When Marilyn and Larry Johnson sold their computer business in suburban Detroit about a decade ago, they figured they'd settle into the next phase of their lives with ease. Retirement meant more freedom, fewer pressures and ample time on the golf course. But a life of leisure turned out to feel terribly hollow for the Christian couple.
"I remember coming in from a golf game and Larry asking me how my game was, and I just started crying," Marilyn told Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom recently. "I said, 'My life has no purpose.' "
So the Johnsons began volunteering at shelters, treatment programs and soup kitchens. On Thanksgiving eight years ago, they wound up serving turkey dinner to the homeless. It was a turning point. An epiphany.
"Instantly, my heart was touched," Marilyn recalls. "I knew that day that I had to go back. As time went on we realized that we had no choice ... but to see the women there into the next step of their lives, and the next step, and the next step. And that's what's brought us to LifeBuilders here today."
At a time when everyone was moving out of Detroit, they moved in.
In a world where everyone wants bigger and better, they went smaller and worse.
In a country where people often pay lip service to making a difference in their community, they actually are building a community — one reclaimed house at a time....It began with one modest house on Detroit's east side. Women looking to break free from substance abuse could stay there. The Johnsons kept it small, made sure everyone nurtured one another and put themselves smack in the middle of it.
The result was a near-zero recidivism rate. One house led to another and another, until they basically operated an entire block of homes and apartments, filled with people who were looking for a better life.
The houses surrounded a headquarters on Kelly near 8 Mile Road where activities, meetings and kids programs were held. In every way, the Johnsons were building a neighborhood — mostly from reclaiming rotted buildings that had been used for the drug trade.
Last year, the Johnsons sold their home in tony Grosse Point, bought a house in the East Detroit neighborhood where LifeBuilders' clients live, and moved in, becoming part of the community that they serve. They didn't want to just come and go. They wanted to come and stay, to become an authentic members of the families they were helping to get back on track in myriad ways.
"It's an exciting thing to grow spiritually, emotionally and physically here in the community," Larry says. "We're committed to showing the love and power of Jesus Christ and what he can do with a person's life. We want to show that by the way that we maintain our properties, by the excellent way in which we conduct our programs in the community, by the way that we communicate and treat each other. We want to be a magnet, we want to draw people to him — not to us, but to him."
LifeBuilders is a finalist right now in a national contest to win a $250,000 grant from Home Depot. Among the 10 finalists — all of them worthy organizations that serve the needs of veterans, those suffering from HIV/AIDS, the homeless and other disadvantaged groups — LifeBuilders is the sole explicitly Christian group.
If LifeBuilders wins the $250,000 grant the Johnsons would use the new funds to build a "second home" for youth in their community, enabling the not-for-profit to serve two- to three-times the number of people they already do.
You can "vote" for LifeBuilders by ticking the box next to its name HERE. Individual voters can cast their ballots every 24 hours. Voting closes at noon EST on March 31.
"One of our neighbors, six months ago, said he and his wife were going to sell their house, because, he said, 'Hope was gone,' " Larry told Albom. "He decided to stay."
In a city where too many are going the opposite direction, that is geographic good news. It takes a lot to work your whole life to a wealthy level, then turn around and spend your retirement with those less fortunate.
Then again, maybe spreading hope is as rich as you can get.
Amen to that, Mitch.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.