Irresponsible by faith

“In March, the Buchtelite released a four-part series about a local man who, a decade ago, quit his job as a firefighter and intentionally moved his family of six into Akron’s poorest neighborhood. This is the series in its entirety. A HEART FOR THE COMMUNITY After battling addiction, pastor has become beacon of hope in South Akron Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series.”

In March, the Buchtelite released a four-part series about a local man who, a decade ago, quit his job as a firefighter and intentionally moved his family of six into Akron’s poorest neighborhood. This is the series in its entirety.

A HEART FOR THE COMMUNITY
After battling addiction, pastor has become beacon of hope in South Akron

Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series.

On the corner of South Main and Crosier streets in Akron, a dimly lit bar room is alive with chatter. Fueled by alcohol and loud music, the larger than average crowd is entrenched in playful conversation.

A middle aged white man takes one last sip of coffee before pushing away from the bar. His shiny, bald head stands out in the smoky hall – it always does. During the last several years, it has become a staple of the establishment.

After saying a quick goodbye, the man steps toward the exit. From behind the counter, Claudia notices the gentleman leaving. Confused, she signals to him.

Aren’t you going to pray before you leave? she asks intently.

Well, I thought it …

She interrupts him with a yell, All right, everybody shut the hell up!

The large crowd quiets.

The pastor’s gonna pray for us!

Claudia slowly turns to the man.

Go ahead, pastor, she says with a smug grin.

Normally, Duane Crabbs always makes a point to pray before he leaves the Main Event, one of several bars in his neighborhood. Tonight, however, the crowd was larger than normal and he didn’t want to impose.

But that’s what the bar’s frequenters and staff have come to expect from him. They expect him to bless the evening before he departs.

For some, his thick, gritty voice is the only one they’ve ever heard utter a prayer. Others have heard plenty, but probably would rather do without.

Still, each week Crabbs shows up, has a coffee and seeks fellowship with community members at the bar. It’s not a place where most pastors would go.

Crabbs isn’t most pastors.

You have to go and meet people where they are, he said. Seemingly simple, the ambiguous statement has sort of become his life’s mantra.

The sentiment is what led Crabbs, 46, to move from a safe area in West Akron to the heart of Akron’s second most crime-ridden neighborhood 10 years ago. He had a heart for helping the impoverished Summit Lake community, but before he could have an impact, he needed to become a part of it – even if that meant moving his wife and two kids into the ghetto.

Through that dedication, South Street Ministries was born.

In 1999, meeting people where they are, meant quitting his $50,000-a-year job as a firefighter to free more time to pour into his ministry. When money ran short those first few years, Crabbs relied on faith – and he turned to prayer.

Over the last few years, Crabbs’ attempts to meet people where they are have prompted countless questions about his mental stability.

But it wasn’t the first time.

Rough beginnings
Growing up near Columbus with a public-school teacher for a mother and a Methodist minister for a father, Crabbs lived in a home where, caring for people was as natural as breathing, he explained. But, honestly, I didn’t really appreciate any of that.

By the time Crabbs turned 13 he was bored with church. Soon, he was smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, snorting coke and having promiscuous sex – all before his 14th birthday.

To me, going to church and school was boring. It was what you were supposed to do, he said. That’s what drew me to the streets.

After a series of suspensions, Crabbs’ parents had lost control. They were concerned, but nothing they told their child seemed to have an impact.

When the problems continued into high school, Crabbs’ parents intervened. At the age of 16, they committed him to a mental hospital where he was enrolled in an experimental treatment program.

The treatment didn’t change him.

There were tons of addicts on lock down at the hospital, Crabbs said. So I sort of became a courier from the outside. I brought them drugs and other illegal items.

The treatments weren’t doing a lot for me, but my time at the clinic changed my life. One counselor at the place stopped me. He knew what I was doing and he said to me, ‘You think you’re getting over on everybody, don’t ya? Well, you know what, it’s your life. You want to f*** it up? Go ahead.’

I’m not sure why, but his words hit really close to home.

