Two houses will be constructed on adjacent vacant lots in Northeast Wichita to provide shelter – and to help change the lives of those who live there.
Efforts to raise $1.4 million for the Nehemiah Village project is in the early stages and no construction schedule has been announced, but the vision for the homes has been fully conceived and planted in the heart of the project’s lead sponsors, the pastors and members of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Northeast Wichita.
Future occupants of the houses will be formerly incarcerated people, with each two-story house able to accommodate up to 10 clients, plus two administrators. The houses won’t be co-ed, but there is a possibility one house will be for men, the other for women, according to Pastor Robert G. Johnson, senior pastor of Saint Mark United Methodist Church, 1525 N. Lorraine.
Saint Mark UMC acquired the lots as donations from former members of the congregation who had lived in the houses. The lots located on East 14th Street between Hillside and Lorraine, are located just south of Saint Mark.
For decades, Saint Mark UMC has had an active and dedicated prison ministry. Nehemiah Village will be an evolution of that ministry, helping inmates after their release so they don’t reoffend and return to prison, Pastor Johnson said.
“They’re already here,” Pastor Johnson said of formerly incarcerated people living in the 67214 ZIP code area where the houses will be built. Re-entry housing is seen as a tool to combat recidivism rates that are higher in 67214 than in other part of the city.
Wichita City Councilmember Brandon Johnson – no relation to Pastor Johnson – represents that neighborhood on the city council. He said he’s heard no complaints about the project.
Working Men of Christ
Spencer Lindsay was one of those inmates touched by Saint Mark UMC’s decades-long prison ministry, Pastor Johnson said.
After Lindsay was released in 2011, he incorporated a non-profit, Working Men of Christ Inc., which promotes Biblical studies among inmates and also housing for those released from incarceration. Working Men of Christ currently operates seven discipleship houses for reentering citizens in Kansas, and one in Missouri, said Lindsay.
Saint Mark UMC is the partner with Working Men of Christ for one of the discipleship houses, the House of Paul, in the 700 block of North Piatt Street.
“I met him (Spencer Lindsay) and I loved what he was doing,” said Pastor Johnson, who came to Saint Mark UMC four years ago. The church became the faith community for the residents of the House of Paul, and church members helped renovate the house.
The church had those vacant lots and there was a need for more re-entry housing in 67214 so the church board approved pursuit of the vision, Pastor Johnson said.
Architectural services were donated and they showed there was enough land to accommodate two houses of a little over 5,000 square feet each. The two-story houses each would have a basement and would be similar in appearance. Floorplans include a prayer room and a game room in each house. There also would be a gathering space in a courtyard between the houses, and a parking garage would be on the premises, too.
Plans are to construct both houses at the same time.
“We like that name because it is about rebuilding,” Pastor Johnson said of Nehemiah. “It was after the Bablylonialn Captivity in the Bible and the Jews were sent back to Jerusalem, with the work of rebuilding the walls, and rebuilding the temple and rebuilding the city,” he said.
Nehemiah Village is about “the rebuilding of lives,” he said.
One house will be called the House of Possibilities, the other, the House of Transformation – names inspired by Saint Mark UMC’s own vision to be a “community of possibilities and transformation.”
In addition to Saint Mark UMC and Working Men of Christ, other partners behind Nehemiah Village are Wichita State University Shocker Neighborhood Commitment and the Mennonite Central Committee of the Central States Region. Pastor Johnson also counts City Councilmember Johnson in the network of advocates for the project.
The proximity of the Nehemiah Village to WSU – within walking distance – will help bolster the job skills training and education of the former inmates. Pathways to a degree or employment are envisioned.
The connection to WSU is “huge,” Working Men of Christ’s Lindsay said. “Education is the way to freedom from poverty,” he said. “And being in a community where there’s a church across the street (Saint Mark UMC), that’s big,” he said.
“I am a big supporter of criminal justice reform efforts and initiatives that acknowledge the humanity in our brothers and sisters returning to society after serving time,” Councilmember Johnson said in a statement. “The reality of it is that if we do not find ways to connect individuals returning to society with stable and affordable housing, job training and living wage employment, and some form of mentorship; then we are unfortunately more likely to see repeated behaviors,” he said.
The mission of Nehemiah Village is to help “return and restore” to the community those who have been incarcerated, with communal housing as a means of that service. The help will range from safe housing, counseling and mentoring to a path toward employment and their own home ownership.
Pastor Johnson said Zoom meetings are planned in December to provide public viewings of the plans for Nehemiah Village. Initially, donors can contribute to the project through the church or through Working Men of Christ, he said, but a separate 501c3 nonprofit entity will be established for Nehemiah Village. The fundraising strategy also includes seeking corporate donations.
The “comprehensive development” for Nehemiah Village “is leaps and bounds better,” Councilman Johnson noted, than the scenario of a released inmate returning to society with his “only home opportunity being a slumlord rental with no supportive services or guidance.”