By Lavern McNeese
Like Nehemiah of the Bible, Rev. Silas Johnson saw a distressing situation in his neighborhood that stirred him to action.
He explained that when the biblical Nehemiah learned that the protective walls around Jerusalem had been torn down, he immediately started the rebuilding process. He got the king’s permission first and then organized, supervised and encouraged the rebuilding of those walls, despite some opposition.
Johnson mimicked Nehemiah’s act shortly after he came to this city to pastor at Springfield’s Calvary Baptist Church some 30 years ago. He started a rebuilding process on the east side after obtaining community, government and business support.
In fact, he became so inspired by the actions of the “prophet” that he named the church’s community improvement program Nehemiah Expansion, Inc. He serves as president and CEO and describes it as an enterprising venture that enhances the church’s neighborhood by providing affordable housing, child care and after-school activities.
Mostly old dilapidated structures surrounded the church area, including drug houses sprinkled through the vicinity. This makes the area ripe for crime, he said. So much so that many of the older church members became afraid to come out at night.
The neighborhood worsened as senior members died and their children moved from the area, leaving neglected rental property. “It became a bad situation,” he remarked.
Johnson urged his members to buy nearby structures which were fixed up and leased by the church under the business name of Property Management.
While that action helped to provide some improved housing, Johnson noticed that the initial remedy failed to aesthetically enhance the neighborhood.
“We were just renting and maintaining those old structures,” he said.
In search of guidance Johnson asked the Lord, “What do you want me to do with this?” Then came the answer, says Johnson: “Build.”
Shortly afterward the business name became the Nehemiah Project and later was changed to Nehemiah Expansion, Inc., as it grew to include a newly constructed child care facility in 2001 and the building of new homes.
Johnson confesses that he originally desired a preschool but former child care center consultant, Tom Berkshire, who helped him to develop plans and proposals for the daycare center, persuaded him differently.
With many acquired vacant lots located “across the street and around the street,” Nehemiah Expansion partnered with Windsor Development Company to begin its first homebuilding phase some seven years ago.
It took 60 lots to construct 20 two, three, and four bedrooms homes contiguously located on Wheeler St., Stuart St. and Kansas Ave. and cost $3.5 million, Johnson explained.
Lifelong Springfield residents James Johnson and Rennie Jones, who reside in phase one homes, expressed joy and blessing to living in unused houses and gratefulness to Pastor Johnson.
Federal, state and city funds continue to be supplied for the building of the new homes in the second phase, consisting of 30 homes completed in 2012 and located within the five-block area surrounding the church.
Builders will embark on a third housing phase, constructing another 30 homes along Kansas Street and Wirt Avenue. The work is slated to begin sometime this spring.
Johnson describes the houses as ready-to-move-in structures that include everything – dishwasher, refrigerator, washer and dryer, stove, window shades, carpet and more. A tenant must rent the property for 15 years before allowed the option to buy it, he explained.
“As a shepherd, husband, father and grandfather I want our children to grow up where they are proud of where they live, a neighborhood with nice homes and safe environment,” Johnson exclaimed. “This may not happen during my lifetime but I would like to leave that legacy or plan. That’s my goal.”
LaVern McNeese of Springfield is a wife, mother and grandmother who writes to inform and to improve.