Keith and Jeanie McGowan were comfortable in their home west of Jefferson City. Nestled on 2.3 acres, the home had all the features the couple would need to see them through retirement — including handicap accessibility.
"I loved the process of decorating it," admitted Jeanie, associate pastor for single adults at Jefferson City's First Baptist Church. "The family could be together at Christmas. It really was a dream come true."
Yet a niggling voice kept reminding her of something she had always wanted to do. "I dreamed of living in a diverse neighborhood but thought that would have to be in a big city," she said. "That dream has always been there, but I didn't know if my family would want to. I thought it would never happen."
The McGowans recently gave up their dream home and moved into a diverse — what some would consider rough — neighborhood on Jefferson City's east side, just a half a block from the old state penitentiary site.
Their decision to give up their dream home and to begin to live a dream was a process. As they used their home to minister through hospitality to a wide variety of groups — from single adults to church "characters" — they wondered how to make a difference downtown.
"One day while driving to work, the two of us spotted a small duplex," Jeanie said. "I turned to Keith and said, 'Wouldn't it be neat to buy it and fix it up for singles?'"
She mentioned the duplex to Melissa Hatfield, the church's associate pastor for youth and missions, who had been thinking about living in community with other singles. The church also had been thinking of additional ways to minister downtown.
Later, Jeanie spotted two 100-year-old buildings on Cherry Street and took every opportunity to drive by them throughout 2007. "At this point we were not thinking of living in it but of just fixing it and renting it out," Jeanie said.
A few months later, Don Simmons, a consultant from Fresno, Calif., led a weekend conference at First Baptist. He explained how he and his family had rehabilitated and then moved into a burned-out crack house, and how that one change had influenced the neighborhood. He led them to a Web site that connected them with others who had taken on similar projects. His excitement strengthened Jeanie's dream.
After months of driving by and Jeanie's feeling "Keith wasn't negative" about exploring the possibilities, the couple asked a realtor friend to show them the property in 2008. They also approached a friend in New York about partnering with them.
One building had been divided into four apartments and the other building included two apartments on the second floor — most were rented. The downstairs area of the second building was open and "a mess," Jeanie said. "As soon as I saw it, I thought this is like a blank slate and I thought what it would be like to live here."
Even securing friend Gary Kendall to partner with them, the McGowans realized they would have to sell the home they loved and move into one of the Cherry Street buildings to follow the dream. "We knew the timing was not good in the housing market, but it seemed like God just opened the doors," Jeanie said.
The couple decided to rehab the messy ground floor and convert it into one large apartment as their new home. They acted as their own general contractors and discovered builder and fellow church member Dale Feeler was available at the time they needed him.
"But there were points when we almost came to a screeching halt," Jeanie admitted. At one point, Keith questioned their choice. "I had to ask myself if I was just being selfish…. I had to decide [that] if Keith really didn't want to do it, I had to give [the dream] up. And I did at that point," Jeanie said.
Then the couple was confronted with a financial decision. The seller was asking for $5,000 more than the McGowans' limit and the couple was prepared to back out. "But Keith worked out the details…. I felt that was a sign from God…because the price would have been an out for [Keith]," Jeanie said.
Though they had to downsize their "stuff," they believe they have followed God's will. And their experiences as neighbors in the eastside community confirm that.
"One of the neat things was the birthday party," Keith said. A homeless individual had helped them around the property, and they discovered his birthdate. The Saturday after his birthday, they bought a cake and a gallon of sweet tea and had a party on their front porch. In his 50s, the man admitted he had never had a party or a birthday cake.
"There are so many ministry opportunities, mostly with our tenants but even more than that at times," Keith said.
"But we've never wanted our neighbors to feel like we are trying to pressure them," Jeanie added.
The couple says they have learned a great deal about the criminal justice system and social welfare. "Every day's different," Keith noted. "We have taken several neighbors to the emergency room. That's their only option."
After getting to know one man who had served time, Jeanie said, "It made me think how I would feel if no one wanted to hire me…. How long would I keep my nose clean…if I knew where all my old contacts were."
"A policeman has commented about the change in one local resident," Keith added.
"We try to be good neighbors and let God do the work," Jeanie added. "We just share Christ's love…. We just try to love people."
"I've learned a whole new perspective on what life is," Keith said. "This really is a neat neighborhood. We have no doubt this is where we're supposed to be."
The generosity of people has impressed the couple. A neighbor who was moving gave all his canned goods to another neighbor. The man kept only two of each item and gave everything else to the Samaritan Center, a not-for-profit that serves the city's needy.
While they know they will face difficult situations, the McGowans believe they will make a difference in the community. Recently, they had a house-blessing service. After it was over, a neighbor commented, "This was not just a blessing for your house but a blessing for our neighborhood."
"If there's a chance of making a difference, that's what we want to do," Jeanie said. "But we never want others to think that we think they should do this, too. God has called us to this."