groups including Barley Temple UMC, Greenhouse Church, Rawlings Elementary, Medical Reserve Corps and the Gainesville Police Department. “Overall, it has gone well,” Simonton said. “This is a long-view ministry, and if a group comes in and is not thinking in terms of the long view, they’re not ready.”

Faith Mission continues to house Kids Count in Alachua County, which was founded at the facility in 2008 and also has a handful of new programs such as Women to Women, a monthly luncheon support group led by Griner; Leaders Overcoming Through Faith (LOF) Youth Group, headed by Simonton, and Spreading Motivation and Inspiring Leadership and Excellence (SMILE), a mentoring program at Rawlings Elementary.

Faith Mission also partners with nearby Rawlings Elementary. Shown above is a Feb. 15 luncheon meeting for a mentoring group called SMILE, an acronym for Spreading Motivation and Inspiring Leadership and Excellence.

Our thing is to show love and do it through action,” Griner said of Women to Women. “Sometimes I don’t even talk. Many times I just listen. There’s so much that is on their minds because of where they live. They want homes for their children. They want a backyard. They want a vehicle.”

From his post at Rawlings Elementary, Burney has seen many well-meaning people and groups come and go through the years. SMILE, which has matched roughly 50 of his students with mentors, has been a welcome exception. “Faith Mission is an organization that works,” Burney said. “They’re very much in it for the long haul. It’s not just providing services—they’re building relationships.”

Simonton agrees, noting that relationships have been vital in the success of the LOF Youth Group, which includes elementary to high school boys. “We have seen significant changes in some of these young guys,” he said. “Just through the magic of mentoring, their outlook for their future is just awesome. They have great optimism. They talk about their future with bright eyes, and they tell us when they are doing well in school.”

Two days a week, Faith Mission opens its doors to allow the boys computer access and time for homework. On Friday, designated LOF Club Day, the boys get their work done, then enjoy a sports activity, a meal and a program or speaker. At different times throughout the year, they also participate in LOF’s Projects for Wages program, through which the boys earn money using basic construction skills. To date, they have built playground structures, picnic tables and a workout rack.

Leggett said she first noticed an improvement in the boys’ behavior last August when LOF members attended the annual National Night Out event to hand out bottled water and health care brochures. “I saw those boys go get water and take it to the people,” she said. “They also looked after the younger kids, you know, if they were playing in the street. I saw them actually take the little ones by the hand and take them to their parents. They were taking responsibility for their community!”

In her eyes, those simple gestures were refreshing evidence that God is working to transform her neighborhood. “These boys are our future, and if we can give them a solid ground, a chance to see things differently, it’s like planting a seed. It’s going to take time, but it is making a difference.”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer who lives in Pensacola.


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