Yvonne Dodd Sawyer, 68, says she and her husband, Rick, 72, have considered retiring. However, she admits:
“I can’t imagine not working; I was born to do this work. The needs and problems are still there and the world has gotten kinda crazy.”
Hope for New York is nearing its 32nd year this spring. In 32 years, the organization has expanded to work with not one but 16 churches. Last year, HFNY distributed $2.7 million in grants. Like many of the organizations doing meaningful work in the world, however, HFNY started small. With one church, a few people, and a couple good questions.
On a cold winter afternoon in 1991, Yvonne Dodd welcomed about 30 people into an office space in midtown Manhattan to talk about the biggest problems facing New York City. As people chose their seats, Dodd attended to last-minute details and prayed for the success of the gathering about how their church Redeemer Presbyterian, then just two years old, could meet the city’s real needs.
New York was in the throes of the AIDS epidemic and experiencing sky-high rates of crime and homelessness. Members of Redeemer Presbyterian Church wanted to find ways to help address the ills plaguing their city. The meeting would light a spark that would change Dodd’s life — while providing lifelines to thousands in New York City and beyond.
Participants started the meeting by asking: What is New York lacking? What problems and challenges does it have?
“We looked at existing ministries that were already addressing New York’s challenges and ministries that needed to come to fruition to address unmet and unrepresented needs,” Dodd told me in an interview for Common Good. “There was a real entrepreneur spirit about it all.”
Dodd and others from Redeemer Church later traveled to four major U.S. cities to observe how other churches were managing urban ministry and running outreach programs. They were particularly impressed by the Christian Community Development Association, which was started by John M. Perkins.
“They were my main contact point in terms of figuring out how to start growing a program,” said Dodd, who is now Yvonne Dodd Sawyer. “They stressed living in the environment you’re wanting to help — to have the city’s problems be your problems.”
After research, planning, and prayer, Redeemer launched Hope For New York (HFNY) and began raising funds for this new outreach organization through a special offering on Easter Sunday in 1992, which became an annual event that supplied its base fundraising. HFNY began working by focusing on three of the city’s existing ministries: Operation Exodus (a Washington Heights community-based program), the AIDS ministry at Bailey House, and St. Paul’s House homeless ministry.
Hope for New York gained swift support. More and more Redeemer congregants volunteered to serve, more support came in, and the organization added affiliates to expand its radius. “We knew something incredibly special was happening,” Sawyer said. “There was just excitement and willingness to try new things that we had never experienced before.”
Sawyer left her job as Redeemer’s office administrator to become HFNY’s first director when it officially launched in 1992.
“We decided to follow the model of raising up volunteers to lead initiatives, rather than paid staff,” she said. “And the center of operations would take place in a rented office. There was no need to have the organization housed in a fancy building.”
The first thing you do when you move to a city is to get connected to a church
Yvonne’s faith had grown under the leadership of strong, evangelical Christian leaders in the Jesus Movement of California, when she attended Pepperdine University. After graduation, Sawyer moved to Texas where she worked for a public relations firm.
In 1989, Sawyer was lured to New York City by an offer for a job with a marketing firm and a promise of a book deal by a New York publishing house. But things didn’t quite go according to plan. For starters, she arrived in the dead of winter.
“It was one of the coldest winters in recent memory,” she said. “And coming from Dallas, I just thought it was freezing!” She found a small apartment on the Upper East Side, and began to learn her way around. “The first thing you do when you move to a city is to get connected to a church,” Yvonne says, so she had compiled a list of churches that she wanted to visit.
But the next Sunday proved to be so cold that her choice was easy. “I simply chose a church close to me because I didn’t want to slog through the snow for all the others.”
The closest church turned out to be Redeemer Presbyterian, which was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America. Its pastor was a recent Virginia transplant, Timothy Keller. The church had only recently begun meeting in its space on East 89th and even more recently begun holding a Sunday morning service. Yvonne never finished visiting the churches on her list.
“I loved Redeemer from the start,” Yvonne said. “Tim’s preaching was amazing. I went to every service, Bible study, and program possible.”
Right before Christmas one morning, Keller announced that the church, which had about 250 members at the time, had grown so much that it needed to open an office and hire an office administrator. Because Sawyer’s move to NYC was so far falling short of her expectations, she thought about the opportunity.
“Everything that had initially brought me to New York was either misrepresented or simply fell apart,” she recalls. In a meeting with Keller and his wife, Kathy, she had confirmed what she already knew: She was overqualified for the job, which would mainly be answering phones and greeting people. Though it was a move down the professional ladder, on a leap of faith, she took the job anyway.
Seek the peace and prosperity of the city
Redeemer continued to grow, in part because people were intrigued by Keller’s message encouraging his congregation to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jer 29:7). Sermons were filled with directives to serve the city rather than exploit it for one’s own advancement. In response, Redeemer congregants started looking for ways to best address the needs of the city, which in the early 1990s were many. Crime had reached record levels; countless people were sleeping in streets, parks, and public squares; thousands of people were dying every year of AIDS. In 1990, the city recorded 2,245 homicides, and in 1991, the Crown Heights riots destroyed homes, businesses, and vehicles.
