During Easter Sunday worship in 1992, three young men were gunned down about eight blocks from Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark.
Back then, drugs and gangs were rampant in the midtown neighborhood, near the historic Central High School.
"Something needed to be done," recalled the Rev. William H. Robinson Jr., the church's former pastor who now serves as executive director of Better Community Development Inc. Formed in 1981 as the focal point for the congregation's outreach ministries, Better Community Development receives support from the annual Human Relations Day offering, which United Methodists will share on Jan. 20.
"We decided we could no longer sit on the inside while this was taking place outside," Robinson continued. "From a Christian perspective, we needed to be involved in trying to make sure that this drug epidemic, which we were a part of and facing, needed to be quelled. We decided that we would get into the prevention mode and try to provide a place for persons to come to recover."
The result was the Hoover Treatment Center, which for 20 years has offered affordable, accessible and quality substance-abuse treatment. The only licensed, faith-based provider of its kind in the state, the center provides a structured, 24-hour, intensive residential and outpatient program that addresses the chemical dependency needs of women and men.
"We had some idea about what needed to be done," Robinson said. Treatment centers were only taking alcoholics. "Persons addicted to other drugs were pretty much left out.
"And so our responsibility at that point was to say, 'We need to find a haven for them, a place for them to go in order that they might be able to be seen as well.' And that's how we got started."
'I wholeheartedly surrendered'
Vaughn Talley is one of the program's success stories.
Not long ago, drugs and alcohol ruled Talley's life. His mental health, he knew, was deteriorating. Desperate, homeless and hungry, he took refuge in abandoned houses. Wearing "two pairs of pants, a sweater, a snowsuit and a knit cap," he said, "I climbed into my sleeping bag and pulled two or three blankets over me to keep warm.
"I remember (my) prayer distinctly. I said, 'God, I don't want to die like this.' "
Stumbling through the cold and sleet the next morning, he wandered into Theressa Hoover Church because he smelled hot food. Along with the promise of a nourishing meal, he received an invitation to try the Hoover treatment program. He realized he had nothing to lose.
"I wholeheartedly surrendered," he said. "I gave up on (the idea) that I had another rabbit I could pull out of the bag, that I had another trick, that I had another way of figuring out how I was gonna drug, drink successfully. I came to the end of myself.
"I knew other guys who had had some success" with treatment, he added. "It wasn't so much that I was believing that it would work for me, but I believed it had worked for them."
Today Talley, wearing a bright polo shirt and a smile to match, has a job delivering flowers. He also has an apartment and a fresh dose of self-confidence.
"I never had any hope of ever driving a car again," he said. "I didn't think I was physically, emotionally able to hold an eight-hour job."
Now active at Theressa Hoover Church, Talley is president of United Methodist Men. "I have the opportunity just like any other person," he said, "to live a life that's of value and that's productive.
"I wake up to a reality that's beyond what I ever thought I could ever have again."
Human Relations Day aids ministry
Better Community Development Inc. is just one of many programs that benefit from the annual Human Relations Day offering, which United Methodists will share on Jan. 20, 2013.
One of six churchwide special Sundays with offerings, Human Relations Day calls United Methodists to recognize the right of all God's children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with each other. Celebrated on the Sunday before the birthday observance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., this special offering supports community ministries that teach and advocate for justice, especially among people struggling to survive in the margins of society.
Gifts on Human Relations Day support neighborhood ministries through Community Developers, community advocacy through United Methodist Voluntary Services and work with at-risk youth through the Youth Offender Rehabilitation Program.
'We work from a compassionate level'
Talley's story is one of many written by Theressa Hoover's multipronged ministry over the past two decades. Robinson, who still counsels center clients, can talk hours about lives changed because someone cared.
He believes the community has improved since that awful Easter Sunday.
"There are still drugs throughout the city," he acknowledged. "But in terms of this community, we've seen a lot of difference in terms of less violence. Other persons in the community have picked up where we are and begun to mimic that.
"It's not just absence of the drugs. It's (also) a change in lifestyles. Where a community has been revived, new homes, new people have been attracted to the community. It's been upgraded considerably."
While he cannot give an exact number of people who have been through the treatment center, Robinson is certain "thousands" is on target.
"We work from a compassionate level," he said. It is more than paying someone's rent or donating a bag of groceries. It is seeking ways to improve an individual's life "so that he or she becomes an integral part in participating in the change.
"People talk about one-stop shopping," Robinson continued. "We have not gotten to the point where we just have one stop. But we have the book that tells us where a person can find the help that's needed. If it's utilities, we have a place. If it's medical, we have a place." Working with other congregations and nonprofit agencies, Hoover tries "to be that conduit that helps persons find the right place. It's a combination of services."
Robinson's commitment is unwavering.
"This is not just a job," he said. "It's a ministry ... to the people within this community. It's about making disciples for Jesus Christ. That's what we try to do every day of our lives."
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].