"I'm constantly looking for ways God is redeeming broken people and places to bring hope, life, and joy," says Nancy Donat, Community Transformation Coordinator in Fresno, CA. "I've seen it in the squatter areas of Manilla, and I'm seeing it now in the Lowell neighborhood in Fresno."
For the past 14 years, Nancy has intentionally and deeply rooted her life in this neighborhood of concentrated poverty and high crime. In fact, this community was once referred to as "The Devil's Triangle." Today fewer and fewer people remember this label as signs of transformation are beginning to take hold.
Nancy serves with Bethany Inner City Church and invests deeply with the youth in this community. She partners with area businesses, ministry partners, and even city hall as together they work to make this neighborhood a place of increased safety, beauty, and assets. They diligently seek to decrease prostitution and drug trafficking as well. She is so grateful for the many people who have intentionally moved into the neighborhood to help.
Recently the president of Fresno Pacific University, Pete Menjares, spoke to the youth group at Nancy's church. He reminded them that every person in a neighborhood like theirs needs two kinds of people in their lives.
First, they need people who are mirrors. These people will reflect a life that may have once looked very similar to their own, but now has been transformed.
Second, they need people who are windows to show them possibilities they don't or haven't seen. They can begin to see another way.
Oscar and his wife live right down the street from Nancy and they are great examples of mirrors in the neighborhood. Oscar was in a gang, served time in prison, and found Jesus. He now lives and serves others in the community where he grew up. With great passion, he helps young men become men. Nancy is thrilled that people who were once caught in the ripples of poverty are returning to rebuild the city.
"We all need each other," Nancy declares. "I regularly ask God to show me who are the people that He wants me to see and who I can connect with who. I want to be that window that will help people see another way of life."
Nancy is doing just that in a very concrete way by opening her home to two young boys, Tyler (13) and Steve (6). Their mother, Melissa, has just begun a year long prison sentence leaving them with nobody to care for them except their grandma. Because their grandma battles addiction and mental illness, Nancy felt that if they had lived with her, it would have only been a matter of time before child protective services would get involved. She wanted the boys to avoid that trauma as well as to show them opportunities that they may not see for themselves.
"I am still investing in my friendship with their mom even while she is in prison. I want to love her to Jesus," says Nancy. "Tyler has already spent a lot of time at my house, and I know him well because he is part of our youth group. I want to ensure that both of these boys have a good home while their mom is away. This could possibly be the beginning of a beautiful story."
While Nancy has had a lot of people live with her, this is the first time she has opened her home to younger boys. She is acutely aware that this is another kind of compassion in action. It will take wisdom and hard work to maintain the balance of respecting their mother while doing what is best for the boys.
Caring for Tyler and Steve highlights two key issues facing this neighborhood today: incarceration and generational patterns. "Parents are so preoccupied with their own pain and addictions that they don't give their children the boundaries, attention, and affection that they naturally long for," says Nancy. "Look at Tyler's family. His grandma has mental illness and alcoholic addictions. She then had Melissa who simply tried to survive, but became a mother herself at age 18. By the time Tyler turned 6 years old, he was spending most of his time out on the streets. He's a great kid, but already was extremely angry. The struggles just continued to perpetuate themselves."
In the midst of this turmoil, Nancy sees the many ways God continues to love Tyler. He was kicked out of school and was attending a 'school' which functioned more like a juvenile hall/behavior management facility. Through a personal connection that Nancy had, she discovered that Tyler wasn't even attending class. Nancy has stepped into the gap and is fighting on Tyler's behalf to get him readmitted into the Fresno Unified School District. The fact that God has put another person in Tyler's path to help him is not lost on Nancy.
"It's kind of like having bumpers put up in a bowling alley lane," she says. "He may be all over the place, but these 'bumpers' are still keeping him out of the gutter. He has a really tough life through no fault of his own, but there are people coming all around him to help."
"I have this sense that sometimes people have to see before they can believe," says Nancy. "Melissa saw and experienced the love of Jesus the night before she began her year long prison sentence as several people from our church gathered for dinner and to pray for her family. I'm praying that she will experience transformation by the power of God while she is away."
The opportunities to see transformation in the Lowell neighborhood are increasing. Please pray for this precious family as God continues to put mirrors and windows in their path.
NOTE: Out of respect for the people in this story, some of the names have been changed.