Yesterday I wrote about my experience with various Christian leaders working for Christ and his kingdom in the urban schools of Milwaukee. The day that this group came together was meant to be a “to get to know one another” as ministry volunteers and educators and administrators who work inside the Milwaukee Public Schools. These were busy people, who carved out the heart of a busy day in their work week, to share, listen and pray. This in itself is remarkable. I felt, as soon as I walked into the room we occupied at the City on a Hill Ministry Center that God’s Spirit was going to be working in the room this day. I was not disappointed at all. City on a Hill is a catalyst working to transform the lives of youth and families in Milwaukee’s central city neighborhoods, and to overcome poverty and injustice, through a collaborative and Christ-centered model of service.
In 2009 the U. S. Census Bureau pegged Milwaukee as the fourth-poorest city in the nation. Homelessness is rampant and the very structures of the city are ravaged by numerous social and financial issues. City on a Hill, which exists in what was a former hospital complex, exists to serve the poorest and neediest people of the city and to help Christians discover the heart of God for the poorest and neediest people of the city. This includes an immersion experience intended to help people grasp what it is like to live in hunger and poverty. The executive director, Diane De La Santos, says their goal is “to wake up American Christians to God’s heart for the poor and his expectation that His people engage in ministry. City on a Hill has become a place where churches can safely and easily pursue this mission (together).” Before City on a Hill the neighborhood around the center was a high crime area where drugs and prostitution were daily obstacles to a healthy community. In the decade since the center opened local law enforcement has acknowledged that the crime rate has been lowered. The center was begun after a coalition of Assemblies of God ministries, led by two AG pastors who worked with other local churches, invited a Convoy of Hope to Milwaukee for a day of community outreach. Some 8,000 guests attended this event held on the parking lot of the vacant hospital. A few believers saw the impact that this event had and approached the district offices of the Assemblies of God to donate the hospital and property to a new start-up mission which then became City on a Hill, a new start-up non-profit. The ministry eventually sold 160,000 square feet for the development of affordable housing and retained facilities to operate their ministry from on a day-to-day basis. When a record-breaking group of volunteers showed up to create a health clinic in 2010 they were asked to shout out the names of their churches. One-by-one they yelled out names like Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Assembly of God and others. Thus was born a missional-ecumenical outreach on West Kilbourn Avenue in Milwaukee.
When my son and I arrived last Thursday for our two and a half hour lunch visit with Milwaukee public school leaders and Christian volunteers I entered the City on a Hill for the first time. I had no knowledge of this place, or its significance previously. I was more than interested to ask questions and to see the vast array of services freely given to the neighbors. These include a free health clinic, support groups for various problems, kids clubs and pregnancy center resources. Diane De La Santos did not become a Christian until age 39. She was a single mom of two trying to work two minimum-wage jobs while going back to school. As her children grew up, she joined the health care system and eventually became a vice president. She felt abundantly blessed to have overcome the dysfunction of an abusive marriage in her 20s and blessed to see her own circumstances turn from poverty to financial stability and even comfort. She helped the Aurora Health Care arm of the Assemblies of God put together the donation plan for the property but never dreamed she would have a role in the new faith venture. God called Diane to resign from Aurora, and her secure job, to serve as director of City on a Hill. She says her staff now consists of people who grew up in the church with a strong background and people, like her, who only came to saving faith much later in life. Her goal is clearly stated in these words: “This is a city of great need. But we serve a great Savior, and we want to share His love with even more of Milwaukee’s hurting families.”
As I understood this story I realized the significance of the place where we met and the reason for our meeting – to see Christian volunteer leaders and churches working together to spread the light of Christ in Milwaukee.