Joe Ellison had a dream but lacked the money. Then Washington called. 

Faith-Based Initiative

For months the Rev. Joe Ellison Jr. had passed by the former Charter Westbrook Hospital in Northside thinking of all the good he could do with the place. He envisioned its vacant building and sprawling yard transformed into a kind of lively homestead where troubled youth would want to come for help.

Ellison, 39, had even stopped to pray about it and circled the grounds, walking and talking with God. And in his appeal, Ellison stretched his ample arms around a dream.

There were just two problems: He didn't have any money and the land he saw as a Canaan wasn't for sale.

Ellison knew the neighboring retirement community, Westminster-Canterbury, had purchased the property. For months he'd waited for some sign of development. If the spot didn't have a designated use, he thought, he sure had one. And sooner or later he'd raise enough money and make the owners an offer.

Last week Ellison got word that his plans will have to change: The property is indeed part of a master plan to expand Westminster-Canterbury. But that hasn't dimmed Ellison's dream. He's used to taking leaps of faith and that, he says, means seeing opportunity in everything.

Ellison recently returned from the inaugural House-Senate Majority Faith-Based Summit in Washington, D.C., on April 25 with 400 clergy members and politicians.

What's more, he came home confident that the government would help him build — and pay for — a project he calls the Urban Restoration Center, an outreach project aimed at area youth. All he needs now is $2 million.

Ellison hopes to take advantage of President George W. Bush's faith-based initiative, which calls for federal money to fund religious groups that provide social services. Proponents say the plan will bolster welfare reform and tackle social problems through public/private partnerships.

Critics, however, argue government money has no business funding religious-based programs. Even Ellison, a self-proclaimed conservative Republican, was doubtful.

"I was very skeptical because I thought this might be something Republicans do to recruit blacks," Ellison says. "And I was already a Republican, so I didn't know what I would gain from it."

But then, Ellison adds, he realized that this could be his opportunity.

Ellison and his wife, Kendra, are founders of Essex Village Ministries, a nondenominational organization that includes a community church, outreach center and day care. All are located in an Eastern Henrico neighborhood, the government-subsidized Essex Village Apartment complex. It's a 1,500-resident neighborhood with a reputation for drugs and violent crime.

Ellison's nine-year presence there has helped change that, he says, and today even residents who don't go to church or believe in God call him their pastor. But the faith-based summit convinced him that he could do more.

"We've been in the community providing these services all along," he says. "Now the government is saying it's going to help pay for them."

Ellison has earned praise from Sen. George Allen and others for his ministry's efforts to provide his community with everything from 24-hour day care to tutoring for kids to computer training and job-placement programs for adults.

That work is why Allen appointed Ellison as a delegate from Richmond's clergy to attend last month's conference.

"I was so pleased that Rev. Ellison accepted my invitation to participate in the Faith-Based Summit in Washington, D.C.," Sen. Allen explains via e-mail to Style. "Rev. Ellison's vibrant commitment to the people in Essex Village and the success of his alternative programs to welfare will make him a valuable contributor and outstanding leader."

And Ellison hopes his political connections as much as his faith will help him lead a crusade for all kinds of religious groups in Richmond to appeal for government money for their own programs. He's helping organize a faith-based conference in Richmond that is scheduled for July.

But today Ellison is taking steps around another building and praying over it, too. It is the old Philips Business School at Broad and Lombardy streets. More recently it was home to the New Life Christian Center, now located in Mechanicsville. The white brick building with red trim offers 11,400 square feet of space for $495,000. And its emptiness and potential has Ellison determined to make his dream of a youth facility become reality.

There's a need for one, he insists. He's seen kids with guns and drugs and more pregnant teens than he cares to count. The Urban Restoration Center Ellison envisions will provide pregnancy counseling, suicide prevention, substance abuse prevention programs, tutoring, computer training and recreation for area youth ages 12 to 25 — the population Ellison describes as "falling through the cracks" and needing the most support. It'll be a safe haven for those who are battered or runaways, he says.

With the help of federal dollars, Ellison hopes to have the center open within a year serving 100 young people of all races, religions and backgrounds. Eventually he'd like to grow the center to accommodate 300. "It can't be too churchy," he says. "Of course, as Christians, we're going to give them Jesus. But when they come through the door we'll give them something to eat."

Ellison knows his plan needs more than faith to back it. For six months he's been meeting with a marketing consultant and advisory board to draft a strategic plan for the youth center. He has some financial support, he says, but for now his contributors want to remain unnamed.

Ellison figures the youth center will cost about $2 million to create. Plus he'll need a staff of 24 — four times that of Essex Village Ministries.

Ellison already is gearing up for his next visit to Capitol Hill. In his role as clergy representative, he'll make the trip to Washington, D.C., every other month.

Nonetheless, Ellison maintains his ministry is his focus. When he talks about the center his voice quickens in excitement to the point of near breathlessness, like a teen-ager recounting some athletic triumph.

"This plan is what I'm going to submit to Washington," Ellison says. "Here's an opportunity the government can glean from. If it doesn't give us any money we'll depend on God. But besides God, of course, I need the government's

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