Danny was not just a typical teenager in our neighborhood; he was a known gang member. It was clear that he had a hard life and a hardened heart. Our neighborhood is filled with “Dannys”; guys that hate school, have dysfunctional homes, are gang affiliated and have criminal records. They end up dead, in jail, or in perpetual poverty, having little opportunity for employment.
According to the latest Barna Research, Fresno has the highest church attendance rate on the West Coast, but the second-highest rate of concentrated poverty in the country. This means, at minimum, that church attendance isn’t transforming our city's most desperate neighborhoods and kids like Danny are becoming the latest statistics for crime rates and school dropout statistics.
What does it mean that Jesus would ask His church to love their neighbor- Danny? As a church in the Jackson Neighborhood, we obsessed about this question. Danny wouldn’t come to church and we couldn’t force him.
An idea was born. Behind our 100-year-old Jackson neighborhood home was an abandoned mechanics garage. We wondered if we could turn that broken down workshop into an artisan space where kids in our neighborhood could learn job transferable skills like welding and woodworking. Over the next year, we renovated the shop into a space with high-end woodworking equipment and created a business called Neighbored Jobs which would train and employ Danny to make Little Libraries.
Little libraries are little houses that are mounted in front of homes and are filled with books that neighbors can take, donate, and return. One day Danny came over and we asked him if he would like to make money by running the business. We explained that we would teach him how to make the little libraries, we would hustle to sell them and he would get the profits. He said, “Yes!” People bought little libraries like crazy and as sales increased so did Danny’s confidence. He began to exchange his gang colors for shirts which had the company logo. As his skills increased, so did his joy — he wasn’t just a school drop-out, he was a craftsman and a business owner.
In the following year, he began to attend church with us and became a part of the community of neighbors. Recently, I asked him, “Danny, you’ve come a long way in these last few years. Do you see how much has changed in your life since we first met?” He said, “Yeah.” And after a long pause said, “I’m gonna do something great with my life. Thanks for loving me.”
Jesus, the Master Carpenter, is welcoming his apprentice Danny into a new future filled with hope and opportunity. Everything is possible when we love our neighbors.
-Joe White is lead pastor at Neighborhood Church in the Jackson neighborhood in Fresno. Learn more about Neighborhood Church and how they are transforming lives through church and community here and through employment here.