OAKLAND, CA (September 22, 2010) – A lengthy feature posted today on the San Francisco Chronicle website highlights members of New Hope Covenant Church who have chosen to reside and minister in a violent, low-income neighborhood even though they could have decided on an upper-class lifestyle.
The article tells the story of the church largely by focusing on Dr. Joan Jie-Jeung and husband Russell Jeung. She is a Harvard-educated pediatrician, while he serves as an associate professor in Asian American studies at San Francisco State University – he also attended Harvard.
The Jeungs say they chose to continue living in the community even though “two bullets shattered the front window, a teenager was shot just outside, and the downstairs neighbor was bugged. Before that, a woman’s lifeless body was unearthed from a dumpster less than a block away.”
The Jeungs helped found the storefront church and are representative of several other members who could afford to live elsewhere, but have chosen the East Oakland neighborhood. The congregation averages 40 people at Sunday services, although attendance can go as high as 80. Their influence well exceeds their numbers.
Russell Jeung moved to the neighborhood in the 1990s with Dan Schmitz, the congregation’s lay pastor, and Carlos Flores, who is now a preventive health educator at a local clinic. They lived at the Fruitvale Oak Park Apartments alongside refugees from Cambodia and Latin America who fled their war-torn countries.
The trio spearheaded a successful lawsuit against the landlord, who had ignored pleas to deal with issues that included flooding of raw sewage, mold, and rat infestations. The landlord eventually paid out a $1 million settlement shared by all the residents. The apartments were rebuilt and the church turned a nearby crack house into a pre-school.
The lawsuit is the focus of a new documentary, “The Oak Park Story,” which Russell Jeung co-wrote and produced. In 2007, a community development corporation honored Schmitz for his work. A 2001 Covenant News Service story recounts the lawsuit.
The article quotes local residents who first were suspicious of the newcomers and church. Tracy Saephan, who now serves on the church’s board, recalls wondering if they were serious about serving the neighborhood.
“It didn’t take that long to see that this group came in full of mercy for the community. You could feel their generosity,” she tells the paper. “We started meeting at homes. Maybe there were 10 or 12 of us. They had the heart to bring us together. In time, there was such a big transformation with the Oak Park Apartments that it was clear they weren’t outsiders any more. They wanted to be with us. They were gifts to the neighborhood.”
Another resident says, “After people experienced the incredible change with Oak Park, they accepted them as neighbors. Before Russell and Joan, you wouldn’t see white people walking around and saying hi to neighbors. Today, it’s more of a reality. There’s a block party every year and you can tell that the founders of New Hope are neighbors like anyone else.”
Roughly 45 adults and children attend New Hope, which meets in the storefront office of the Youth Employment Partnership.