Each Sunday, Marjorie Phelps looked out her window and ached. Unsupervised children ran up and down Menlo street, not in church, far from God’s love and help. As she shared her ache with her friend June Bell, they felt God’s prompting: a CEF backyard bible club. Sunday afternoon’s, Marjorie’s cottage soon echoed with squirming kids. Then mothers began to linger. Marjorie and June collected clothes, found extra food. The numbers grew. The adults needed bible teaching.
Marjorie walked her little band to nearby bible teaching churches. But none embraced the raggedy, unschooled, group from Hilltop, a notorious poor neighborhood. Marjorie was dismayed. So she prayed. God’s voice? “Start a church in Hilltop for Hilltoppers.” So, Marjorie prayed. She prayed for help, especially a Bible teacher to teach the adults. Approaching churches she knew, only one responded, First Evangelical Free Church. There, a youth corrections staff and Bible school graduate, Dennis Domen, was feeling a tug to serve. He and a number of young adults soon joined Marjorie and June. Sunday afternoon worship and Bible teaching began. The duplex next door, 4120 Menlo, was rented, and a name was chosen: Good Samaritan Ministries. Twice a week, 4120 became a thrift shop and food pantry, but crucially, a drop-in center, where June’s hospitality, cooking, and prayer turned shoppers into friends. Good Samaritan was no agency. It was community.
Then family needs pulled Marjorie out of town, leaving June and the band from First Free to carry on. What next? An urban leader urged the group to indeed plant a church. First Free prayerfully voted to find and fund an urban church planter and provide a building. And so in the summer of 1987, Pastor Dennis Hesselbarth with his wife Joy and children Holly and Tracy moved into Hilltop. Their vision was to build residents into leaders--a church led by Hilltop residents themselves, a church that lifted up Jesus and the poor. A first small building opened Easter Sunday 1989: Hilltop Evangelical Free Church. Kids club, tutoring, youth ministry, thrift shop, community meals, etc. prodded a major expansion of staff (Joy Domen, Children’s director, Heath Kintzel, Youth pastor) and the miracle “big metal box” with a gym, commercial kitchen & classrooms, opened in 2000 debt free.
But though applauded as a success, the church was off target. Now called Hilltop Urban, the church wasn’t producing homegrown leaders, or lives deeply transformed by Jesus. What we now call “Hilltop 2.0” began with admitting failure and seeking God, feeling powerless.
A Jesus-based recovery group of broken addicts opened the way. True transformation. Community. Small groups. Exposure to a cell church model. The arrival of Eddy Hall, a church consultant whose own brokenness made him uniquely qualified to guide Hilltop Urban towards a church led by teams of neighborhood folks. A house church was piloted then more house churches birthed. Programs died, replaced by teams mainly of “unschooled” neighborhood folks. Pastor Dennis shifted from being program manager to discipler and coach, until the day came when he and Joy knew they must leave so their dearly beloved neighborhood brothers and sisters would stretch their wings and fly. And so they have!