Community

Merlene Davis: Beloved Nathaniel Mission braces for changes in Davis Bottom

R.N. Dona (cq) Barkman takes Tom Isbell temperature before his dental procedure in the free dental clinic at the Nathaniel United Methodist Mission, 616 DeRoode St, in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, December, 13, 2011. The Nathaniel United Methodist Mission has quietly served a forgotten population for about 80 years. And they are determined to continue to serve that population despite a road coming through that will change the community and the mission dramatically. Charles Bertram | Staff
R.N. Dona (cq) Barkman takes Tom Isbell temperature before his dental procedure in the free dental clinic at the Nathaniel United Methodist Mission, 616 DeRoode St, in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, December, 13, 2011. The Nathaniel United Methodist Mission has quietly served a forgotten population for about 80 years. And they are determined to continue to serve that population despite a road coming through that will change the community and the mission dramatically. Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

There is evidence of change all around the building in Davis Bottom that has housed the Nathaniel United Methodist Mission since the 1930s.

At the back of the building at 616 DeRoode Street, dirt is being excavated and redistributed to make way for a noise wall along the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. The wall will separate the railway from a new community that will house residents displaced by the long-delayed Newtown Pike Extension.

To the front of the Nathaniel Mission sit rows of trailers that have housed those residents for two years and will be their home for a few more because nothing about this project has moved quickly.

On either side of the mission are a few neighbors and businesses awaiting the knock on their doors that tells them their time is up.

And in the midst of all that disruption and uncertainty, the mission has continued to provide free medical, dental and eye care; free emergency food staples and household supplies; a low-cost veterinary clinic; hot meals three times a week; back-to-school clothing projects; an eight-week summer program for children; a Thanksgiving dinner that fed 400 people; Easter programs; and three worship services a week for the soul.

"The road project has asked the mission to tread water for 11 years now, more or less," said the Rev. David MacFarland, senior pastor and director of the mission, which is south of downtown Lexington. "Organizations can't do that. The impact has largely been negative. It has hurt all three legs: the clinic, the mission and the church."

More uncertainty looms. The mission will have to find a new building, maybe more than one, to house the services it provides. And that move will have to take place in the next six months, MacFarland said, with the resumption of work on the the extension project, which will fully connect Newtown Pike to South Broadway some time in the future.

"We are anticipating that in the first six months of next year, they will come and purchase our property," he said of the local, state and federal agencies involved in the project. "We will be temporarily relocated for five to seven years.

"What makes us different in the neighborhood," he said, "is we are the only business that they expect to come back."

The mission will be directly north of its current spot on about 2 acres of land, but no one is quite sure what services it will offer.

"The impact also has the potential to be very, very positive," MacFarland said. "It has called us as an organization to re-evaluate ourselves. What are we doing, why we're doing i, and who we should be serving. I don't know if we would have done that."

Established to serve a forgotten area of Lexington, the mission has watched as some 99 percent of its traditional neighborhood has been uprooted by the Newtown Pike project, which will carry motorists from Interstate 75 to the gates of the University of Kentucky.

When the neighborhood is rebuilt, there will be shared ownership of the land through the Lexington Community Land Trust, which will provide affordable, energy-efficient homes to residents and others who qualify.

Right now, the average annual income for residents is about $10,000, MacFarland said. When the land trust is in place, the maximum income will be $35,000.

He envisions the mission taking leadership in teaching families that have lived in poverty for generations the responsibilities of a middle-class lifestyle and teaching the rest of us that the pitfalls of poverty are deeper than we would like to think.

"We have had numerous meetings and planning sessions about who we will be in a new neighborhood," said Ann Ross, the president of the mission's board. "It's not something that we have taken for granted, that we would move across the road and be the same facility."

In the meantime, the board has to figure out where it will put the programs and how to keep the disruption to a minimum for those they serve.

First and foremost, the free clinic, founded in 1979, will not close, said clinic director Terry Drum, even though it will be the most difficult to relocate.

"We were serving this neighborhood, but we have expanded to include Fayette County," he said.

Drum said about 600 patients visit the medical clinic and its 11 volunteer physicians over a three-month period.

The dental clinic has seven volunteer dentists, two hygienists and several dental assistants seeing about 50 patients a month. Still, the dental clinic has a two-month waiting list.

An optometrist, an ophthalmologist and UK optometry students work in the vision clinic and can refer patients with more immediate needs than eyeglasses.

Most of the clinic's funding is provided by the Good Samaritan Foundation, the Lexington Clinic Foundation and the Lexington Medical Society.

The church, chartered in 1995, and mission may be able to find space closer to Davis Bottom where it is now.

MacFarland said three services are held each week, with a Bible study "for folks without houses" on Sunday mornings. Recently 170 people came for Sunday breakfast.

"The mission has always been the spiritual center for Davis Bottom," said MacFarland, who came in 2007. "Since I've been here, I've probably done more funerals for neighborhood folks than church members. I think that tells you something about the mission and this neighborhood."

But change is coming.

Eight to 10 feet of dirt will be trucked in to raise the terrain and set new infrastructure. The neighborhood will be revitalized, and Nathaniel Mission will find a way to re-invent itself.

"Part of the culture of the folks on DeRoode Street is that they were the freest people I had ever encountered in my life," MacFarland said. "If you could accommodate yourself to this living standard, nobody messed with you.

"It's like what Janis Joplin said: 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.'"

And now the mission will have to find a way to change that mind-set along with the services it provides. "Our view is we just need to try to discern the will of God as to what we ought to be doing," he said. "We must listen and obey."

That may take a lot of faith, which is not in short supply.

"If we had as much money as we do faith, we'd be multimillionaires," Ross said.

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