Christine Wesley leaned against a neighbor’s house, a cane in one hand, her phone in the other and a smile on her face.
Wearing a warm, black jacket and hat to ward off the early Saturday morning chill, she watched a swarm of First United Methodist Church members pull broken furniture out the front door of her small Sycamore Street home, carry out bag after bag of trash to the street, rake leaves and trim overgrown bushes.
“I’m just overjoyed. I don’t know what to say. I’m so excited,” Wesley said. “There is no way I could afford what they are doing.”
Although she owns the house, Wesley said she hasn’t lived in it for a long time. A daughter did live there for a while, she said, but she moved out three years ago.
The house needs a lot of care and repair after years of neglect, disconnected utilities and broken and missing appliances — all things she cannot do or afford.
Wesley now lives in a rental home across town where she is rearing two grandchildren, ages 10 and 14. “They’re the last of eight of them,” she said with a tired smile. “I been doing this all my life.”
Wesley anticipates coming back to the small house someday, after the Methodists again make it habitable, which they promised they will do.
“My aim is to live here. It’s safer and it’s mine,” she said. “That’s what I want to do.”
Wesley’s house was just one of three houses that more than 75 First Methodist members worked on last Saturday, kicking off an ambitious urban missions project they’re calling “Revive 225.”
“First United Methodist has a long tradition of mission work. We’ve had members going on mission trips from Appalachia to Africa,” said the Rev. Brady Whitton, senior pastor. “But the question often asked is, ‘What about the need right here in our own backyard?’ This is designed to meet the needs of our neighbors and our own community in a more intentional way.”
“Our church is situated in a relatively poor area of Baton Rouge, and we don’t want to just be a church where you drive downtown and then drive back home,” Whitton said. “We decided in our 2014 Vision Plan, what if we sent mission teams right here in our own community and fulfill Christ’s command to love our neighbors more literally and more specifically than we have been?”
Whitton said the church received an anonymous $1 million gift specifically for the “Revive 225” project, which also includes after-school tutoring for elementary school children.
This is a long-term endeavor, he said, and the plan is to repair as many homes as possible. They’ll also host mission teams from other Methodist churches and college groups to assist the congregation.
George Ragsdale is First Methodist’s executive director of children, youth and missions, and is in charge of “Revive 225.” He has a long list of projects on his clipboard and also lists at least 18 groups from out of town planning to come here to assist.
“We saw a great need within a three- to four-mile radius of the church. There are some houses with blue tarps still on the roof from Hurricane Gustav (2008), and we thought, what can we do as a church to really help people right here in our community?” Ragsdale said. “The thing we came up with is home repair.”
At Wesley’s house, the bathroom toilet and sink need to be replaced and the kitchen needs appliances and major renovation. There are holes in the walls that need to be patched, and the house needs to be repainted inside and out.
Sandra Jones and Jim Smith were working in the front bedroom. He was hammering away broken sheetrock and she was sweeping up trash. Under a pile of children’s books and other abandoned stuff, she found Wesley’s daughter’s Bible that project coordinator Alex Byo later gave to Wesley.
“I love to do projects with our church that are community oriented,” Jones said with a big smile. “We want to do good and not just talk about it. This is the best way to share what we feel and what we are.”
“I just love it,” Smith said, pausing between hammer hits. “Forty years I sat behind a desk, so it’s time to do something more fun!”
Walker Shows, 12, was one of several teens helping and dragged several garbage bags to a pile near the street.
“I want to help out these people whose houses got trashed and help them rebuild and restart,” Shows said. “It makes me feel good to help them.”
As Wesley peacefully watched the activity, Ragsdale summed it all up.
“We love the people,” Ragsdale said. “Jesus told us to love everybody and that’s our only motivation. There is no gain for the church. There is no gain for us. The only gain is for the people.”