STEUBENVILLE - Urban Mission Ministries is an amazing place to be, according to its executive director, the Rev. Bruce Hitchcock.
As Christians celebrate the miracle of Jesus Christ's resurrection today, Hitchcock savors, too, the ongoing miracles he says he's blessed to experience in the midst of a mission marking 50 years of "listening with compassion, serving with love."
Despite a challenging local economy that is accelerating basic needs provided by the mission, Jefferson County responds with a richness of resources - human resources, according to Hitchcock.
Janice R. Kiaski
ANNIVERSARY — Urban Mission Ministries at 301 N. Fifth St. has grown to become one of the largest charities in the Upper Ohio Valley since its humble beginnings as the Mill Men’s Hostel was launched in 1959 as an outreach to Wheeling-Pittsburgh mill workers. The Rev. Bruce Hitchcock, in his eighth year as the mission’s executive director, said the mission is celebrating 50 years “of being able to serve God and love people.”
"As difficult as I have found learning what it's like to be poor and seeing poverty, I have found the most beautiful, generous, giving people I think I've ever met in my life," Hitchcock said. "There are people in this valley who would literally give you the last shirt they had. They're here. And that's what makes being at the mission such a powerfully good thing. It's not just that I see the difficulties, I get to witness the miracles."
Donations to support the mission's programs, including its monthly food distribution called God's Pantry, come from varied sources.
"I can tell you business people that give more money than you'd ever dream. I can show you people of modest means who give more money than you would ever think they could give, and they do it cheerfully. I can show you people who you would consider poor - they would be below the poverty line - who every month will send a small check and be here to volunteer and help pass out groceries month by month. I can show you the typical senior citizen that we would find in the New Testament as the lady who gives the widow's mite. We get an envelope once a month from a lady living on a fixed income, very poor, who gives usually one to three $1 dollar bills in there and a note - 'give it to those hungry people.' She can't afford that and yet she does that every month," Hitchcock said.
"To me it's a living miracle to see that and to see such generosity and love in a person's heart, and that is much more overwhelming and stunning to me than just the difficult things we see," he added.
Being in its 50th year is cause for celebration, although ironically it is basic human need that necessitates its existence, a need increasing locally where Hitchcock estimates the community of low-income, impoverished people is growing rapidly. As many as 10 to 12 new families each month apply for food help.
"It's been our blessing and our privilege to be here to serve," said Hitchcock. "Having that opportunity to serve just gives us that incentive to work more. You're not going to find tired people who think we've been doing this long enough. That's not the attitude around here. The attitude is we have a chance to do something good, and we're going to do it."
The mission's 50th anniversary celebration and scholarship award dinner will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. May 14 at Froehlich's Classic Corner at 501 Washington St. Cost for the fundraiser dinner is $25 per person with May 4 as the ticket deadline. Checks can be made payable to the mission and mailed there at 301 N. Fifth St., Steubenville, OH 43952. Inquiries about tickets and sponsorship opportunities can be directed to the mission at (740) 282-8010. The e-mail address is email@example.com
The evening will be an occasion to overview the work the mission does, to possibly hear from some of its former executive directors and the presentation of Robert E. Hutton Scholarships to four area individuals based on need and community involvement. Hutton served as the mission executive director from 1981 until his death in 1987.
"It's a night to share and celebrate all the people who have passed through the doors, whether they've worked here, volunteered here or just been our friends."
The mission's genesis was the Mill Men's Hostel founded in 1959 by the late Rev. Robert Henthorn as an outreach to Wheeling-Pittsburgh mill workers.
By the time it operated at 418 S. Third St., the hostel offered a four-fold ministry of religious services, pastoral counseling to workers and their families, recreation and refreshments.
