New location aids ministry’s growth

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 13, 2004

Terrance Thomas, left, and Clayton Pollard shop underneath the basketball hoop that remains in the old YMCA gym as Mike Barham answers any questions Wednesday at the new Keystone Ministries building.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[9/13/04]Keystone Ministries is continuing to revitalize the former downtown YMCA with events and programs bringing the 81-year-old building to life.

Improved visibility is also helping the ministry founded to assist people released from prisons and jails.

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There’s a regular 7 a.m. Bible study in a courtyard, for example, that passers-by can see. “Occasionally somebody will walk by and see us sitting down,” resident Mike Barham said. “Sometimes they will come sit down. Sometimes it will be a week or two, and eventually we will see them at church.”

The move to the 821 Clay St. building has not been without challenges. Upper floors still don’t meet fire codes the City of Vicksburg insists will be enforced before people can live there.

But a bookstore is operating, there’s a schedule and ambitious plans including more support of men recovering from addictions. Regular events include Sunday morning church services that are open to the public and a new Wednesday-night program for children.

The organization is homegrown, having been founded by James Hartley after his own release from prison in the 1990s. Hartley was jail chaplain here starting in 1993 and his wife, Debra, has since joined Keystone, which operates a thrift store at Washington and Speed and had operated the men’s residential program at 1702 Court St. since 2002.

While programs have grown, the focus remains the rehabilitation of ex-offenders, said assistant director and former resident Earnest Hall. “We love everybody,” Hall said. “But that’s our aim, people like us.”

If more people know about the Christian ministry which is more likely in the commercial district, Barham said more may become involved.

“Here we have more people to walk through,” Barham said. “There, nobody knew where we were.”

Keystone has converted the downstairs gym into a second thrift store, one with more room for used furniture, clothing and other large items.

Also in the new Keystone location is a used bookstore, stocked with donations from the public. It has also opened within the past two weeks in the southeasternmost ground-floor room of the old YMCA.

The bookstore’s manager, Stan Dye, said some customers are buying books straight from boxes before he can get them onto shelves.

One customer, for example, found a World War II-era U.S. Navy battleship yearbook that “just happened to be from his year,” Dye said.

The bookstore appreciates donations of any books, Dye said.

“If it is trash, we’ll get rid of it for them,” he said. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

Built in 1923 with donations from a Delta planter’s widow, the Junius Ward Johnson YMCA was in service for about 80 years, the last several as a fitness center. The Y built a new facility on East Clay and Keystone bought the old one for $400,000 after a Nashville firm, which had bought it, opted out against converting it to apartments.

Later, city inspectors defined about $200,00 worth of work that would be needed before the building could be occupied. Hartley has set a five-year timetable to achieve the updates.

“They’re willing to allow us to exist in the first three floors” during that time, Hartley said.

Keystone also has plans to open a restaurant in the building, but so far it has prepared food for sale to the public only on special occasions, Hartley said.

An October event, scheduled to begin on a Saturday, will be a tent revival. “We’re going to have a good time: good food, good music, good fellowship,” he said.

A flea market and gumbo sale will also be held on the beginning day of the revival, he added. Hall also plans to cook the gumbo using a recipe he said was “handed down” to him during the 20 years he spent cooking in restaurants coast-to-coast. “It’s probably one of the best gumbo recipes in Vicksburg,” Hartley said.

One program not moving forward is a residential facility for women. Mountain of Faith Ministries last week accepted responsibility for that need and will use a house in the Signal Hill area, said Mountain of Faith director Tina Hayward.