This Little Light of Mine

How one neighborhood can become a beacon of hope to others.



It's lunchtime at Caritas Village in Binghampton, and the community center at Merton and Harvard bustles with life. It has the cheerful atmosphere of a small-town diner, where patrons greet one another over steaming bowls of chicken gumbo, where hospitality is aimed at feeding body and soul. Social worker Todd Hickman, a counselor of at-risk teens, buys lunch here because "little jewels like Caritas" need to be supported. "Racial tension is real here [in Memphis] but places like this give you hope," he says. "It's evidence that people are still seeking to resolve this issue."

Caritas Village is the vision of Onie Johns, a sixty-something woman with piercing eyes and a ready smile. She describes her mission for Caritas as one of building "love and trust between the rich and those made poor." Even the name implies as much: Caritas or "Love for all people."   Johns moved to Binghampton seven years ago after attending church in the largely African-American neighborhood for many years. She felt called to live her faith and opened her home to Bible classes and community building with her neighbors, some of whom are Asians, Africans, and Mexicans. 

As news of Caritas spread, support followed, enabling the mission group to buy and refurbish four homes, which are now rented as affordable housing, and to offer after-school arts programs at the community center, which opened last December in the old Masonic Lodge.

It's a different life than the one Johns knew in Germantown, back when she was a Medicaid administrator. This chapter is about transformation — and hope.

"I thought [the neighborhood] was very deprived but once you're here, you lose that and really realize how rich it is in relationships. You share the joys and sorrows with your neighbors," she says.

Johns isn't alone in her faith journey. Dr. Rick Donlon, co-founder of Christ Community Health Clinic, and several of his staff have moved into the neighborhood as well. Donlon says it's his way of personalizing social justice and better connecting with his patients. Though meaningful, "Fixing roofs and giving flu shots won't fix the problems here," he says, alluding to the more complex web of social issues — poverty, joblessness, and inadequate education — that render residents of poor neighborhoods powerless to effect significant change.            

Once solidly working-class, Binghamp-ton (bounded by Poplar and Broad, Holmes and Parkway) was scarred by the proposed extension of Interstate 40 during the 1960s. Though the city successfully fought the extension, it didn't happen in time for its residents, many of whom pulled up stakes and moved away. Properties fell into the hands of absentee landlords, leaving streets pockmarked with vacant buildings, the perfect lairs for drug dealers. Now, just 30 percent of Binghampton residents — more than 60 percent of them single women — own their own homes, according to Binghampton Development Corporation's (BDC) director, Robert Montague.

The BDC wants to change that. Established in 2003, they're working to spur community development by turning blighted properties into affordable housing and teaching residents about homeowner-ship. Montague, a former stock analyst with Morgan Keegan, is another person who feels called. "It was time to give back," he says.

  Working with the BDC and Caritas is the city — a police precinct was recently built on Tillman — and faith-based organizations spearheaded by Christ United Methodist Church. Programs include Service Over Self, which trains high-school and college students in basic carpentry skills to repair homes for Binghampton residents, and Read to Succeed, a literacy program run by Hope Presbyterian Church.  

What these people provide in total for the neighborhood is a beacon of hope — that Binghampton can serve as an example of what happens when people turn their faith into action. 

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