Revitalizing Downtown Fresno
In the 1980s, housewife and mother Debra DeJuarez began walking neighborhoods near her home in downtown Fresno to invite people to Cornerstone Church, then an Assemblies of God congregation of about 250.
Although a volunteer, she treated her efforts like a job, mapping out dozens of square blocks and knocking on doors from morning to the end of each school day. Her efforts helped build Cornerstone’s bus ministry. DeJuarez then aided in pioneering the church’s food ministry, Feeding Fresno, which last year provided assistance 1.8 million times.
“When I started, I didn’t know what a pallet or shrink wrap was, and I knew nothing about warehousing,” says DeJuarez, who is Feeding Fresno’s director.
She did have experience of being a young mother in need.
“I used to stand in line three hours when [government programs] were giving out five-pound blocks of cheese,” says DeJuarez, now 60. “I know there are more Debbies out there who are broken and need food.”
DeJuarez is one of many people helping to revitalize downtown Fresno through Cornerstone Church. Fresno is the fifth largest city in California and one of the most poverty- and gang-afflicted areas in the U.S. But when Cornerstone began to grow in the 1980s, pastor Jim Franklin deliberately chose not to move it to the suburbs and away from a downtown badly in need of new life.
“When we outgrew our [downtown] location, people said to move north where the city was growing,” recalls Franklin, 62. “They said, ‘It’s more affluent. There’s land available.’ But we decided to move further into the city. We said we don’t need to flee the city; we need to embed ourselves deeper.”
That meant staying in one of the highest-crime areas in Fresno — and viewing it as an opportunity. Cornerstone purchased an historic 1,500-seat theater and began buying properties strategically around it. The investment in the area brought land values up, and then the church sold and rented some of the properties to entities it wanted as neighbors: a charter school, new condos, and apartments.
“We were in control of our development,” Franklin says. “When we came, this part of town was broken-down buildings. Now we have young professionals moving in around us. The church is helping to change the dynamics.”
Franklin believes there are keys to each city that help unlock revival. In Fresno, he says the keys are alleviating youth violence and poverty. Partnering with local police, Cornerstone goes to locations where gang shootings occur and holds block parties to reclaim the spots for residents.
“We set up a stage right in that neighborhood on the sidewalk where someone was shot a week ago,” Franklin says. “We put up bounce houses, give away food, offer face painting, have a band. We want people to know that these neighborhoods don’t belong to the violent; they belong to the residents. Someone is standing beside them, and it’s the church.”
Franklin says there has been a notable decrease in violence in those areas, and the church’s own youth group is experiencing revival. Recently, 50 young people were baptized in a month, often because former gang members go back to preach the gospel to young people still in gangs.
The other key has been addressing poverty through Feeding Fresno, which began in a closet and is now a multimillion-dollar operation supplying food to nearly 60 other churches, nonprofits, and local universities in the Fresno area. The ministry operates from a 20,000-square-foot warehouse with newly added cold storage. It grew through DeJuarez’s connections with food producers and trucking companies willing to donate products, routes, and time. Each Wednesday, Cornerstone, where 1,400 people now attend regularly, feeds 200-300 people with boxes of groceries in a farmer’s market-style setting.
But the engine for growth, Franklin says, has been giving food to smaller churches.
“The real key is not holding stuff to ourselves, but opening our hand and releasing it to others,” says Franklin. “Our goal is not just to feed those we come into contact with, but to help other churches, group homes, and agencies with a heart to reach the needy do it as well. We found that as we gave the food out, amazingly the warehouse started filling up.”
Cornerstone, which occupies more than two city blocks, reflects the demographics of Fresno in racial diversity, including more than 50 percent Hispanics.