Ministry in ‘The Devil’s Triangle’
Their embarrassing moment led couple to start church
By Stan Friedman | February 24, 2016
FRESNO, CA (February 25, 2016) – Nine years ago Phil and Rici Skei moved from their pleasant community into Fresno’s Lowell neighborhood, where the high rates of poverty and violent crime had earned it the longstanding nickname “The Devil’s Triangle.” They launched On Ramps Covenant Church five years later, in part because they were embarrassed by their behavior one Sunday morning. The Covenant Companion talked with Rici about the ministry of On Ramps, a multicultural, multi-class church determined to impact their “parish.”
What are the demographics of the Lowell neighborhood?
It’s about 66 percent Latino, half of whom are estimated to be undocumented, 15 percent white, 11 percent Asian, and 8 percent black. I’d say about 75 to 80 percent don’t even hold a high school diploma. The median income is about $13,000 annually. Only 10 percent of the 6,800 people are homeowners. The rest all rent homes or really substandard apartments.
Why did you and your husband move into the neighborhood?
Phil started a new job as executive director of the Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership (FIFUL), which is a ministry of InterVarsity. We were living in a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood, but one of the prerequisites for the job was that you had to live in one of Fresno’s 22 neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
For Phil, it was like, “That’ll be a great adventure! Let’s go!” I thought, “Absolutely not!” I grew up in one of these neighborhoods. Why would I want to go back? That wasn’t the abundant life that God called me to. We’d just had our first daughter, and I didn’t want to bring her to a neighborhood like the one I grew up in.
So the two of us had a two-week battle with God. Obviously at the end of two weeks, God won. It was like, “If you don’t seek the well-being of this neighborhood, who will?”
How did the church get started?
When Phil and I relocated here, we were doing things for the neighborhood like hosting tutoring in our home. We had a girls club and a boys club. We did a lot of community-oriented things. We had people coming to us all the time for advice. One Sunday morning we were on our way to church in another part of town and we were rushing.
It was one of those Sunday mornings when everything was going wrong. We forgot our Bibles, the girls were still doing their hair, and we were grabbing whatever looked edible and stuffing our faces as we rushed out the door.
Then one of our neighbors approached us looking broken and distraught, tears in his eyes. He looked like he needed to talk, but we were late for church. We told him, “We can’t talk to you right now, we’ll talk to you after church.” I mean, it was an embarrassing car ride to the church; it was awful. Phil and I were looking at each other going, “Wait a minute. This is crazy! We just left church to go to church.”
That’s when we started this journey saying, “OK, Lord, what would it look like to be the church in the community for this community?” Every day we looked at our neighbors and we said, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to do this with our neighbors, for our neighbors, for the sake of our neighbors. It literally was a matter of life and death for a lot of them.
How did you wind up starting a tutoring program in your house?
It was kind of forced on us. FIFUL had a tutoring club that met in peoples’ homes so we could reach out to the neighborhood, and we were one of the sites. We didn’t know we’d have to do that or I would have fought God for another two weeks. Afterward, we realized this was a total blessing because it helped us get to know the neighbors a lot faster. We needed to do this. We needed this on-ramp, if you will, into the lives of these neighbors.
How did you connect with the neighborhood?
It took Phil a little bit longer because they were kind of suspicious of him. They were thinking, “What is this white man doing in this jacked up neighborhood unless he’s like a cop or something?” So they didn’t trust him for the first six months.
Since I was a stay-at-home mom, I could connect with the moms. We never came in saying, “We’re the Christians on the block. Let us lead you to Jesus.” It was more like, “I’m a mom with two small kids, too. Can we hang out?”
We really grew to know a lot of these families just by hosting the tutoring program. We were able to connect with the kids on another level, and as we were walking the kids home, we were able to meet Mom, or Dad, or uncle, or aunt, or whoever the guardian was and connect with them. It was like God was putting all the pieces together.
Also, as a family, if we barbecued, we would barbecue in the front yard so the neighbors could smell the smells and come by and ask, “Hey, what’s on the grill?” We wouldn’t say, “Just some hamburgers.” We’d say, “Come hang out and eat with us!” So we built relationships by barbecuing together. If we had birthday parties for our girls, they were always at our home, in the front yard so the neighbors could see what a safe, sane, celebration could look like and also be a part of it. If we played football, it was in the front yard.
