For 17 years, members of Neighborhood Church in Visalia, California, have worked to build relationships with the families of Houston Elementary School, located about three and a half miles from the church building.
Soon, however, the church plans to “stop commuting” and have a more permanent physical presence in the neighborhood they love to serve.
Neighborhood Church and its new nonprofit organization, Neighborhood Degree, are working toward building a community center adjacent to the school that will facilitate a growing number of programs and ministries.
Stephanie Benthin, CEO of the nonprofit, began serving the Houston Elementary neighborhood as the church’s missional strategist in 2008 after receiving a master’s degree in social work.
“The job combined my two loves: my love for Jesus, and his way of loving the world, which I felt was so much at the heart of social work,” says Benthin.
The neighborhood surrounding Houston Elementary has a high rate of poverty and a large immigrant population. In the beginning, church members focused on building trust with the community and meeting physical needs, such as providing coats, shoes and school supplies to students. They helped build a public park next to the school, held family events such as carnivals and movie nights and had ongoing conversations with school staff and parents about how to best serve the neighborhood.
“This last year we really started talking about how there’s this huge burden of poverty across the board,” Benthin says. “It just permeates everything.”
She explains that poverty affects everything from a person’s health to educational attainment to social relationships.
She and volunteers from the church began thinking of ways to focus on lifting the children of the neighborhood out of generational poverty.
In 2020, they began a mentorship program for former Houston Elementary students who are now in high school, to partner them one-on-one with someone from the church to help walk them through the process of applying to college or trade school, as well as learn life skills such as budgeting and getting a driver’s license. More than 30 students who participated in the program have gone on to college and another 32 are currently involved.
Lead Pastor Forrest Jenan explains that the church has always used either outdoor spaces or spaces inside the elementary school for their ministry in the neighborhood. Lack of transportation is a common barrier that can prevent residents from coming to the church’s building for events, but volunteers also do not want residents to feel pressure to attend their church in order to be in relationship with them.
“We’re doing this because we want to love our neighbors whether or not they ever believe what we believe, or come to our church or not,” Benthin says. “If you come to our church, you’re always welcome, and if you never come, then our relationship stays the same.”
However, they found they were somewhat handicapped by the lack of their own building in the neighborhood, especially when COVID-19 restrictions made it virtually impossible to hold events in public spaces.
“(COVID) spearheaded a conversation that had always been in the background, of what it would be to have a space,” Jenan says. At the same time, “Stephanie and her team’s vision for what they wanted to do kept exceeding what Neighborhood Church all by itself could really fund. So that was the other catalyst to launching a nonprofit.”
As Neighborhood Church celebrated its 75th birthday in 2023, the leadership and congregation decided they wanted to give a gift to their city of Visalia: the community center.
“We looked at 75 years of Neighborhood Church history when we celebrated our birthday, but then we said, ‘We don’t think God’s done with us yet. Our work is still unfinished,’” Jenan says.
The church began a capital campaign titled “Unfinished” in part to fund the building of the center, as well as other projects. They put in a bid on Nov. 17 to purchase land on the same block as the school and hope to officially own the land by February 2024.
Neighborhood Degree was approved as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in May 2023, and was also awarded a grant of more than $1 million over five years from the California Department of Education.
The nonprofit’s mission statement is “connecting neighbors to learn together and expand networks to end poverty.”
“What the research tells us is that education and resources are key to help people move out of poverty, but actually the biggest thing is their social network,” Benthin says. “We want this neighborhood to become a place that is safe and empowering for kids and families. It’s not just handing out acts of charity, but really deep relationships and love for people.”
Benthin says she and her team have partnered with the parents and students of Houston Elementary in discussions about their vision for the community center.
“They’ve really been part of the process,” Benthin says. “Having this physical space demonstrates that we are here for you and we’re not going anywhere. This is our place; this is something we built together.”
Jessica Vix Allen is a freelance writer living in Blue Springs, Missouri. She and her husband, Joel, are both graduates of Tabor College. The couple has three children.