Religiously Speaking
Frances Stebbins

Eighty years ago, as the Great Depression was causing economic suffering to households especially in the older neighborhoods of Roanoke, the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) of local Southern Baptist congregations opened two city centers to offer help.

The residences, Friendship House serving Old Southwest and Baptist Community Center with a similar purpose for Southeast, are now being evaluated for their future purposes. They could be closed in two years.

Faith Dowdy, site coordinator of Friendship House for the past five years, talked of her new role at the center at 635 Elm Ave. SW. At a recent meeting of clergy and lay leadership of the Roanoke Valley Association of Southern Baptists, Dowdy and her husband Aaron were given ownership of Friendship House with the understanding that over the next two years its work will be looked at and perhaps changed to make the ministry more helpful to neighborhood residents today.

The transitional period, she said, also will be used to try to ensure more financial support for the center with a commitment of regular donations from some of the 70 congregations active in the Roanoke metro area, Botetourt and Craig Counties. On these donations will depend her part-time salary and that of her assistant, Randall Wright, she said.

Dowdy noted that for more than four years the financial drain of the centers has been a concern to leaders of the association. In Baptist polity, each congregation governs itself although in urban areas such as Roanoke it has become customary to employ a full-time coordinator of ministries to people, a position now held by the Rev. Dr. John Saunders. The two inner-city centers have long been among these ministries.

Others include college programs, mission trips to Native American reservations and low-income communities and the starting of new churches. Some ministries are coordinated with the WMU, Dowdy noted. The women’s organization turned over its control of the centers to the associational office about the time Dowdy was hired for the part-time job.

For her, the chance to try some new programs at Friendship House is an exciting opportunity for her family. As the mother of four young children ranging in age from 10 to 18 months and whom she home schools, she said she sees being involved in the mission house to show them the importance of caring for others. Her husband will be her working partner, she explained.

These days, Dowdy said, about 25 children, some of them from refugee families and most being reared by single parents living in rental spaces near the downtown area, receive after-school help four days weekly. On Tuesday mornings volunteers from a few of the churches provide Bible studies for adults with lunch following.

On Wednesday afternoons the food pantry is open with about 60-75 households receiving help with their meals.

Why are the two centers struggling financially when the need is clearly present? Dowdy surmises that, although the area has many Baptist churches, many are unable to afford regular financial support. More help is available from other non-profit agencies and government assistance than was true in the days when Baptist women set about to help poor children.

“We’ll be counting on more churches to keep our work going, even if they can’t pledge much—just like some of the foreign missionaries,” she said.

The coordinator invited any interested in giving time and money to Friendship House to call her at 540-343-5437.

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