Net­work guides strug­gling fam­i­lies

Joel Hunter fo­cuses on com­bin­ing re­sources to strengthen non­profit

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Su­san Ja­cob­son Staff Writer

When home­less peo­ple come to Al­ta­monte Chapel, the con­gre­ga­tion wel­comes them to wor­ship and of­fers the help it can: a meal, a ride, maybe some new clothes.

But the small church doesn’t have the re­sources to get them off the streets per­ma­nently. That’s why it joined the new Com­mu­nity Re­source Net­work, a non­profit that seeks to har­ness the col­lec­tive power of the Cen­tral Flor­ida re­li­gious com­mu­nity to aid home­less fam­i­lies.

“As an in­di­vid­ual con­gre­ga­tion, we’re lim­ited,” the Rev. Robert Mel­horn said. “We’re well-in­ten­tioned and good­hearted, but we are not ex­perts by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion.”

The driv­ing force be­hind Com­mu­nity Re­source Net­work is the Rev. Joel Hunter, who preached his last ser­mon ear­lier this month as se­nior pas­tor at North­land, A Church Dis­trib­uted. Af­ter 32 years, Hunter, 69, stepped down from the megachurch in Long­wood to de­vote his time to a long-held pas­sion: help­ing the home­less.

“I al­ways had a heart for

“The faith com­mu­nity is an un­tapped re­source with the moral com­punc­tion to help.”

Joel Hunter, founder and board chair­man of Com­mu­nity Re­source Net­work

those who were marginal­ized and left out,” Hunter said in an in­ter­view at his new of­fice at Z88.3 Chris­tian ra­dio sta­tion in Al­ta­monte Springs.

Hunter, founder and board chair­man of Com­mu­nity Re­source Net­work, and CEO Dawn Haynes, a for­mer sales and mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor for the Walt Dis­ney Co. and Bri­tish Air­ways, have been meet­ing with churches, syn­a­gogues, tem­ples and other com­mu­nity mem­bers to spread the word.

“There are a lot of re­sources out there, and they in­di­vid­u­ally ex­cel in cer­tain ar­eas and fall be­hind in oth­ers,” said Imam Muham­mad Musri, pres­i­dent of the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of Cen­tral Flor­ida and a mem­ber of the net­work. “We are so frag­mented that each of us doesn’t know what the other is do­ing.”

The net­work started as a non­profit arm of North­land in 2007 but was spun off in July into a sep­a­rate char­ity. It got a boost from Or­lando at­tor­ney John Mor­gan, a prospec­tive gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date who, with his wife, Ul­tima — now a board mem­ber — do­nated $1 mil­lion be­cause they be­lieve in Hunter and his mis­sion.

Hunter’s ex­pe­ri­ence and con­tacts in the faith, busi­ness and so­cial com­mu­ni­ties will con­tinue to grow the net­work and iden­tify gaps in ser­vices, board trea­surer Fred­die Clayton said.

“One thing I’m con­fi­dent about is that the govern­ment can­not solve the home­less prob­lem,” said Clayton, pres­i­dent of Union Res­cue Mis­sion in Or­lando.

Hunter, who was a spir­i­tual ad­viser to for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, gained na­tional promi­nence when he spoke at the 2008 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion. His of­fice is dec­o­rated with art and pho­tos, in­clud­ing a pic­ture of him­self with Obama in the Oval Of­fice, a pen­cil draw­ing of Mother Teresa, sheet mu­sic to “The Lord’s Prayer” and a 19th-cen­tury cross made of rail­road ties.

The Ohio na­tive is well-known lo­cally for his outreach to the LGBT com­mu­nity af­ter the 2016 mass shoot­ing at Pulse night­club in Or­lando and the fo­rums North­land hosted dur­ing his ten­ure on top­ics in­clud­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, gun vi­o­lence, sex traf­fick­ing and home­less chil­dren. He con­tin­ues to preach as a guest pas­tor at churches and retirement homes.

One of the tools the net­work uses is a data­base of re­sources to help the needy, whether money to pay an elec­tric bill, a ride to a job in­ter­view, em­ploy­ment train­ing, bud­get­ing tips, af­ford­able hous­ing or a baby sit­ter dur­ing work hours. Cre­ated with a gift from Jim Sen­eff, founder and ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of CNL Fi­nan­cial Group, the data­base can put vol­un­teers and churches in touch with non­prof­its, re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions and govern­ment agen­cies that need as­sis­tance.

It also can help churches find out who gen­uinely needs a leg up and who is sim­ply go­ing from con­gre­ga­tion to con­gre­ga­tion seek­ing a hand­out, said Carmem Carmo, leader of the grace min­istry at First Bap­tist Or­lando. The net­work plans to fo­cus on fam­i­lies who, with some as­sis­tance, can break the cy­cle of home­less­ness.

“We want peo­ple who want to change their life for the sake of their fam­i­lies or … them­selves,” said Hunter, who also is board chair­man of the Cen­tral Flor­ida Com­mis­sion on Home­less­ness.

Com­mu­nity Re­source Net­work in­tends to train vol­un­teers to pro­vide con­tin­ued en­cour­age­ment as the fam­i­lies work to­ward self-suf­fi­ciency, get­ting to know them in a way that over­bur­dened case­work­ers usu­ally can­not.

His wife of 45 years, Becky, is by his side in the ef­fort.

“The faith com­mu­nity is an un­tapped re­source with the moral com­punc­tion to help,” Hunter said.

Hunter

SU­SAN JA­COB­SON/STAFF

Joel Hunter left his job as se­nior pas­tor at North­land, A Church Dis­trib­uted, and started a non­profit net­work of churches to help home­less fam­i­lies. “I al­ways had a heart for those who were marginal­ized and left out,” he said.

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