Jennifer and Joel Chuks Nwokike, lead pastors of Saving the Nations Ministries in Aberdeen, have been operating a shelter in Aberdeen since mid-October. The facility, called Esther House, can hold up to 12 women and children.
The pair hold non-denominational Christian religious services in another section of the building, which is part of the large property on the 800 block of West First Street that used to be the home of St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church. The church began in 2009. It operated out of rented locations around Aberdeen but purchased the First Street property in June of last year and relocated there.
Usually about 30 parishioners attend services there but sometimes up to 50 people show up, she said. “That’s on a good day.”
The couple initially met online. Joel is from Africa and Jennifer grew up on the Harbor. They have a common interest in religion and missionary work. After numerous religious missions — many were 90 days long which allowed them to take the trips and be involved in the church — they wanted to find a way to help people closer to home. They decided to open this facility for women and children.
“We’ve dug ditches and wells, and worked with impoverished kids all over the world,” Jennifer said of her and Joel’s missionary experiences. “Then we said, ‘Why don’t we start in our own backyard?’”
They live in Ocean Shores so they had no reason to move in to the space, which includes a sizable parsonage. They converted 1,200 square feet of space into a dorm-style living area with a front room, two kitchens, bathrooms and a garden that needs some additional care before warmer weather returns to the Harbor.
Some people have trouble with communal living or will find the decor isn’t especially fancy. Jennifer talked about a former resident who came from a family that could be considered fairly wealthy. The young woman had been struggling with drug addiction and wanted to turn her life around but almost opted out because the furniture and decorations weren’t to her liking. The shelter fulfills basic needs, including meals and a warm bed, and a chance to regroup while preparing for the next step in their lives.
“She didn’t like how things looked. It’s comfy, but it’s short-term housing,” Jennifer remembered.
The young woman stayed, however. She was able to make some positive changes in her life and has since moved on, Jennifer said. The girl’s father subsequently donated several new bed sets to the center out of gratitude, she said.
People with substance abuse issues need to be free of drugs and alcohol and be willing to submit to testing so this can be verified before they can move in.
“What does love look like? Helping someone,” Jennifer said. “But sometimes love also looks like ‘no.’ There are other people here who are trying to stay off drugs and alcohol. Someone still using would make it even more difficult for those residents.”
They also provide a program that requires a two- to three-month commitment. The purpose of the Discipleship Program is to help the women spiritually and practically. The latter assistance might include job training, for example. It isn’t required of women staying for short periods.
The shelter operation is funded through donations. They intend to begin looking for other sources of funding, such as grants, to help handle expenses, Jennifer said.
“We are looking for a washer-dryer for the ladies,” said Linda Cazier, a pastor with the church who is also Jennifer’s mother. Dirty clothes and linens are taken to the coin-laundry, which can be cumbersome.
They also hope the surrounding neighborhood will continue transforming. There are a lot of old vacant structures around them. The building they are in was empty for a long time and had become a place for squatters. They found quite a few used needles inside and around the structure. One of the first things they had to do is stop people from climbing through an opening to use drugs or get drunk.
However, people living in or working in structures around them “have been very welcoming to us,” Jennifer said.
The shelter can provide referrals to other providers if a woman is still trying to stop abusing drugs or alcohol, is being actively stalked by a former partner, or otherwise can’t fit in at Esther House.
If a boy is over the age of eight or nine, Esther House might be able to take him along with his mother and any younger siblings. It’s a living situation that often breaks up families living on the streets or keeps them from trying to obtain shelter so they can stay together.
“We ask the other residents how they feel about it and if they don’t mind and we have the space, we’ll do it,” she said about having an older boy in a dorm-style living area.