2002 was the year that changed my life. I had just moved to “the big city” of Jackson from the incredibly small town of Trezevant, Tennessee. My new journey started at Union University as a Christian Studies major, and quickly I realized I had turned religion into a textbook, not an action. It took a while to recover from the shock of not knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, as this was my plan for quite some time—going into ministry.
I continued pressing on with my major until 201 Ash Street happened. Everything changed. Ministry was redefined.
My college roommates wanted to check out a small, racially diverse church community on the east side of Jackson. Even though I wasn’t a native, I knew this neighborhood was one I was warned not to visit. I hesitantly agreed to join her—only if I drove and it was in daylight. We printed out the directions to 201 Ash Street and headed off.
When we arrived, we were greeted with a warm “Glad you are here!”—and not the fake meet-and-greet when the pastor tells you to welcome your neighbor. This was a true “We are so glad to see you” greeting. Very different. I remember feeling uncomfortable simply because everyone was so welcoming. This church was made up of a diverse group of people—black and white, young and old—all who seemed to truly care for each other and enjoy spending time together in worship and fellowship.
The next thing I knew, I was signing up to help in an afterschool program for tutoring and mentoring kids in the community. Having had little experience with with urban students, I thought to myself, “I’ll go a few times and help out a few weeks.” Little did I know, these students would change my entire perception of the community and be the catalyst for my career in social work.
I changed my major and felt my idea of being “in ministry” transform into being in community. I learned so much more about myself as each of the students taught me more there about life and survival than any professor or textbook ever could.
This new home started out as a volunteer position, but after a few years doing family advocacy work throughout East Jackson, I came back to 201 Ash Street to a program called the HUB Club. The families in the community invited me into their homes and their lives. We worked together through happy celebrations, exciting weddings, high school and college graduations, and even tragic murders of young people in the neighborhood. We celebrated together. We worked together. We grieved together.
My idea of “home” evolved over time. Having grown up with two working parents and family nearby to support us, this place was different. Now, I saw home as a place for young people that needed a safe, supportive environment and where parents and families knew they would be off the streets. We weren’t parents, but we were an extension of home.
201 Ash Street changed lives—not only the students who attended but also the college-age volunteers. As we worked together, we saw behaviors change. We saw report cards improve. We saw community grow deeper through that little, run-down building in the middle of the Hillcrest community. I was honored to do life with these families.
Now I have a new challenge in my career. I’m a part of an international organization that builds homes for families. No, not just houses—homes. Homes where families begin. Homes where birthdays are celebrated. Homes where children can feel safe. In the end, we build homes that create vibrant communities.
Jackson holds some of the most supportive people I know—people in the east side, midtown, and North Jackson. I always thought I would continue my social work career in another city with different challenges than Jackson’s. But for some reason I continue to find purpose here. I owe much of that to the families and young people I met through 201 Ash Street.
With support from people all over Jackson, we each continue to strengthen our communities in this small city, one home at a time.
Andrea Hudgins has worked in community development in Jackson for the past sixteen years. She recently became the executive director of Habitat for Humanity for the Jackson area and looks forward this new career while continuing to serve in the community.