As a student at Pomona College, Joe George was challenged by what he learned in InterVarsity Bible studies about loving his neighbor. Pomona College is located in the well-to-do community of Claremont, California. The adjacent city of Pomona is one of the poorest cities, per capita, in the United States and Joe has learned he has many neighbors there.
Through InterVarsity, Joe gained experience in urban ministry, including two summer ministry teams that he led in Pomona. After he graduated from Pomona College in 1994, he moved to the city of Pomona, along with several other InterVarsity alumni.
While beginning his career as a public school English teacher Joe started attending Pomona’s First Presbyterian Church, where he met others who were concerned about the needs of the city. He plugged into the youth ministry and was disturbed by the number of kids that wound up in trouble with the law.
He also grew concerned about the crime in his neighborhood. He and his wife decided to work with their neighbors and the police department to start a Neighborhood Watch. “Bringing people together, we discovered that we had many common concerns about wanting to address the needs of our neighborhood,” he said.
Frustration in his neighborhood as well as among his fellow church members with the conditions in Pomona wouldn’t let him rest. He put together a team to create a faith-based organization aimed at community transformation. “We knew that Jesus Christ and the power of the gospel could take things that had remained the same for a long time and change them for the better,” he said. “So in 2003 we organized as Pomona Hope.”
One of the first things Pomona Hope did was go door-to-door in the neighborhoods and talk to people about their concerns. The survey found that one of the biggest concerns was a lack of street lights. The darkness seemed to foster a lot of the drug dealing and prostitution that was going on. Then Pomona Hope organized a series of meetings and invited city council members to come and hear the people’s concerns.
“We were repeatedly told by city officials that no funding existed for street lights. Someone on our board went to the city and requested the city budget. And we discovered that large sums of Community Development Block Grant money, which could be used for street lights, were being diverted to a wealthier part of town for playground equipment. After several large group meetings requesting that the city install more street lights, lightening up the neighborhoods, it actually happened. One neighbor told me afterwards, ‘I never knew we could do this.’”
In order to help parents who were concerned about a lack of educational support for their children, they also created Pomona Hope Kids, an after-school program that meets three afternoons a week in the First Presbyterian Church building. So far they’ve made room for about 30 kids who come for tutoring by college students and adults.
Pomona Hope is now forging a relationship with Habitat for Humanity, to help needy Pomona citizens get assistance repairing their homes. In the future Joe would like to see a partnership developed with a local medical school to create a free clinic for needy residents. And he has plans to apply for a federal grant for a job creation program. But first he needs to hire a new executive director for Pomona Hope. And because almost everyone on the Pomona Hope board was once a part of InterVarsity, he hopes that they’ll get some good candidates with InterVarsity experience in urban ministry.
Joe grew up in a fairly homogenous neighborhood. It wasn’t until he was a college student in the Pomona College InterVarsity chapter that he was faced with issues of social justice and loving people cross-culturally. Now he’s using what he’s learned to change a whole community.