Something began to change in him. A year later, Crabbs said he fell in love with the teachings of Jesus. He continued to struggle with addiction, but his life started to transform. Through new relationships and lessons learned at an alternative high school, Crabbs began to realize getting high and drinking was screwing (him) up. By working with students at his new, participatory-based school, Crabbs began to appreciate community – and people.

Flash forward 30 years. Crabbs and his wife Lisa, founders of South Street Ministries located in the Summit Lake neighborhood in South Akron, devote all they have to helping people. Their work has become vital to an otherwise forgotten community.

Crabbs has invited the rest of Akron to take a look at what’s going on because, when you break down all the walls that divide us, and you go and meet people at their level, a special thing happens – real community becomes possible.

Just before Crabbs left the Main Event that night, the room sat in silence. With the attention of most the bar’s patrons focused on him, Crabbs prayed for safety, peace and good fellowship. Nobody moved until he was finished.

When he was done, they thanked him and then continued drinking. They didn’t report feeling judged or hated. The bartender Claudia isn’t sure what Crabbs’ goal is. She knows one thing for sure, though – he loves people.

That love is what prompted a husband and father of four to risk everything 10 years ago.

A decade later, Crabbs has quite a story to tell.

IRRESPONSIBLE BY FAITH
Firefighter, father of four quits the department, leads family into complete uncertainty

Editor’s note: This is the second of a four part series.

Sometimes the sirens shake him from his sleep. The sound, which most generally associate with fire, triggers something entirely different in Duane Crabbs.

He can still hear the cries for help, the warm blaze against his skin. When those sirens blare at night, his pulse quickens. After all, the sirens are a part of who he is – it’s in his blood.

While working as a firefighter-paramedic for 13 years, Crabbs climbed the ranks and had become one of Akron’s finest by 1999.

After 13 years, he walked away forever.

Yeah, sometimes I miss it, Crabbs says, staring into the distance. When I hear those sirens, sometimes I wish I could get back on that truck – wheels rolling, dressed in a hero suit. Yeah, I miss that.

Crabbs pauses. He brings his hand to his mouth, his face begins to flush. Tears form in his eyes as his voice starts to crack.

But I do not regret that I gave that up. I gave all that up … for a more important thing. It’s moments like this, moments right here, that make it all worth it.

The 46-year-old minister d
oesn’t normally lose composure when he looks back on the decision he made eight years ago, but today is different.

A young man named Dave Ford has just arrived at Crabbs’ home in South Akron.

Six years ago, Ford was a teenager confined to a delinquent detention center. It was then that Crabbs began working with Ford and other occupants at the center – providing church service, Bible studies and counseling.

Today, Ford is no longer a troubled teenager. The Cleveland native is in the process of wrapping up his junior year at Ohio University, where he is double-majoring in political science and sociology.

Ford hadn’t seen Crabbs since his days at the center more than five years ago. So today he decided to swing by and catch up with one of the men responsible for turning his life around.

As Crabbs regains poise, he looks to Ford.

It’s hearing stories like this, even if it’s just once every five years, that shows me we did the right thing. This is God’s way of telling me I’m doing something right.

Crabbs wasn’t always so sure of himself.

The revelation
On a Sunday morning in 1992, Crabbs sat in church with his wife and their infant daughter, Hannah. Then, without warning, a young boy named Scottie changed their lives forever.

Scottie, who had become close with Crabbs, sat next to him as service began. Unfamiliar with his wife Lisa – who had been bedridden with a troubled pregnancy – Scottie leaned toward Crabbs and asked, Is that your old woman?

Crabbs laughed and kindly responded, Yeah, but I don’t know if she would appreciate being called that. She’s my wife.

Scottie leaned away, his brow furrowed. What’s a wife? he asked.

After a quick conversation, Crabbs realized the young boy was sincere. The adolescent, who had been coming to church alone for several weeks could not conceptualize the word wife.

At that moment, I knew what we had to do, Crabbs said. I began to see that church, the way we do it, is more about us and our comfort than it is about helping those outside the walls of the church.

In that church pew, I began to realize that the only way to have a real impact is to go out and live among them. How can we knowingly go to church in a community that’s so fractured, that we don’t know what a husband and wife are?

In that moment, Crabbs decided to move his family to Summit Lake, Akron’s second most crime-ridden neighborhood. Excited with his revelation, Crabbs shared his vision with his wife on the ride home.

