Rebuilding Hope in the Name of Jesus

North Fair Oaks, if you have even heard of it, is an easily dismissed area of Pasadena, California. To an outsider, this neglected neighborhood, where nearly 65,000 cars pass through its main street every day, leaves much to be desired. However, where most would see a neighborhood to cast aside, Missions Door missionary Jill Shook sees an opportunity for God to move mightily.

“North Fair Oaks is a place where people speed past, not noticing how God is at work. We are resurrecting hope in this high-crime, low-income Latino and African American community,” says Jill.

Jill’s ministry experience has opened her eyes to the damaging effects of neglect, disempowerment, and displacement from the high cost of housing. A lack of decent affordable housing in good neighborhoods often results in multiple families squeezed into tiny apartments concentrated in one part of town. This type of living often breeds gangs, homelessness, crime, and soaring school dropout rates.

This was exactly the case with Northwest Pasadena and God was calling Jill to change that. She built a team to start the STARS program (Students and Tutors Achieving Real Success) with Lake Avenue Church, located in a primarily Latino community.

Today, she is focused on North Fair Oaks, in collaboration with the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance (IMA), the oldest association of African American churches. Talking with people living there, she hears stories about how North Fair Oaks used to be a vibrant community with a thriving business district. There were local grocery stores, restaurants, and a theatre.

But none of that is there now.

A Passion for Social Justice

Jill loves Jesus, and her care for social justice runs deep into the core of her faith. Jill has been involved with Missions Door since 1977 when she served with Campus Ambassadors. After campus ministry, she worked with Food for the Hungry in Mexico.

In 1990, she came back to the United States and found her heart broken for the lower income neighborhoods of Pasadena where the dropout rate was over 50%. She wanted to use the same Christian community development principles she had learned in Mexico and apply them to her own city.

Using the ABCD approach (Asset Based Community Development), she combined the assets of Lake Avenue Church’s congregation of 5,000 highly educated members with its low-income neighbors to create the STARS program —an afterschool program where hundreds of youth at risk of dropping out are now in college and running other STARS programs. STARS continues to transform lives, the neighborhood and the church.

Jill is a connector and is gifted in mobilizing and developing leaders. As a community developer and organizer, her mission is to mobilize churches through biblical advocacy training, focused especially on ending homelessness and lowering the cost of housing.  Inspired by the example of Moses, Esther, the prophets and Jesus, who all spoke to kings on behalf of the most vulnerable, Jill seeks to empower leaders.

This unique calling is transforming Northwest Pasadena and other communities across the US where she has done Housing Justice Workshops. “The kingdom of God is a big part of my theology; trying to understand what it looks like, how we participate in it, and how to bring others into it,” says Jill.

Empowering Local Leaders

Though people reminisced about what North Fair Oaks had once been, they were skeptical about whether the city would actually invest in this neighborhood. Jill realized that hope needed to be resurrected, and the community itself empowered to engage in change. An example of this is the resource and employment fair that the IMA had been running within the area for six years. Progress was slow and local involvement was minimal, so in 2015, Jill decided that something needed to change. Rather than doing the fair for the community, she wanted to do it with the community and by the community in hopes of developing local leadership.

A hundred and fifty residents, churches, and businesses were surveyed about both their concerns and their dreams for the community, and if they wanted to help plan the fair. In 2015, there was an overwhelmingly positive response at the resource fair and, with over 500 in attendance, nearly the entire neighborhood was there. This turnout invoked support from the city of Pasadena, giving the neighborhood’s efforts credibility.

Zechariah 8:4 says, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age.’” This was the vision Jill and others began sharing, and it led her to Janet Randall, who attended a local church and had lived in North Fair Oaks her whole life.

“It was her turf,” as Jill put it. Janet loved the Lord, was interested in seeing change in her neighborhood, and needed a job. She was a quintessential example of the heart of Jill’s ministry.

Because Jill is passionate about empowering communities through local leadership development, she started a ministry project, the North Fair Oaks Initiative, and gave Janet a job working with her. Jill began to teach her how to engage with the city and the local churches, paving a way for change. Janet is thriving in her role as an advocate for her community, and is so excited by the opportunity to mobilize churches around her, and watch transformation happen before her eyes.

“My life is not the same,” says Janet. “I was so bored with my other work. It had no meaning for me. Now I have meaning in my life and I am doing the very thing I was created to do; bringing people together and helping them make a difference in our city.”

God is doing amazing things in North Fair Oaks, using a missionary whose love for Jesus motivates her to serve the poor and work for biblical principles of love and justice. In addition to empowering local leadership, the North Fair Oaks Initiative has partnered with the Complete Streets Coalition, to help fulfill the community’s goals to slow down excessive traffic and make it a safe and beautiful place.

Through Jill’s work in developing advocates, homelessness in Pasadena was reduced by 54% between 2011 and 2016. Her team helped to craft an inclusionary housing ordinance setting aside 15% of all new housing as affordable. And just this past week, the city council responded to a group of pastors and residents presenting their concerns (pictured left) and granted $265,000 to improve pedestrian safety. These victories have planted seeds of hope as people begin to realize that their city can again be the place it once was.

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:12