Hope in the Midst of Generational Poverty
By RuthAnne Jenkins

Fairfield, Alabama is not the kind of town found on a list of must-see Alabama tourist spots. Of the roughly 10,000 residents in the community seven miles west of Birmingham, more than 23 percent live in poverty. Homelessness is widespread. Single-parent homes are more common than not, and much of the area is a food desert, lacking access to affordable, healthy food. 

Hope may seem as elusive as the challenges are pervasive in a town where industry and life once thrived. Churches, grocery stores, jobs, and necessary services have gradually moved out because of the decline, leaving even less for people who are born, raised, and rooted in Fairfield. 

If the story ended there, as it does for many small towns in America, it would be bleak. 

But by God’s grace, through one organization’s vision for economic and spiritual health, Fairfield’s story is still being written. It involves the dream of one man, the generosity of many, and God’s sovereign plan to bring gospel hope to the streets of Fairfield. 

Urban Hope started as a dream for pastor Alton Hardy while he was living and working in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a Black man growing up in Selma, Alabama – a pivotal location during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement –  Hardy experienced racism and poverty. He grew up fatherless and struggling, and Selma was a place he wanted to leave for good. But during his time in Grand Rapids, God showed him the need for revival and a Christian presence in inner city communities. 

In a recent interview with byFaith, Hardy explained how in 2003 he began to see the urban area’s struggle with poverty and hopelessness, not to mention homicides. It struck him that he could begin to do something to help. He felt God leading him toward ministry in those areas. 

“And in that—this is where our vision comes here—leading people out of Egypt, and Egypt is the inner city, it’s the ghettos, it’s the single-parent neighborhoods. And God’s calling me to come back to the inner city and to preach the gospel.” 

Almost 10 years later that dream began to grow into a reality when Briarwood Presbyterian Church called Hardy and asked him to move back to Alabama and work in Fairfield. Briarwood’s leadership knew Hardy’s life experience in Selma and ministry experience in Michigan would both be assets for ministering in Fairfield. 

Hope Takes Root

Urban Hope started as a small church plant, but progressed toward more outward ministries in the community through the years. Since its inception, Urban Hope’s main focus has been community development and engagement through meeting the physical and spiritual needs of locals. Hardy and others in the ministry have worked with the local schools, the government, and anyone who would partner with them for the betterment of Fairfield. 

Hardy believes the center of much distress in urban areas like Fairfield can be changed by reaching young men who grew up in single-parent homes like he did. The investment from an organization like Urban Hope can change the trajectory of a young man’s life from aimless to hope-filled.

Urban Hope started a year-long training program called Urban Hope Leadership Initiative (UHLI). The program is open to young men in the community with the goal of providing practical, spiritual, and physical training that will help them toward more sustainable and healthy lifestyles. The program involves spiritual, professional, and personal development. Young men are discipled in the Christian faith while also being equipped with practical tools like financial literacy and work experience. The goal is to provide trainees with a path for sustained growth moving forward. 

The UHLI includes housing in a dormitory that Hardy says only God could have provided. A building in downtown Fairfield was donated to Urban Hope Community Church in 2019. When the COVID-19 pandemic caused shutdowns in early 2020, the church’s leadership didn’t know how it would raise enough funds to renovate the space. In God’s providence, later that year, checks began flowing into Urban Hope from various places and people, mostly within the PCA.

“There was a momentum of God’s power, of something called a manifold,” Hardy explains in a video about Urban Hope’s history. “This church is leading the charge toward Fairfield’s renovation. I didn’t have that in play: God did.” 

In the end, Urban Hope raised $1.6 million to renovate the space that now holds not only the dormitory, but a cafe for community gathering. Later this year, their building will also include Fairfield’s only grocery store. It will not only alleviate the food desert in Fairfield, but provide jobs and economic opportunities. Hardy is grateful for PCA men and women funding the project and God’s provision and care for the people of Fairfield. 

Urban Hope is an outworking of Urban Hope Community Church’s desire to reach Fairfield with the gospel. The two are intertwined in the vision and goals of serving the city. In addition to Urban Hope’s development and community programs, the church has outreach programs geared toward high school and college students, men, women, and children. While separate entities, the end goal is the same: see Fairfield thrive economically, physically, and, spiritually. 

Urban Hope’s vision for a prosperous Fairfield is one of the reasons Sam Tortorici, retired CEO of Cadence Bank and a ruling elder at Covenant Presbyterian Church, chose to give his time and resources to further Urban Hope’s mission. Tortorici serves on the board of advisors for Urban Hope and believes the work Hardy and his team accomplish is making a difference for Fairfield and beyond. 

“It is bringing some economic revival to the area and true gospel hope for the future,” he recently told byFaith. “But probably more importantly, the ministry model is proving effective in dealing with the generational issues and sins that are very real and exist in communities like Fairfield all over Birmingham and the rest of the country.”

Loving Instead of Leaving

Despite all it lacks, Fairfield is home to many who are striving to make a difference there, and a growing number of its citizens are proud to call it home. Dion Watts is one of those people. He’s a Fairfield native, and Urban Hope’s director of ministries.

For people like Watts who grew up in Fairfield and faced the community’s common struggles, Urban Hope provides both tangible and spiritual aids that he believes are essential for change. When Watts graduated from high school, he, like Hardy, hoped never to return to Alabama because believed it held no promise for him.

God had a different story planned. 

After earning a degree in accounting, he found a job at a local school in Fairfield while looking for work not in Fairfield. Over time he wanted to be involved with a ministry in town, but wasn’t sure where he fit. When he met Hardy and heard about his vision for Urban Hope, Watts knew he had found a place to serve.

“[Because of] all that I had been through in my upbringing, I was trying to run away from this community. It was like God was showing me, ‘I took you through all of that. That’s a part of your testimony so that you can go back into that very community and reach people, young men in particular with similar backgrounds as yourself, with the gospel and show them that there is a better way regardless of the circumstances that they’ve been born into.’” 

And so he stayed. Even through much personal loss and suffering, Watts believes Urban Hope’s mission and work matter more than leaving to find a better, maybe even easier, life. 

“My hope is in eternity and the rewards I get there, and so I’m living my life in that way. I’m trying to be an example that we can give up the pleasures and the glitz and glamor of this life, we can sacrifice that and live on mission and spread the gospel. We’ll have all eternity to regain everything that we’ve lost and missed out on in this life. That’s how I live it.” 

Urban Hope’s mission is to help lead people out of what Hardy calls a figurative Egypt into a more abundant, even if not easy, life. The work necessitates a long view and a rootedness in a community that is desperate for change. The story is just getting started and continues to move forward with the help of Urban Hope’s leadership, God’s provision, and the generosity of so many people outside of Fairfield.

“It has been exciting to see the tangible results of Urban Hope’s ministry through an acceleration of worship attendance, more marriages and infant baptisms, and more young men stepping up to be the husband, father, and leader of their families,” Tortorici said. 

Hardy’s dream is to see more ministries like Urban Hope in other urban, inner city areas around the country, providing gospel hope to those in need. 

Learn more at manifoldvision.org

RuthAnne Jenkins is a writer who lives in Overland Park, Kansas.

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