I started to cry, Lisa said, thinking back to the day. I had a newborn and two kids in the backseat. I saw that Duane was serious and my motherly instincts kicked in. I remember yelling, ‘I hope we never move to this damn town!’

That was how I felt.

The plunge
Four years passed. For four years, Duane toyed with the idea of moving from West Akron to Summit Lake, and for four years, Lisa tried to ignore it. After the first two years, though, Lisa gave birth to their fourth child, Jonathan – and something started to change.

I don’t know what it was, but after Jonathan was born, a peace came over me, Lisa recalls. We had been praying about it and seeking counsel from friends. After Jonathan was born, God gave me peace. I started to think moving might have been what we needed to do.

While still deliberating about whether to plunge the family into one of Akron’s most impoverished sectors, the couple began searching for the right home. In early 1996, they found it. The large, mostly rundown house stood tall at the top of a hill on South Street, near Main. Lisa remembers feeling right about it.

I walked through the house and then told Duane, ‘This might be it. We might actually do this.’

Within a year, the home had been renovated, and the family moved in. Unsure of a purpose, they began to get to know the community – even when it wasn’t their intention.

The Crabbs like to tell stories about a stranger who casually walked into their home, possibly in search of an old drug hangout. Duane vividly remembers chasing the man out of his house and down the driveway.

It took years for the family to fully adjust. The Crabbs’ oldest son, Josh, 11 at the time, may have struggled the most.

Yeah, I had a really hard time with it, Josh said. I remember being mad at him for moving us. I was young; I didn’t want to move away from my friends for no good reason.

It took me a long time to forgive him for it.

Despite the heartache, a ministry formed in the Crabbs home. Bible studies of more than 50 community members became a weekly occurrence. Within two years, the number had doubled to 100.

And that’s when I began to feel burned out, Duane said. I would come home from long shifts at the fire department and then either work with the ministry or as a father. Soon I realized I wasn’t a good dad. I wasn’t a good husband. I also wasn’t a good paramedic or a very good minister.

Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be the ministry or my family.

It was a process of elimination. After 13 years, Crabbs quit his dream job. Despite the advice of most his friends and family, Crabbs gave up his $50,000 salary and replaced it with … well, nothing.

With a wife and four children, Crabbs did what most would deem completely irresponsible.

It was irresponsible, Crabbs said. But my wife supported me, and my community supported me and I knew it was what I had to do.

Eight years later, as Crabbs embraces Dave Ford and chats about his success at OU, he doesn’t have a single regret.

I guess sometimes being irresponsible is exactly what we need to do, he said laughing.

With that relentless faith, Duane and Lisa Crabbs have built South Street Ministries. It has been with that enduring devotion that they have helped rebuild a community.

UNITING A COMMUNITY BY INCLUSION
Countless services and programs just the start of ministry’s impact on forgotten neighborhood

Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series.

Six neighborhood kids pick teams for a quick basketball game in the driveway. Upstairs, in the Upper Room, adult volunteers share laughs with a few third-graders – stragglers from today’s after-school program. A few miles away, a group of men are meeting at a tattoo parlor … discussing Bible passages. Meanwhile, Duane Crabbs is sharing a conversation with inmates at the Summit County Jail.

Just another day at South Street Ministries.

As a movement, which ignited when Crabbs and his family moved to the Summit Lake neighborhood 10 years ago, South Street has grown beyond its founders’ dreams.

Eight years ago, just months after Crabbs quit his job as a paramedic, the ministry was small. But today, hundreds of community members depend on South Street as a refuge from their lives of addiction and poverty.

The challenge that has been placed on our hearts is to stand in the gap between the haves and have-nots, Crabbs said, trying to explain his unique ministry. Our goal is to mediate the health of the whole community.

Crabbs didn’t see that conviction in churches when he was growing up in Columbus. Ten years ago, Crabbs didn’t see anything like that at churches in Akron either. From his perspective, the goal was no longer to serve the poor, but was to serve the needs of the wealthy, and maybe help the needy along the way.

There is a lot of hypocrisy in the American church, Crabbs continued. For example, when Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week,’ you better believe he was right.

