Shaun grabbed the basketball and dribbled around the court. He glanced at the other guys warming up, unsure whether he belonged.
His grandma had been pestering him to go to church with her for a long time, but he just did not feel ready. He didn’t like all of the singing and preaching and old ladies talking about how much he’d grown. He did like basketball, though, and he heard he could play on a team the church sponsored. He decided to give it a try. Maybe he wouldn’t have to talk about himself while playing basketball. And he knew his grandma would be satisfied, at least for a while.
He dribbled down the court and made a layup. Yeah, maybe this would be OK.
The North Omaha community, part of the Omaha, Nebraska, metro area, boasts a history that goes back to some of the first Europeans in the region, the Latter-day Saints. Their settlement became known as North Omaha; it eventually became a stop for settlers moving westward and later became home to a diverse population of working-class European immigrants and African Americans. An industrial area in the early 1900s, it suffered when the railroads and meatpacking plants that had been the economic lifeblood of the area later restructured. Job losses forced many to leave the area during the 1950s and ’60s, and economic depression hit those who were left. Since then, North Omaha has suffered economically and socially.
The Better Together basketball program in which Shaun participates is one way a ministry program known as Abide serves the North Omaha community. Founded in 1989, Abide uses a holistic approach focused on developing stronger families, safer neighborhoods, and emerging leaders.
Their mission is to revitalize the inner city, one neighborhood at a time. Through their Lighthouse program, Abide creates a sense of community and connectedness within neighborhoods by purchasing homes in areas of town with high crime rates and poverty levels. They send their own families, couples, or single people to live in those homes.
These ground-level ministers then reach out to their neighbors. They hold block parties, neighborhood cleanups, and social activities for the people living around them. The sense of community that grows naturally helps them see one another as resources and support one another. The Abide residents foster that sense of community whenever they can.
On a Mission
Joey McKernan and his wife, Olivia, were high school sweethearts. Joey grew up in a family focused on ministry.
“I first got involved with Abide when I was little,” he says. “I worked on remodeling a Lighthouse even before there was an official Lighthouse program. I had worked in inner-city contexts before, but I knew I wanted a place to build roots.”
The older he got, the more certain he became that God was leading him into ministry.
“I decided to go into ministry because there was nothing else I could see myself doing,” he says. He never felt apathetic about church and pastoral work. From the beginning of his involvement with Abide, Joey was completely committed. “It was 100 percent or nothing. I was ready to dedicate everything I had to it.” He attended a Christian college and majored in pastoral ministry.
When he graduated, Joey and Olivia married and moved into a Lighthouse. Joey began working as a church partnership director for Abide. In this role, he works directly with churches in the Abide network and mobilizes them to minister in the inner city. It has not been easy. Living in the heart of the North Omaha community means Joey and Olivia deal with the poverty, abuse, and violence that their neighbors face on a daily basis. They see these struggles up close, in the lives of those they love.
“North Omaha is incredible, filled with amazing people, businesses, and leaders,” he says. “But it does come with its challenges and realities of violence and poverty.”
A Future Mission
Despite the difficulties, Joey and Olivia, along with the other Abide leaders, hope to see 200 Lighthouses ministering to communities in North Omaha in the next 10 years.
Joey’s favorite part of working in his role is “seeing the church get out of the seats and into the streets. Seeing the church be the hope of the world. With all the conversations today around diversity and injustice, Abide helps mobilize the church to be the vehicle of hope to inner-city communities.”
In addition to the Better Together sports program and the Lighthouse program, Abide offers tutoring and a computer lab to kids in the area, a mentoring program for future leaders, a school adoption program, and community events like block parties and neighborhood game nights.
While he loves working to mobilize churches, Joey sees how the pandemic has affected the people in his community. The pandemic led to job losses for many residents of North Omaha. School systems were thrown into chaos and closed for a time. Cancellation of school meant no school lunches, which placed an additional burden on already struggling families. “Because of the job struggles and the school problems, we created a food distribution program that distributed almost 100,000 meals,” Joey says.
Abide’s ultimate goal is to lead all those with whom they work—the children involved with their sports teams, the neighbors living around Lighthouses, and the future leaders in their mentorship program—into deeper relationships with God. Abide sees the potential in the people in North Omaha, and how God is working in the lives of those they live around and work with every day. Their commitment to the work of God in these people’s lives make it possible for kids like Shaun to connect with others in his community and also with God.
To learn more about Abide’s work, go to abideomaha.org.