The article below was published yesterday Sunday April 11, 2010 in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Please read and enjoy!
RIVER VALLEY and OZARK AREA — The first time Gary Harrison, a white man, saw Phillip Fletcher, a black preacher, in the mobile home park in Conway where Harrison lives, a drunk Harrison screamed and cursed at him to leave.
When Fletcher left Harrison’s mobile home after a visit on a recent afternoon, Harrison hugged him, slapping him affectionately on the back - even gave him a quick kiss on the side of his face.
“You’re my brother, man,” Harrison said. “I love you, but don’t tell nobody.”
Fletcher laughed and walked slowly through the trailer park, wearing a backpack and looking like a college student instead of a 37-year-old who made Oakwood Village mobile home park, at 475 E. Robins St., his mission and started City of Hope Outreach.
“Gary and I - that’s after three years,” Fletcher explained. “You can’t do this type of thing looking for immediate results. I come out with a lot of grace looking for God to do something.”
That something has been more than telling people about the Bible. It’s grown into a mission that helps people with food and utility bills, cleans up the park and tutors the children who live there with the help of community, church and college volunteers.
Fletcher got there by taking a wrong turn.
He was working at the Pulaski County Clerk’s Office in Little Rock and fulfilling his final requirements to be an Army chaplain. One day after work in 2007, he turned right off Harkrider Street instead of left to go home. “I had this impression on my heart to make a right onto Robins. ... I said, ‘This is where I’m supposed to preach the Gospel,’” he recalled. “This is a community, Chateau Ghetto, affectionately, if you will,” Fletcher said.
His wife, Nicolle, was a little skeptical when he told her. “I was like, ‘No, that’s not what we’re doing. That doesn’t make sense to me.’ I thought he’d lost it,” Nicolle Fletcher recalled.
Fletcher kept his paying job - at first. Fletcher said that as he started the ministry in the mobile home park, Nicolle’s father was retiring and closing his church and had chairs and a sound system for them. “We got all the stuff we needed and went out there, and nobody showed up,” Fletcher recalled with a chuckle. “We just set up the stuff, sang some songs - I play the guitar - opened up the Bible and said the message. So we kept coming every Sunday,” he said. Fletcher’s wife and their three children, ages 11, 9 and 8, participate in the ministry with him.
“We started knocking on doors, ... and people thought it was a strange thing,” he said, but people began to wander to the grassy spot where Fletcher was holding church; some just slowed down in their vehicles with the windows rolled down to listen. Now as many as 50 people gather at 1 p.m. on Sundays, a combination of Oakwood residents and people from outside the park. “It’s organized chaos,” Fletcher said, describing the scene. But however he can get the message across - that God loves them and that there’s hope - he’s willing to do it.
It wasn’t just about singing a few hymns and reading out of the Bible, though. “Over time, what I realized was, we’re out here preaching the Gospel, teaching about the love of Jesus Christ, but seeing all these needs people have in the community. We’re saying this, but you have to demonstrate the love of God as well,” he said. “For people outside in local churches, we started giving them an awareness of this community. Oakwood is like a city within a city, and you have good and bad parts of a city. One street, ... people own their trailers, keep them clean; the other part has problems: some crime, abuse, mental illness is present there.”
Fletcher said he was in Korea with the Army before he went to Iraq. “The fear of being in places that don’t look safe, I don’t have that,” he said.
He knocked on Gary Harrison’s trailer door one afternoon, reporter and photographer in tow. Fletcher said Harrison didn’t like him at first, mainly because he’s black. “He struggles with some things,” Fletcher said.
Harrison answered the door and told his daughter, whom he was talking to on the phone, he had to go because “my preacher is here.” Harrison apologized for being drunk. “Hey, I’ve got some money for you,” he told Fletcher, and Harrison went a couple of steps away into the tiny bedroom and came back with a big Bible. He opened it and handed Fletcher two $20 bills tucked inside the pages. “If you’re my friend, you’ll take it,” Harrison said when Fletcher hesitated. Fletcher had “helped him out” with rent. “I’ve lived a stupid life and I’ve met some stupid people,” Harrison, 59, said. “I’m an ex-criminal. Ex. That was 30, 40 years ago.” Harrison said he was in prison for 12 years for stealing a car in Michigan. Harrison said the only reason he agreed to talk to a reporter was because of Fletcher. “I trust him implicitly,” said Harrison, sitting on a twin bed in the living room, holding a cigarette in one hand, a bottle of whiskey in the other.