Crabbs points to the private Christian school movement, which tripled after Brown v. the Board of Education forced public schools to begin the desegregation proc
ess in 1954.

White Christians were trying to protect themselves, Crabbs said, beginning to raise his voice. It’s the same with the Defense of Marriage Act. The idea of marginalizing homosexuals, instead of reaching out to them – it’s absurd! You mean we are going to condemn an entire group of people and talk about the sanctity of marriage when the reality is most Christian marriages fail?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a single marriage fail because of homosexuality. It’s the biggest red herring I’ve ever seen.

Crabbs closes his eyes and waves his hands fervently as he speaks – a cue that the middle-aged pastor is shifting into preaching mode.

We like to cloak our prejudices in righteousness. Crabbs squints his eyes tighter. Whenever we cannot openly invite everybody, but instead have to use the government to enforce our beliefs – that’s when you know we’ve missed the mark.

Christianity should be inclusive. This is what we do at South Street that very few other churches do. And we don’t simply preach on that – we just do it.

Crabbs refocuses.

But now I’m preaching. I’m sorry, what were we talking about?

Purpose for the poor
One of South Street’s most formal ministries takes place each Sunday morning during its weekly church service, which is held in the Summit Lake Community Center gymnasium. It is not a typical place of worship.

It was pretty small when we started off nine or so years ago, said Lisa Crabbs, Duane’s wife. People were much more interested in just attending informal gatherings at our house. But slowly, more people began to show up on Sunday. Now we average about 100 people every week.

Duane is confident that there’s no telling what will happen at any of the services. On a recent Sunday, three different men, on their own accord, stood up before the congregation and asked for prayer. Each was struggling with an addiction – either cocaine or alcohol – and each was fighting the urge to relapse.

One already had.

More than 10 people circled the man as he described his fear of going back to jail. They locked hands with him, prayed and offered a shoulder to wipe his tears.

Moments like that are what the ministry is built on.

Patrick Armour, a good friend of the Crabbs family, played a major role in the founding of South Street. Armour, a heavily built, older man with a deep, powerful voice, has been around a lot of phony people in his time, but he insisted there is nothing phony about what happens at the community center each Sunday.

Something great happens when people are being gritty – when they are being real, Armour said. There’s no hiding behind the walls we put up. When people start to be real … that’s when real community begins. And that, my friend, is a special thing.

Just ask Melvin Fields. Each Sunday morning, Fields drives a van to and from the Haven of Rest and throughout the neighborhood, picking up anybody and everybody who wants to go to church. The task can be tiresome, but Fields wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, he was once homeless himself.

The same can still be said about Leeland Jones. While living at the Haven of Rest, Jones volunteers several hours each week working with kids at South Street’s after-school program, which caters to students from Lincoln Elementary.

In return, South Street has blessed Jones with gifts denied most men in his position – dignity and a sense of worth.

There are several more South Street members who, while floundering with their own struggles, have found new purpose in helping other members of the community.

That’s what South Street Ministries is about.

We’re a church without walls, Crabbs explained. Walls confine people. They segregate us. And that’s why everything at South Street is so informal.

Everyone – no matter what issues you have – everyone is welcome.

With that model, some amazing things have begun to happen outside the walls of the Summit Lake Community Center.

SOUTH AKRON NEIGHBORHOOD PREPARES FOR POTENTIAL REVOLUTION

Driving through South Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood can be intimidating. The 58-block residential sector is marked by cracked windows, broken siding and vacant houses. At times, the neighborhood almost resembles a war zone.

However, when Duane Crabbs walks the part-brick, part-asphalt streets, he sees something completely different.

During a late-night drive through the community, Crabbs tries to explain his vision. He points to a deserted factory on the outskirts of town.

That’s been abandoned for years, he explains.

The plot of land has been left vacant because of environmental contamination.

Can you imagine what we could do over there? The EPA has a ton of grant money available for anybody interested in doing something. Now look over there.

Crabbs points to a series of newer houses. The homes’ fresh vinyl siding stand out among the chipped white paint that characterizes most of the other houses. It’s a sign of improvement, Crabbs says.