"I think it was a storage closet in a steel mill at Wheeling-Pitt if I'm not mistaken, and a card table, two chairs and a coffee pot. That's how we started, and at this point we're one of the largest charities in the Upper Ohio Valley. We do far more than what our earliest directors could ever believe. I think we do more than most of the community is aware of. They don't understand how much we do. They just think 'Oh, that's where you can get food or maybe get to the Hutton House (homeless shelter.)' They don't see the number of people, the number of programs. Unduplicated, we're touching 23,000 to 24,000 people a year," Hitchcock said.
When the hostel closed in 1973, Urban Mission Ministries was founded, led by the Rev. Fred Gaston with the mandate to explore places and situations where a Christian presence and ministry seemed viable.
The ministry operated from Calvary United Methodist Church until 1984, then moving into the basement of a building on Adams Street. Then came a move in 1986 to 317 North St. and ultimately its present location, the former Fifth Street United Methodist Church, in 1989 at 301 N. Fifth St.
Other directors have included the Rev. Roger Skelley-Watts, the Rev. Ricky Riggs, the Rev. William J. Kuntze and the Rev. Robert Wilcher.
Hitchcock said when he explains what the mission does to someone unfamiliar with it, he notes that it provides for the basic needs of the impoverished community of the Upper Ohio Valley.
"That means food, shelter, rehabing homes of low-income homeowners through the (Journeys of Service Helping Upper Appalachia) program and providing leadership in community efforts and issues through the Neighborhood Community Development Center," Hitchcock said in his overview of services provided in addition to Unity Kitchen, which offers a free hot noon meal three days a week. "We're looking at building low-income homes that are nice homes built and sold at a lower price because we got grants, so those who might not have an opportunity to get a home can get one. Those are the main issues we look at - what are the direct needs of the poor - so we have a whole bunch of little programs that go with that," he continued.
"We give away shoes, we give away coats, we give away blankets. The ladies in the craft room, for every resident that ends up in the Hutton House, they all get a blanket or an afghan made there. Babies get a blanket, and you can't go into a homeless shelter in most places and find a two-bedroom apartment fully furnished, refrigerator stocked, clothing if you need it and homemade blankets and afghans for all your family. Where are you going to get that?" he asked.
All that the mission does, he says, demonstrates "an opportunity to show love to people." That includes what Hitchcock said he jokingly calls the "Sixth Street Cafe," a room in the mission's warehouse where fellowship unfolds as anyone can gather for coffee, doughnuts and conversation from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.
The homeless shelter's 12 apartments, meanwhile, accommodate 180 to 200 people in a year, the vast majority being children.
"That's pretty scary to think that many children could have been homeless," he said, noting along with providing shelter, the program offers living skills classes to the parents, everything from conflict management and budgeting to parenting classes and help with preparing resumes and job applications.
"The real situation here is the vast majority of the people who get help and food here from the mission are senior citizens or children. That's the fact. Other families that are here right now are working families. These are not people trying to live and scam off the system," he said.
Among those getting help from the mission are those who were mission contributors hit by hard times, including pension losses.
Hitchcock tells the story of a woman in the food distribution line, a teary-eyed former volunteer and supporter who found herself needing assistance herself and feeeling ashamed because of it.
As he begins his eighth year as the mission's director, Hitchcock said he's learned many things, including that being poor is "very, very difficult, physically, mentally, emotionally, in every way."
Hitchcock said his first year on the job involved hands-on involvement in all the mission's programs before turning his attention to fundraising and assessing the community and its needs.
"One of the things that came out of looking at the community and asking what is needed is the Fourth Street Health Center, so a big new ministry started because I was able to step away from some of the day-to-day stuff and focus on what's needed in fundraising and leading in that manner," he said.
Hitchcock said he would like people to have a feeling that the Urban Mission is their mission.
"The most change and the best change and the most powerful way we can affect lives in Jefferson County and grow our community is to effectively help one another. There's no way around that," Hitchcock said, noting a read of the Gospel demonstrates time and again how Jesus Christ lived his life on Earth building people up, not tearing them down.
"That's the mission of the mission," Hitchcock said, "to affect a life, to change a life, to improve a life, to love somebody. It's not that hard."
(Kiaski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)