Bringing People Together in Fresno

April 24, 2015
Linda Bryant
Linda Bryant

While Nancy Donat’s keys have a tangible and practical purpose, for President & CEO Scott Olson, they are a symbol of what it looks like to bring people together on behalf of the oppressed.

“Nancy seems to be at the very center of all things going on in Fresno. In fact, I’ll never forget the first time I saw her humongous key ring. On it she has the keys to many different churches, closets, bathrooms, kitchens, ice machines, and even community centers,” says Scott.

“We were doing some work at the church and had run out of ice so she asked me to drive her to get some more. We arrived at yet another church and went through a number of locked doors and ended up in the church’s kitchen,” Scott continues. “She had keys to everything. It brought a smile to my face as we loaded up the ice and took it to my car.”

People who wouldn’t typically be working together and may not even know each other are now connected because of Nancy. She is well trusted and is an asset to those that work in her community.

Nancy lives and serves in the historic community of Lowell in downtown Fresno. Fresno has a population of about 500,000 people, making it the 5th largest city in California. Of these 500,000, over 25,000 of them belong to a gang. One out of every 20 people belong to a gang. Fresno also has an extremely high number of neighborhoods with concentrated poverty  which makes it more difficult for individuals and families to feel hope for the future.

“Because the needs are too big for any one person or one group, we have to work together,” says Nancy.

Nancy sees a lot of chaos and broken homes in this community. Whether the people have recently moved in from Mexico or have lived there for generations, most people continue to struggle. They may not know the language or the culture. The presence of gangs creates a sense of fear or intimidation.

“When you grow up here, you also hear your community constantly talked about from a negative point of view. It’s the place where people get shot. It even used to be called the Devil’s Triangle,” says Nancy. “All of these subtle messages can kill your self-esteem and your sense of worth. ”

Living in an environment like this makes young boys more vulnerable to the attraction of joining a gang. Although extremely difficult in many cases, it is possible to leave a gang. Some who have found freedom have even begun to serve in full-time ministry in the community.

Nancy explains what she learned from Ivan, a former gang member who is now serving his community with Jesus.

“Part of it’s economics. When Ivan didn’t have a job,” Nancy says, “he was able to make money by selling drugs. Gangs also provide a more immediate sense of justice. So if someone gets shot, it may take the police awhile to process the case, but the gang members can just take justice into their own hands and retaliate right away. Being in a gang also gives its members a sense of brotherhood and belonging and community.”

Nancy and her partners in the community provide the young people with other options to gather with people who really care about them. For example, she helps lead a Friday night youth group at Bethany Inner City Church. Belonging to this youth group allows them to see that they can choose a life where they’re not going to get shot by the time they’re 16 or 18. Some kids have even said, "If I wasn't here, I'd be dead.” Many of them meet Jesus, and they are learning how to forgive rather than retaliate.

“I love when I see churches, schools, and government work together like I see happening in Fresno,” states Nancy. “For example, in January our city had 55 shootings. At the end of the month, the Chief of Police called pastors and ministry leaders together to pray for our community. In a way, we’re acknowledging that we’ve got a lot of problems, but we’ve got the capacity to solve them by working together.”

Nancy is living out the ITeams mission to bring people together to help the oppressed. A sense of beauty and joy is spreading through this community as increasing numbers of people and groups are working together.