Farther down the road, Crabbs gestures toward an empty bank building, which would be ideal for a youth hangout. Then there’s the rundown CVS building.

Can you imagine what we could do with that?! In his excitement, Crabbs begins to paint an image of his vision for the impoverished community.

Right now it’s basically all lower class. Crabbs stops the van and squints as he describes his ambitions.

But the neighborhood is very diverse. Imagine if we could build a mixed-income community here – one where everyone benefited from each other.

The middle-aged minister refocuses and continues to drive slowly past houses and businesses while explaining the plight of several residents. As Crabbs turns down Main Street, a man stumbles from one of the several local bars and into the road. Crabbs slows to greet him.

What are you doing out here? Crabbs asks after rolling down his window. The man, obviously drunk and scared he might be arrested, quickly begins begging Crabbs for a ride to the Miller Hotel – a halfway home for Akron men.

As the man pleads, stuttering over his words, Crabbs begins to smile. Eventually he tells the man to get in.

After living in the neighborhood for 10 years, Crabbs knows most of the residents. And if he doesn’t know them, they probably know him.

The inebriated man manages to formulate a coherent sentence from the backseat.

This is a good man right here. This man … is a good man.

The sentiment has become common belief among Summit Lake residents. However, most of them are still trying to figure out what a middle-aged, middle-class, white firefighter is doing in the ghetto. More so, they are still trying to figure out why he seems to care.

Crabbs hopes to show them soon.

Roots from the South
South Street has dozens of ministries. From the bike shop – where neighborhood kids work to earn their own bikes – to the weekly women’s support group, the ministry offers programs to any and every type of community member.

But that’s not what it’s about, Crabbs said. Our ministry is about one thing – being available for people. If you want to show someone love, that’s the best thing you can do.

Much of Crabbs’ ideals are rooted in the Christian Community Development Association, which ignited in 1960 when John Perkins relocated his family to the struggling community of Mendenhall, Miss., to work with an impoverished community.

In 1989, Perkins called together a group of Christian leaders from across America who, according to Perkins were bonded by one significant commitment – expressing the love of Christ in America’s poor communities, not at arm’s length, but at the grassroots level.

Th
e association was formed, and CCDA held its first conference in Chicago in 1989.

Crabbs was one of 180 people in attendance and soon after became one of the original members. The principles of the CCDA have shaped South Street.

One of the core values of the association is redistribution. Crabbs is in the process of trying to implement the ideal on a larger scale in Akron.

It’s not communism, he said. But we must recognize that all the resources that we as middle-class white people take for granted were not given to us because we were meant to be fat Americans.

And I’m also not talking about a welfare system. We should not just teach people in need how to fish, but we should also direct them and grant them access to the ponds.

Crabbs has battled with how to make that happen for several years. For the past few months he has been discussing ways to partner with Urban Vision, the group responsible for the revitalization of Elizabeth Park. He has also looked into attaining formal support from the city of Akron – anything to restore justice to Akron’s most underprivileged.

We have the desire and the commitment to serve the community, Crabbs said. We just need some help on the financial end.

Crabbs pauses, then cracks a smile.

But I’m not worried; God will provide.

That’s how Crabbs lives his life. That’s why, when his family moved into Summit Lake 10 years ago, they signed the deed to the house over to South Street Ministries. Everything the family own belongs to the ministry.

If we decided to leave today, we would have no equity, no car – nothing, Lisa Crabbs said smiling. We would be at ground zero. I’m not sure if it was the most logical plan, but we’re committed to this community. I was skeptical at first, but I have faith we will be taken care of.

Duane interrupts his wife.

In heaven someday, this woman will be way above me. I’ll spend eternity shining her shoes.

It would be a fitting conclusion for a man who has dedicated his life to serving everyone around him. In the meantime, Crabbs looks forward to helping rebuild South Akron.

As Crabbs drives from block to block, daydreaming ways to serve his neighborhood, he looks to an abandoned house. He slowly brings the van to a stop.

Through all of its wrinkles and defects, this is an amazing community, Crabbs says, gripping the wheel with both hands. God is doing some amazing things here. It might not look like it, but this is a very special place.

Born out of the passion of a middle-aged firefighter, South Street is a special ministry.