Fletcher won Harrison overslowly but surely. One day Harrison requested a song - “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” he recalled - at a church service, and Fletcher kept talking to Harrison. “I’ve been racist. He (Fletcher) is a true person. He is a true person, and he has showed me myself, and he has showed me God.
“He has been there for me. I ain’t been busted in a long time.” Harrison said Fletcher has made a difference in the atmosphere in the park.
One woman who lives behind him and used to hate him now speaks to Harrison. “She comes by and says hello and says, ‘I love you,’” Harrison said. Harrison said he enjoys coming to Fletcher’s Sunday services, “when I’m not hung over.” “I’ve got a reputation to uphold,” he said. “This is Chateau Ghetto.” Fletcher points out other people he’s gotten to know in the park - this guy is a good handyman and helps with the ministry; the man’s wife knitted caps for people at Christmas. “People have started to take ownership and are trying to contribute in whatever way they can,” he said.
The turning point came in 2008, he said, when he spent the night in the park in a tent. “I said, ‘For these people to trust me, I have to spend the night out there.’ During that time, kids came out and they would sit and we would just talk about whatever. Then somebody would say, ‘Hey, are you hungry? We’ll give you a bologna sandwich to eat; that’s all we got,’” Fletcher recalled. Another resident offered to let Fletcher use his bathroom. “One guy, Robert, said, “OK, preacher - I hope you make it through the night!’ That was the turning point, because the next morning, it was Sunday, and Robert said, ‘Well, I see you made it through. It wasn’t that bad, was it?’” Fletcher said, “Typically, Christian organizations will go into neighborhoods that are notthe best, and we go in, we do our thing and we leave. God coming into the world, he became one of us, and that’s what I wanted to show them: I want to get to know you; I want to gain your trust. A lot of them, their trust has been violated again and again and again. They become survivors, too.” Fletcher also befriended a couple living near the mobile home park, Emilio and Nancy Marcial. They were raising their granddaughter because the girl’s mother is in prison. The Department of Human Services took the 10-year-old from the home because of multiple problems, Fletcher said. There were roaches, for one thing.
Fletcher and the City of Hope Outreach formed the Nehemiah Project, which “is just the project we have about community renewal and improvement in the area - having people clean up their homes, beautify the area around where they live. Like with Emilio and Nancy, getting them into a better living situation.” Students from Central Baptist College, New Life Church and the University of Central Arkansas spent a day moving the couple from the home to an apartment across town and cleaned the home to satisfy the rental requirement.
Emilio, a diabetic, had his legs amputated after an infection. Fletcher was able to get him an electric wheelchair. “They gave me a choice - cut ’em off or die in the next two months. I told them I wanted to live for my granddaughter,” Emilio said, looking tearful. Nancy said, “She is our life. We’re just waiting for her to come home.” Nancy, who said she struggles with bipolar disorder, told Fletcher that at a court hearing the day before, their grandchild was put into a mental-health facility. “They’re not telling me how long” she could be in the facility, Nancy said. “She has issues because of her mom and dad, but she’s not mentally ill,” Nancy maintained. “The courts were pleased with us,” she added. Fletcher asked the couple what the girl needed and promised to visit her. Nancy said the City of Hope Outreach made a difference in their lives. “Oh, Lord, they’ve done everything - moved us out of an old, cold, drafty house and moved us into this beautiful apartment.” She pointed out a photo of the large group of volunteers who helped them move and signed good wishes on the mat in the frame. Nancy said City of Hope Outreach and Fletcher “basically raised the [quality of] living there, ... and the church, it’s growing. There’s an awareness of God there.” She showed off her granddaughter’s bedroom down the hall, which was decorated in purple and turquoise and Hannah Montana posters. “She’s going to love it when she comes home,” Nancy said. There’s another court date in two months. “Yeah, I still have hope,” Nancy said.
Fletcher quit his full-time job in December to devote himself to the mission. Will he do it forever? “For right now, this is where I am,” he said. “I don’t look that far down the road. This is my second family. All of them are. As long as the Lord wants me to be here, I’m going to give my heart and soul to it.” - tkeith@ arkansasonline.com
This article was published today at 6:53 a.m.
River Valley Ozark, Pages 139 on 04/11/2010