From the car, I could see it. The Strand. A tourist destination on the Gulf of Mexico – cluttered with hotels and bars and people longing to find a few days of happiness on the beaches of Galveston, Texas. There were tree-lined streets with beautiful Victorian mansions just a few blocks away. The island offered escape for so many. But there were no cars turning left to find that escape. It was as if an invisible curtain had been hung to shield the tourists from the stark reality of North of Broadway.
But one man did turn left. And his story is one that is fueling a fire in my heart to find my own “left” – that place where my heart finds its home and my hands have a purpose.
Josh grew up in the shadows – that place where poverty and pain are hidden by the glow of a city’s bright lights and enticing attractions . Drug deals and gang fights were the norm in his urban neighborhood, and prostitutes congregated in yards awaiting opportunity. His family made the choice to live there, and it changed his life forever.
“We loved our community,” he shares. “We invited folks into our home, fed hungry kids before school each morning, cared for our neighbors. My parents may have been called missionaries by folks who attended church with us on the other side of town – but we weren’t there to ‘save’ anyone. We lived in the projects because it was there we could live life, you know? My understanding of what the Church is supposed to be came from that place – it was our life.”
Even while serving with the International Mission Board in India years later, he couldn’t shake the feeling he would once again return to serve the urban poor in the United States. “It’s interesting the response my wife and I would get when we talked about it. Serving impoverished areas overseas sounds cool and sexy. When it’s across the tracks in your city, people think you’re crazy.”
Josh and his wife returned to the US and settled in Chicago, where he attended seminary and interned in urban ministry. One day, while running, their future was crystalized.
“I literally heard God say ‘Galveston is the place. I went home, told my wife, and we never looked back.”
In the fall of 2010, Josh moved to Galveston, Texas, with a passion for community development and the administrative support of Mission Waco. There was no real framework at that time for the ministry, but he knew the specific neighborhood that would be served and he remembered his childhood. He worked at the local recreation center and at a small church to make ends meet while building Galveston Urban Ministries from the ground up. He and his wife built relationships in the community, and spent countless hours just talking to families. From that, he found chidren’s programs, education, and job training were the three greatest needs.
With grant money, Josh purchased a small building in 2012, and GUM was born.
“Working at the rec center was huge. I worked the night shift. I worked the front desk, played a lot of basketball –and talked a lot. Then we moved into the neighborhood. Kids saw me walk to work, and learned I lived just down the street. On Saturdays, my wife and I did rec programs for kids – we had games and snacks. I showed up every week. Then I started visiting the kids at school. No one ever comes to visit.”
Josh and his family now live one block from the GUM building, in North of Broadway, a neighborhood still bearing the scars of Hurricane Ike, economic downturn, and neglect. The Saturday Kids Club still provides neighbor kids with a safe place to play and a good snack. And now those children also have opportunity to learn computer skills, get tutoring, and be mentored. Additionally, a job readiness program teaches adults everything from how to build resumes and interview well to how to find the right job.
He continues, “People still try to figure us out because we’re not a relief agency. We care about true community development. We challenge folks. For example, we offer a school supply store each year. We offer backpacks and all the required supplies at a significant discount. But we’ve found that giving those things away just strengthens the sense of hopelessness in families. If it’s possible to steal pride and dignity from people, I think it happens when we give things away rather than create opportunity for people to buy things. The parents have such a sense of pride when they are able to invest in their children.”
As he drives through the streets, pointing out homes still waiting to be repaired, businesses struggling to survive, and places he hopes will one day house new GUM ministries, he shares, “People are still learning to trust us. It’s taken three years to get them to understand that we’re not going anywhere. We’re not here for salvations. We’re not here to win anything. We’re here to help them transform this community. We just live life with them. We’ve learned a lot. There are a lot of “fireworks” here. You know, big events and big moments like health fairs and mission groups. But there’s little sustainable ministry. That’s our purpose. “
Josh has seen the beginnings of transformation in the neighborhood he now calls home. But he understands the importance of not trying to rush or force change. He likens true transformation to a healthy relationship, and cautions others against attempting to “speed-date” change. He values time even more now, and encourages his team and his ministry partners to value it as well.
The neighborhood Josh grew up in is now transformed. Businesses are moving in to the area, and new homes are being built. It took 30 years for that transformation to take place. “I want that here in Galveston,” he smiles. “ I want to see someone raised up here who will want to lead that transformation. Who better than someone who understands the heartbreak, the pain. That person will know everyone’s names and their parents’ names. I want to see someone who has a heart broken for the poor, who wants to see change. There are some kids right now in our programs who have that spark. A transformed life can transform a community. How amazing will it be when that young man or young woman is raised up to lead.”
Until then, GUM continues to serve by living in the community, listening to needs, learning how to empower people, and loving its neighbors deeply. And Josh continues to look for ways – and people – to help.
“Ministry isn’t in the programs. Ministry is sitting down and having dinner. It’s just loving people for who they are. The more we understand their story, the more we can show them who they really are – to see themselves as God sees them. Then we provide training so they can live out the life they now see.
“It’s simple things like kids learning to swim. It’s things like showing a mom that she has marketable skills that can get a job. It’s hearing kids learning about Christ.
Folks don’t need to just hear the Gospel. They need to see it.”