Hopkinsville—About a decade ago former Hopkinsville mayor Wally Bryan left the city’s historic district to live in a tougher neighborhood.
He rode his bicycle, saying hello to everyone he saw, hoping to bring some change to the harder parts of his city. Bryan even found an old house near one of the most difficult parts of town, Durrett Avenue. The house was in disrepair, but Bryan had a vision: to refinish it and make it a place where people could come and knock any time of day for help or friendship.
That house became Challenge House No. 1. Now there are six, with a seventh in the works.
Bryan faced resistance then from some friends. They would ask him why he felt he had to move to serve the underserved communities. He said he just felt he had to become a part of those communities to spark change and healing.
“God is just amazing and he protected me. He gave me boldness in the middle of situations that could have been panic,” Bryan said. “It’s really not about me…. It’s just about the way God honors people’s faith. Just the faith of a little mustard seed.”
Bryan is still an enormous force in the Challenge House Movement, but he has now put it in the hands of Buddy Slaughter, pastor at Means Avenue Baptist Church and one of the most respected men in Hopkinsville. He is also African-American like more than a quarter of the city.
“Our first goal at Challenge House is to bring people into a relationship with God through Christ,” Slaughter said. “Secondly, It’s to promote education opportunities for children and post-secondary education for adults. Thirdly, it’s to promote a work-over-welfare mindset—not giving away items constantly, but more or less teaching them how to fish.”
To do that the movement holds job training and resume building sessions in addition to programs for children.
Challenge House ambassadors live in each of the homes and pay a small rent, with the understanding that they are there to get to know their neighbors and bring healing into the community.
Everyone involved in this movement—the people living in the houses, those living in the neighborhoods, and leaders like Bryan and Slaughter—says the key to its success and growth is relationships.
While sharing the gospel is one of the central missions of Challenge House, Slaughter says they work to build trust with the neighborhood first.
“There’s not crosses and stuff all over,” he said. “When you see it, it’s just a house, and when you come in, it’s just a house. Because a personal relationship with Christ is a relationship.”
That trust is vital because in some ways Hopkinsville is a divided city both racially and economically.
Joanne Wright is from Chicago but moved to Hopkinsville to be a Challenge House ambassador after finishing school at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. She doesn’t think racial division is the city’s biggest issue, though it does play a role.
“Poverty is my big weight that I feel this city bearing, I would say even more so than race,” she said. “If we balance out the poverty and get rid of the poverty and we attack it like it’s everyone’s problem, this city will be changed.”
Wright wants to serve the basic needs of the people in her neighborhood first, which is why she and members from her church, First Christian Church, along with a few neighbors built a community garden. She hopes that will help with some of the hunger she sees in the neighborhood.
The members at her church are mostly white, and like many of her neighbors Wright is African-American. While she sees problems with socioeconomic imbalance, education and housing issues between the two communities, Wright believes this work is bridging that gap.
“The important focus is on breaking these walls, destroying these barriers—not worrying about a denomination above worrying about someone’s faith or their salvation,” she said. It’s kind of like the Gentiles and the Jews (saying), ‘We do this; how righteous are you?’… If we get beyond those kind of barriers, none of the rest can stand.”
Wright says one of her neighbors won’t attend church, but she does come to the Challenge House to pray. This is one of many examples of how each Challenge House is a safe place, a place where the hard work of the gospel is being lived out.
While the current executive director, Slaughter, is a Southern Baptist pastor, Challenge House also works with many denominations to serve the people of Hopkinsville.
Though the work is hard—even just walking up to a new neighbor and saying “hello” is difficult for some—Slaughter says it is worthwhile to see the change that has occurred in the community since the movement began.
“Love is impossible without a sacrifice and if you have time, then it’s not a sacrifice,” he said. Love is inconvenient all the time. It is a conscious act of will when you have to move yourself out of the way to love someone else.” (WR)