At the very bottom of the Perry Street hill sits the Richard Allen Apartments. The yellowish buildings hold tenants from many parts of the world, and from different social backgrounds.
Since the late 1990s, the south Spokane neighborhood surrounding the apartment complex has been slowly changing for the better, one small new business and one freshly painted house at a time.
Aside from Grant Elementary School, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a community anchor in this part of town. The church runs a small day-care center and an after-school program, and members of the congregation volunteer to mentor students at Grant.
It’s also where Pastor Lonnie Mitchell has been preaching his sermons since ‘91 and serving the needs of his congregation alongside the needs of the residents of the Richard Allen Apartments.
Bethel is the sponsor of the New Bryant Arms South Corp., which owns and manages the apartment complex. And the church shares a driveway and part of a parking lot with the apartment complex, making them appear to be the same development.
Seeing the nearby tenants’ growing need for social services got Mitchell thinking. “What I got was the vision to help people to self-sufficiency,” he said, and that’s how the idea to form Richard Allen Enterprises, established in ‘96, came about.
Allen was the founder and first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was started because of racial prejudice, according to Pastor Mitchell’s wife, Elisha Mitchell. She said that Allen and others of African descent wanted a place where all could worship freely, and he was a proponent of education, mutual aid and fellowship as equals.
The mission of Richard Allen Enterprises is to provide continuous supportive services to help individuals toward self-sufficiency, and it’s the group that manages Spokane’s Emmanuel Family Life Center, which is being built just north of the church.
“There’s one thing we’d like to make very clear: Bethel AME sponsors the center, but it’s a separate nonprofit organization,” Pastor Mitchell explains. “It’s for the whole community. We don’t want any misconceptions there: You don’t have to be part of our church to come here – you can be whatever you like and show up.”
He credits the “incredibly active” life center board, led by President Betsy Wilkerson, for being the driving force behind the community center. “My whole thing is to put up the building,” he said.
The 17,000-square-foot building has been under construction for some time and probably will remain so for another year.
So far, Richard Allen Enterprises has raised more than $1 million from state and federal grants, as well as donations from local businesses, to pay for the building.
“We just received a $180,000 challenge grant from the Gates Foundation,” Mitchell said. “To get that, we have to raise the last $150,000 for the project ourselves, by March 2009.”
The finished Emmanuel Family Life Center will look a lot like other community centers in town, yet it’ll be different because it won’t be operated by the city.
“This is not a community center per se. It’s a one-stop shop for people who have needs, a place where they can find help to improve their quality of life,” Mitchell said.
The completed Emmanuel Life Center will house a day-care center for children from infancy to 4 years old, as well as an early childhood education program. A gymnasium will serve as a multipurpose room, and Spokane Community Colleges will have a presence there as well. During winter months, there may be a soup kitchen in the building.
“The Southeast Neighborhood Network Center will be here, too,” Mitchell said. That’s a federal program which gives computer access to families with no computers or Internet access at home.
“We are also partnering with the Spokane Health District, trying to bring some services here,” Mitchell said. “We used to have the Ronald McDonald bus park here, but now that’s not around anymore. There’s little or no access to preventive care for many of the people who live here.”
Elisha Mitchell said recent immigrants who live in the apartments have an especially difficult time.
“We want to empower the families who live here to excel,” she said. “Access to health care is the biggest challenge they face. And they lack transportation or they can’t make appointments taking time off from work, making it back on the bus, picking up the kids. It’s really difficult.”
Pastor Mitchell came to Spokane in 1991 from Louisiana via Seattle, as he puts it.
“In our denomination we are bishop-appointed, so I was told by the bishop to come and be a pastor here,” he said.
He earned a master’s degree from Gonzaga University in pastoral ministry and put down roots in the South Perry District.
Together, the Mitchells have four children and three grandchildren.
The rain-soaked construction site looked a little forlorn on a recent gray morning, but Mitchell is optimistic the center will not only be completed, but blossom.
“I have my faith in Jesus Christ and that’s what lets me keep on keeping on,” he said. “I know that the vision came from the Lord, and when he speaks, he don’t lie.”