It was in the Cleveland District Offices of the United Methodist Church that the Rev. Dan Drew, District Superintendent and District Associate for Missions Dr. Jan Yandell began sharing their mutual grief over the loss of mission minded congregations. Each had taken many mission trips and developed youth work mission teams that continued to be in service around the United States and beyond.
It was in the midst of that discussion that Rev. Drew looked out the window and saw the city of Cleveland below and stated, “There is so much work to be done here in the city, we should start a work mission center here and have teams come to Cleveland.” Rev. Yandell agreed. “Where would we have them stay?” he asked. The answer was ready even before the question was asked. It was as if the Holy Spirit had entered that room and was working through both of them to create what had been so desperately needed in the City of Cleveland for a very long time.
Jan Yandell had been the ¼ time pastor of People’s Hope United Methodist Church for the past year. The Cleveland District served the 400,000 people of Cleveland of which 20 were attendees at People’s Hope. It was the poorest church in the district with one of the largest buildings. The twenty people who attended were all very needy: physically, financially, emotionally, and spiritually. They needed more than a pastor they needed a purpose. Yandell believed that God had appointed her to create that purpose for them and a mission for the people of Cleveland. She told Dan Drew, “We will house them at People’s Hope.” Thus, it began.
These are the words from Nehemiah, cupbearer to King Artexerxes of Babylon after hearing that the walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed…
“In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes,
when wine was brought for him, I took the wine and gave it to
the king. I had not been sad in his presence before, so the king
asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill?
This can be nothing but sadness of the heart.”
I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “May the king
live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city
where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins and its gates have
been destroyed by fire?”
The king said to me, “What is it you want?”
“Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king,
If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in
his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my
ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.” (NIV: Nehemiah 2:1-5)
The words, “Send me to the city” became the cheer for The Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland. Not only did Nehemiah provide a sub-title for the mission, Nehemiah gave the model for the work to be done. In reading Chapter 3, Nehemiah describes how he rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem in 52 days. He gathered small groups of people from all over and put them to work on a small portion of the wall. No one had to build it all, but if each accomplished a part of the building, the work would all be done.
The Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland uses that model to create small teams of workers and put them on many different jobs throughout the Greater Cleveland area. Each job is of equal importance, yet may require very different skills. Each job is selected for the particular team by the director according to the teams skill set, the weather, the timing of the project and the need of the client.
Men, women, girls and boys are invited to come to the mission and help rebuild the city of Cleveland.
The Work Begins
The first group that came to work at the Nehemiah Mission did not stay at the mission. The group was from the surrounding suburbs and came to People’s Hope to build a handicap ramp. In two days a 46 foot long ramp wrapped around the north and east wall of the education wing of the church and allowed access for those in wheel chairs or on walkers to come from the parking lot to the sanctuary level. How it came to be is a story in itself…
A ramp was needed, an elevator would be impossible with the seven levels in the old church building, but a ramp would get someone to worship. That became the goal. A call was made to the housing department of the city to inquire about a permit. The City wanted $350 for the piece of paper needed to get started. A call was made to Councilman, Matt Zone. He was told that there was not enough money to pay for a $350 permit. He was asked what could be done? A conference call was made between the councilman, the pastor and the director of housing. “Do you have architectural drawings?” they asked. “Yes.” “Do you have the measurements of the building and the lot?” they asked. “Yes.” “Do you have an estimate of the cost of the wood and supplies?” “Yes, $1,200.” Finally, the reply…”Come to my office on Tuesday.” The permit cost had been reduced to $50.00, and the group was given one year to complete the project.
As the pastor waved the permit in front of the congregation, a woman visitor approached and explained that her parents, who had recently died, had been members there for years. In their final years they had been unable to attend because there was not wheelchair access. With tear filled eyes, Pat and Nick Dohoda handed the pastor a check for $1200.00. This was one of the many miracles that have taken place since the mission was being created.
Real City People
In the first year of The Nehemiah Mission, a group of college students from The College of Wooster came for a week of work and study in the city. The dorms were newly completed, but there was no access to the fellowship hall, or the kitchen during the day, so the group ate and met on the sanctuary floor. The People’s Hope congregation took turns bringing meals to the church for the students, thus the students tasted a wide variety of foods and met an even wider variety of people. People of different ages, ethnicities, and cultures brought foods that echoed their backgrounds. Kielbasa and perogies one night, barbecued wings and black-eyed peas the next. The food reflected the people and the students enjoyed both.
On Sunday during worship, one of the young men from the college group stood up at prayer time and thanked God for the opportunity to meet, greet and eat with “real city people!”
Each team since has had similar stories and experiences.
Where has it been? Where is it going?
By autumn of 2007 The Nehemiah Mission of Cleveland had served over 2500 persons in the greater Cleveland Area. Work teams from as far away as Elmsett, England and numbering over 5000 have built wheel chair ramps, restored porches, repaired roofs, painted homes inside and out, repaired plumbing, electrical, & heating. They had served countless meals to the poor and taught vacation bible school classes, all under the leadership of its founder; the Rev. Dr. Jan Yandell.
The summer of 2007 brought change. In the United Methodist tradition, pastors are appointed on an itinerate system. So in June of that year, Dr. Yandell was appointed to a new parish. With her re-assignment came the end of her tenure as the mission’s director. Additionally, though the mission was firmly established, the United Methodist Church was no longer able to justify the continued operation of People’s Hope as a church. Consequently, on December 31, 2007 the church was closed.
Despite the closing of the church and the departure of Dr.Yandell the United Methodist Church renewed its commitment not only to The Nehemiah Mission, but also to the neighborhood in which it resides.
A search committee was formed to identify a new Executive Director for the mission. On March 1, 2008 the committee appointed local business development specialist, Jim Szakacs as the mission’s second director, and the entire church building was now under the management and operation of The Nehemiah Mission.
The mission now houses four dormitories (capacity for 50 overnight guests) and supporting restroom/shower facilities, a full dining hall with a commercial kitchen, a lounge area, sanctuary, gymnasium, game room, and project room.
On February 7, 2009, the mission re-opened its newly renovated sanctuary making it available to worship groups interested in using it for worship services, concerts, symposiums, lectures, etc. The center was then renamed; The Nehemiah Mission & People’s Hope Retreat and Worship Center.
The mission operates 12 months of the year as both a mission-team housing center and as a retreat center.
As of December 2016, the mission has hosted over 14,000 volunteers and completed over 1400 service projects in the inner city and inner ring suburbs.
The Nehemiah Mission is a mission of the East Ohio Conference and the North Coast District of the United Methodist Church. It is supported by charitable contributions, room & board reimbursement from the visiting work teams, and financial assistance from both the conference and the district.