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Congregation offers sanctuary for youth

Children and their families enjoy a free meal at Wesley United Methodist Church in Fresno, Calif. UMNS photos by Barry Simmons.

By Barry Simmons*
June 10, 2009 | FRESNO, Calif. (UMNS)

The Rev. Vickie Healy appreciates the irony of leading a church located along the outer limits of a neighborhood known around town as Sin City.

“I remember when I first took the job,” she said. “I came and drove through this neighborhood and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what have I got myself into?”

One of the poorest neighborhoods in Fresno, El Dorado Park – as it is known officially – is a six-block stretch of low-rent apartments that house gangs, drug dealers, and prostitutes.

Church member Josie Vasquez
hands out cupcakes.

Several years ago, Healy’s church, Wesley United Methodist – made up of a mostly middle-class congregation – considered relocating to a more prosperous part of town. Instead, the church increased its efforts to revitalize the neighborhood.

Every Thursday night, the church invites neighborhood children to a family-style dinner where they are encouraged to interact with adults from the church.

“Oftentimes in their homes, their parents aren’t having those kinds of conversations with them,” said Meme Biek, a church volunteer. “Here, they’re learning how to visit, they’re getting along and the adults are interested in them, which builds that confidence.”

Healy encourages children to bring their parents. Thomas Manson has been coming with his son Anthony for several years.

“The way the economy is – it sure does help a lot,” he said. “Groceries are so expensive. This probably saves us $20 to $30.”

Radical hospitality

Healy calls this approach to neighborhood renewal “radical hospitality.”

“It means we open our doors to people; we welcome people as they are,” she said. “We have to step out of our comfort zones.”

The Rev. Vickie Healy welcomes
community residents.

Sometimes that requires leaving church property and entering the secular world of local politics.

Since joining the church in 2007, Healy has led an effort to partner with other agencies to attract new housing and development into the neighborhood. She also led a drive to develop a community revitalization plan, bringing together government and neighborhood leaders.

And last year, after the Fresno school board put El Dorado’s neighborhood school – Wolters Elementary – on a list of schools to be closed, she and others from Wesley organized a parent-led protest.

The board, surprised by the reaction, took the school off the list.

“We just felt that Wolters had done too much for the kids in our neighborhood to close it,” said Healy.

Healy said her church has become a refuge for children, most of whom don’t attend Sunday services. Children typically meet after school at the church courtyard and transform it into a playground.

Church volunteers often invite them inside to play. Several women in the church, after learning of an interest among neighborhood girls to knit, started an afternoon class to teach them.

“The folks at Wesley for a long time have just wanted to provide safety and food,” said Healy, “and to let kids know that there are adults who care about them – and that this doesn’t have to be the place they end up.”

Changing neighborhood

El Dorado Park was originally built to attract students at Fresno State, located several blocks away. The off-campus Bohemian lifestyle practiced among inhabitants during the 1960s earned the neighborhood its nickname Sin City.

Church volunteers help children with arts and crafts projects.

Over the years, as college students were replaced by lower-income and longer-term residents, the name stuck.

Today, El Dorado Park has some of the city’s worst living conditions. But Healy said she is beginning to see changes in the community. Besides noting an improvement in behavior among the children, she has noticed a drop in church vandalism.

As she surveyed the church property – pleased that flowers are still planted and walls are no longer full of graffiti – she said it’s because children don’t feel the need to “tag” the church as their turf anymore.

She hopes it’s because they know they’re already welcome.

*Simmons is a freelance writer and producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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