There are parts of Akron, Ohio, considered food deserts. There’s a lot of overlap between those parts and places you could also call health care deserts. No grocery stores or reasonable access to medical care. In one such neighborhood, after almost 20 years of ministry, pastor Joey Johnson sensed his church — a nondenominational church called the House of the Lord Church — could go in two directions.
“One of the choices we had to make is, do you move out or do you move in when you’re in a predominantly African-American neighborhood?” Johnson recalled during a recent conversation.
As a church in a predominantly Black neighborhood, Johnson said the choice came to either plant themselves in the neighborhood by becoming more involved with the physical and mental well-being of the residents, or move to a more established part of town with lesser felt needs.
The question, “Do you want to make it better?” led Johnson and his team to stay in their neighborhood and double down on their community.
Around the same time in 2008, the state of Ohio began an incentive program that included a low income housing tax credit, designed to provide affordable housing for seniors, which was also missing from the area. The program’s existence, in part, showed Johnson and the House of the Lord team what doubling down on the community could look like. They bought a dilapidated strip mall down the street. The place was, in Johnson’s words, “unsafe” and an eye sore. The tax credit helped the House of the Lord afford to turn the second floor of the strip mall into affordable housing for seniors.
The goal of the project was to engage the community holistically: physically, spiritually, and emotionally, providing services that promote the flourishing of the neighborhood and beyond. As they have worked the last 13 years, the footprint of the area shifted with more traffic, business, and life.
On the first floor of the building, called the Village in New Seasons, the church offers several spaces for retail. First, a barber shop opened up. Then a clothing store. A restaurant. On the same floor, there is also now a dialysis center and related health care companies. The village now brings people and revenue to the area on a consistent basis.
“We decided that this was where we wanted to be,” Johnson said. “We tried to move to the heart of the community because we want to be a community church. So those were intentional moves on our behalf. And I think it has benefited the citizens around us.”