Everything we did was in the front yard as opposed to tucked away in the back yard. It was almost like God dropped us into this neighborhood to put us on display in order to put him on display.
Why is your commitment to this particular neighborhood such a core value for you?
We say that our neighborhood of 6,800 people is our parish. We feel a spiritual responsibility for everyone in the neighborhood.
When we were starting On Ramps, we got two different phone calls from people who were basically offering us buildings for free in other neighborhoods because they were excited about what we were doing. If our hearts were not loyal to this soil, we would have said yes. We would have abandoned this vision, and we would have moved out north to a much nicer area and we would be a thriving multicultural church.
There are 75 churches in southwest Fresno, yet it is one of the most jacked up areas in the city! That doesn’t make sense to me. There are homes boarded up, graffiti everywhere, trash everywhere. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t represent God’s kingdom to me.
Community development is part of what we’re doing. It’s about seeing where God is already at work in this neighborhood and then inviting him into places where he’s been blocked out. Eventually, we want to plant a church in each of Fresno’s 22 neighborhoods of concentrated poverty that will be intentional in seeking the well-being of those neighborhoods.
There are 75 churches in southwest Fresno, yet it is one of the most jacked up areas in the city! That doesn’t make sense to me. There are homes boarded up, graffiti everywhere, trash everywhere. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t represent God’s kingdom to me. If there is a church building located on every corner, then the homes in those neighborhoods need to be nicely painted. They need to not have boards on the windows, the grass needs to be cut. The neighborhoods need to reflect whatever Holy Ghost time you’re having in church. I’ll get off my soapbox now.
How does the congregation of On Ramps reflect the neighborhood?
You look at us, and it doesn’t make sense, because this guy is a married 60-year-old white middle-class business owner, and this girl is a 14-years-old African American who got kicked out of her fourth high school, and her mom is battling drug addiction. This mom is a Latino single mother of five children who just completed her drug rehab program. This woman is on a path because she’s looking living? at the local domestic violence shelter, and she came because her social worker told her she should go to church. It just doesn’t make sense.
What does your worship service look like?
There are about 80 to 85 people who come, and on any given night, you will experience a little bit of everything from the contemporary world to the ancient world. We call it contemperancient. If it’s from God, we want it.
We start with some praise and worship, maybe some dancing, or live arts—an artist responding in chalk or something. There may be lectio divina or flags waving. Sometimes we have children preach. Even in the preaching, you might get the Pentecostal style of preaching, but you might also hear a calm, reflective, contemplative presentation, times of intentional silence. We do stations, and we’ll put out pillows and a blanket in the corner so you can just rest. Sometimes the cross is in the middle, sometimes it’s in the front. It’s just very different, it is very fluid but purposeful.
But we always, always, always eat together, whether it is bagels or a full-on meal. We understand the importance of breaking bread together as a community. We know that realistically whatever we eat on a Saturday night might be the only thing a kid and his or her family is eating that day because it’s the end of the month, and food stamps have run out or they just don’t have any food in their cabinet.
The neighborhood used to be called the Devil’s Triangle, but that reputation has started to change. What has happened to create the transformation that has happened so far?
There are more than 30 families who have relocated to Lowell as a strategic way to show Jesus to the neighborhood. They are young people in their twenties and thirties, and many of them went through the urban leadership training and then decided to buy homes. The physical presence of God moving in is definitely shaping things.
But also in the last five years, two major things have happened. Phil started the Lowell Neighborhood Association. It is both Spanish speaking and English speaking. He wouldn’t take credit for it. He’s that kind of leader. He’ll start something and then hand it off and stay in the background as long as the work is still happening up front.
Every Monday night, a bunch of residents gather to ask what kind of progress are we making. The neighbors themselves are solving their own issues now—instead of just calling police or the city of Fresno to fix it. The residents are rallying for change together, and they are getting stuff done.
Phil also started the Lowell Community Development Corporation, which is primarily addressing housing issues in the neighborhood. Life can be amazing, but if you go home to a sewer in your shower and an oven that isn’t working and you can’t provide a quality meal for your family, and the heater is busted and you can’t provide warmth for your family in the cold months, that’s not OK. It helps neighbors challenge these slumlords who are not fixing the things they’re supposed to be fixing. It’s kind of a go-between before violations go to code enforcement.
Good things were happening in this neighborhood way before we moved in. We always want to honor those people and what they have done. We just get to be a part of continuing that transformation in our own small way.