THERE’S AN undertow in life nationally and at home today. Shoppers with bewildered faces wander the grocery store aisles, calculator in hand, trading items from their carts for the ones priced lower or that they must prioritize as a necessity. They must often choose groceries or critical prescription drugs over rent or utilities. Forget holidays and birthdays. As much as they’d love to celebrate, they can’t because there’s nothing left.
Others have passed the threshold of barely making it and crossed over into homelessness. Blessing box meals heated on cookstoves and nights huddled in sleeping bags and tents are better than days with nothing to eat and nowhere to escape inclement weather. A hot shower in a recreation center or shelter is a luxury; fresh clothes to wear after it is a dream.
Their struggles and stories are familiar to Frank Sullivan and his wife, Julie, founders of HOPEtown Lewisburg.
“[Before moving back to Lewisburg], I did inner city ministry for 12 1/2 years in Detroit. So outreach to the people on the margins and people who are generally characterized as being people in need — I’d done some of that work for a long time,” said Frank.
A trip home for his class reunion reunited Frank’s passion and hometown when Julie arranged a tour of the outreach housed in the old Connelly Middle School.
Frank said, “It was just a tour, but during that tour, God began settling on me about the possibilities. I grew up here [in Lewisburg], but I had been gone for 25 years and was living near Baltimore, Maryland. But I couldn’t help but sense that maybe this is something I could be involved with.”
Frank pushed the thought away but eventually couldn’t ignore it. He knew, though, that any outreach he undertook should be independent of any church or denomination, the only way to unite the community’s support of it. Frank and Julie opened HOPEtown Lewisburg in the old school in 2016 to inspire hope, believing God would provide funding and volunteers for the program. After nearly seven years, the ministry has expanded its programs to include a food pantry, clothes closet, assistance with rent, utilities, medication, temporary housing, a homelessness ministry, and more.
Jean Griffin had an idea: why not expand to Petersburg? Griffin recently opened Ms. Jean’s Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop on the Petersburg square, an area experiencing a commercial revival thanks to an out-of-town investor.
“Jean put a little bug in our ears when she first opened up about the old McCauley Funeral Home because she said the same owner owned that building. On the inside, I thought, ‘A second location? Are you kidding?’ But we drove by the building that day anyway, even though I rolled my eyes on the inside,” said Frank.
When the possibility of acquiring the building emerged as a no-risk opportunity that wouldn’t impact their budget for Lewisburg, Frank knew God was up to something. It was official — HOPEtown Petersburg agreed to operate from the old funeral home building.
Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the building a few weeks before the planned opening. What it took isn’t the story; it’s what it could never steal — hope. It’s HOPEtown for a reason.
HOPEtown planned a food giveaway and testimony night in Petersburg before the fire, and thanks to the support of the town’s residents, it took place nonetheless.
Warren Gill offered space in the old Morgan School as a temporary location, and Crossroads Meal House agreed to host testimony night on Dec. 5. The owner of the funeral home property contracted for the immediate construction of a new building on the property, and the HOPEtown Petersburg ministry never skipped a beat.
The Sullivans have plans for Petersburg.
Frank said, “Our plans are to operate in Petersburg at whatever capacity and in whatever variety the community needs. We’ll help people with food and hygiene items and with clothing. And there’ll be other ways we can help. We’re going to have to grow just a little and learn the community better to see how we best meet that need. But I’m sure we will, and it’ll probably be a wild, fun ride as we do.”
Their motto reflects their mission and the key to their decision-making.
“The HOPEtown motto is, ‘Doing good is never bad. Doing right is never wrong.’ That’s our guiding approach. To the best of our ability, we’re going to do what is good and right today without borrowing trouble from tomorrow and without trying to peg our decisions to our ability to control the outcomes,” said Frank. “So without shoving paperwork in people’s faces, we’re going to sit down and use conversation as an application. We want to be people’s friends, not their social relief organization. We want to bring churches together as we do it. We want this work to be relational. Our goal is not to grow the organization but to minister to the most people in the name of Jesus wherever we can.”
Hope springs eternal, and Frank and Julie’s faith that HOPEtown Petersburg will flourish is strong.
“It’s been extraordinary. Of course, we wouldn’t be launching our second site in Petersburg if we didn’t believe we could sustain it after that year of guaranteed support. But we knew we could because the people of Petersburg will sustain it after that. We’ve seen incredible community unity and support already coming from Petersburg. Those folks are excited; they’re ready to take on responsibility. And they’re already rallying to our cause there,” he said.
And what better cause to rally to than doing good and doing the right thing for your neighbors? More people being pulled from the undertow of life into calmer waters leads to a town full of hope. GN