If you know Onie Johns very well or if you are around her for very long – say fifteen or twenty minutes – you will most likely hear her say, “It’s a God thing!” Indeed, the story of the beginning of Caritas Community all the way through to Caritas Village today is the story of Onie’s sense of calling and the faith to see it through. In the context of a deeply caring community of faithful people surrounding and supporting her call, Caritas is, in fact, “A God thing!” There is really no other way it can be explained.
The story begins in the early 1990s when Onie left the comfort of her Germantown surroundings to join Everett Memorial United Methodist Church on the corner of N. Merton and Oxford (the building now know as “The Commons”). At that time, it was a small “drive in” church with mostly elderly members that no longer wanted much (if any) involvement in the neighborhood. When Onie connected with Everett, she joined the efforts of a very active and neighborhood minded pastor. Onie and a few others were convinced of the importance of helping the church reconnect with the neighborhood. The children and youth were especially on Onie’s heart. In the late 1990s, Onie participated in a ten month formation class sponsored by the Memphis School of Servant Leadership. That class was transformative for Onie. One of those ways began when she and another member of the class along with Everett Memorial began talking seriously about developing A House of Hospitality in the neighborhood. The House would be a hub for a growing community called Caritas Community in which children and youth in the neighborhood would come to be tutored, learn how to use computers, play, and simply be safe in a context in which safety was not always available. (Caritas is Latin for Love for all people.)
The two original participants settled on a house at the Northeast corner of N. Merton and Everett – directly across from what was then called the Magnolia Apartments. The Caritas Community had found a home! Onie had not even moved in before children and youth were already overflowing with activities in the house. The Caritas House was not merely a haven for kids and youth, though. It also became a place for community meetings: Thursday Evening Community Meals; a place for all the agencies and groups that serve the Binghampton area to work together in developing ideas that would strengthen the community; classes for the Memphis School of Servant Leadership; and concerts on the “East Lawn” open to everyone and always drawing the neighborhood together! Onie’s response to the involvement of so many in the Caritas Community was simple: “It’s a God Thing!”
The two original partners knew they could not manage everything by themselves, so thy “sent out a call” for those who had similar callings and a “Mission Group” was developed of people who would give direction and discernment about the vision of the Caritas Community. Eventually, the Mission Group discerned a calling to buy some houses in the neighborhood that could house persons with mental illness, persons who were homeless, persons who were recent immigrants to our country, and others who had temporary housing needs for medical, or other reasons.
There was always something new bubbling to the top of the Mission Group’s agenda. One of the things on Onie’s heart was the dream of a larger Arts and Community Center combined with a Coffee Shop for the neighborhood. The Mission Group appreciated the idea, but on several different occasions told Onie there just wasn’t enough energy among the group to undertake such a project. When the “For Sale” sign appeared in front of the Masonic Lodge building down the street, Onie came back to the group and insisted this was the time and place. The Mission Group promised they would pray about it for a week and discuss it again at the next meeting. By that time, the Group was convinced this calling was not going away, so they asked Onie to send out a call to anyone she thought would support the vision, saying that if there was a positive response, they would take that as a sign God was calling them to move forward. The response was tremendous! Within a week over $38,000 and a Van had been pledged, clearly validating the idea and shocking everyone who heard the story. Onie’s simple response was: “It’s a God Thing!”
After acquiring the building it took over two years to get a zoning waiver. During that time the building began its transformation from the lodge to the Village, a place called to “Breaking down walls of hostility between the cultures, and building bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor, and providing a positive alternative to the street corners for the neighborhood children."
One of the defining moments in the shaping of the mission of Caritas Village for me happened before it opened at a small house across from the Village where a Mexican family lived. One summer evening while we were working to get the Village ready for opening, this family with their brothers and their families were having a fiesta, when two heavily armed African-American men came up to rob them. Two of the brothers were killed and a third was in critical condition at the Trauma Center with nine gunshot wounds. This grief was felt all over the neighborhood. The men who attacked the family were not from this very diverse neighborhood where relationships are strong across racial and cultural lines, and people care what happens to others! Though one might think nothing good could come out of such an awful tragedy, God moved many who lived in the neighborhood and had relationships across cultural and racial boundaries to call others to a Candlelight March for Peace and Prayer, and a service on the Village lawn. The goal of the march and service was to make clear that in our neighborhood such an act did not have to cultivate hatred. Rather, it gave us as a community an opportunity to speak about the way God had called us into such diversity that love for one another would reign supreme.
On the afternoon we marched, the mother of the slain men and most of her family were with us. The wife of the man still in critical condition at the Med helped plan it. We began at the parking lot of Everett Memorial Church. Everyone had a lit candle as we silently walked up the street to the spot where the shootings occurred. At that point, prayers were spoken and tears flowed from most eyes. Following the prayers, we all went to the yard of the Village across the street where the meaning of “Caritas” was already apparent. There was a spontaneous worship service with over a hundred neighbors including African, Latino, Vietnamese, African-American, Caucasian, and Afghanis, some rich, some poor, all equal. Everyone came together to say that we do not want divides and violence in our community; instead we want our neighborhood to be a diverse community gathered in love and support of one another! (Caritas!) Following the service, we had an incredible Pot-luck dinner inside the building that brought us all together at the tables, talking and enjoying each other’s company while bridging any differences that might have remained between us. When it was over, with a huge smile on her face, Onie’s simple response was, “It’s a God thing.”
It was a few more months before the Caritas Village officially opened, though I felt it really opened that night with an overwhelmingly powerful preview of what Caritas Village would become. As Onie said then, “It’s a God thing.” And since then, in an amazing and unbelievable way, one ministry, collaboration or experience of grace after another, The Village has become the incredible community place of love and hope that it is today. Each time something new, incredible, or amazing happens, so many others have picked up Onie’s refrain: It’s a God thing!’
J. Jeffrey Irwin, Former Pastor
Everett Memorial Methodist Church
Member of the original Mission Group