The physical needs of the 7.3 million people who lived in the five boroughs were innumerable, and the spiritual need was even larger. Church attendance in Manhattan was low, and many people had given up on the city and moved to the suburbs, including several pastors who led large New York City churches. According to religion sociologist Tony Carnes at A Journey Through NYC Religions, “Almost all social scientists in NYC had written off an evangelical presence or comeback: So-called authoritative sources said there were only 100-200,000 evangelicals in the whole city in 2000.”
Faith in New York City is important, Carnes writes, “This place (NYC) is the cusp of modernity, the street of dreams and the capital of the world. A change in our vision of New York City will change our mental geography. A fundamental change in the role of faith in New York City will affect the mindspace of the world as it will that of New Yorkers.”
Hope for New York was born from this perfect storm of raw need and Tim’s admonitions about engaging the culture. Keller had already created the first incarnation of his book Ministries of Mercy, where he outlined the concept that people needed Christ and they needed help with physical needs. He wrote that it’s our job as Christians to lend a hand yet always keep in mind the goal to restore. This became the philosophy for HFNY.
The book provided ideas for acts of service that would create more impact, along with tips in strategies, which all contributed to the way Sawyer directed Hope for New York and its popularity with the members of Redeemer Presbyterian.
Six years after the launch of Hope for New York and nine years after Sawyer started attending Redeemer, the church was buzzing with ministry fairs during coffee hours and volunteer orientation sessions. HFNY’s grew to include affiliate ministries helping children of incarcerated parents, women rescued from sex trafficking, immigrants, the elderly, and more through organizations that teach English, offer free legal aid, provide mentorship, and operate recovery and after-school programs.Worship services began featuring stories of lives that had been changed as a result of HFNY. Redeemer and Hope for New York grew together.
“The gospel ended up changing the community of people who attended church on Sundays and then all the sudden they start volunteering and serving,” Sawyer said. “And it changed those who benefitted from their services. I heard stories from a number of people that the reason they came to Redeemer and stayed was because of the community outreach.”
Hope farther South
In 1998, Keller hosted a weekend workshop for pastors from around the world. Sawyer helped to facilitate the meeting, and it was there she met her future husband, Rick Sawyer, who was working for an affiliate ministry of World Relief.
“He was a pastor and former missionary with five children from a previous marriage who lived in Miami. We fell in love and got married in 1998, which necessitated a move to Miami,” she explains.
Rather than feel sad to leave the city and church she loved and the organization she had helped to found, Sawyer Dodd Sawyer was excited to embark on a new journey in a new city. “One only has to have a good church and good community to adapt..”
After her move, Sawyer began to examine the need in a city that, like New York, was an urban melting pot with pronounced poverty and many people with unmet needs. Her Spanish-speaking husband had the contacts and the desire to fulfill underrepresented needs in the community, and Sawyer had the nonprofit background. It was a perfect opportunity to replicate the work of HFNY in a different city. The Sawyers assembled a board of local pastors and started workshops much like the one that launched HFNY.
“It was a gathering of several churches — rather than one big church like Redeemer — to back up the new organization. And there was no funding whatsoever. We had to build up from scratch.”
The newly named Hope for Miami did not operate just like Hope for New York. It initiated projects directly to recipients, in addition to cultivating a cadre of existing nonprofits that benefit the community. It also runs several programs focusing on youth and offering mentoring, after-school programs, and summer camps. But very much like its New York counterpart, Hope for Miami focused on finding what was not being done and finding the resources to make it happen.
Years later, Hope for Miami has built up a large volunteer base, employs more than 100 employees, has a $6 million budget, currently offers 10 programs, and helps an average of 6,000 people per year, the majority of whom are youth.
“Miami is full of the newly arrived. I have seen such positive contributions from immigrants and refugees, and we help them on their journey,” Sawyer says. “Our latest initiative is fatherhood programs; we don’t know of any existing formal programs for dads in Miami, and we’re very excited about this program. Any dad can join.”
After almost 25 years of helping the community through Hope for Miami, Sawyer now contributes to the organization from afar as a consultant and mentor. She and her husband, Rick, moved to Asheville, North Carolina, the city where her husband grew up, in 2020. Asheville offers a culture that is very different from either New York City or Miami, but in true Sawyer-fashion, she quickly began researching and scoping out local needs that were being unmet or underrepresented by local organizations.
Sawyer, 68, says she and Rick, 72, have considered retiring. However, she admits, “I can’t imagine not working; I was born to do this work. The needs and problems are still there and the world has gotten kinda crazy.”
Although Sawyer isn’t quite sure what comes next, she is certain of one thing.
“God’s got this. He’s still on the throne,” she says. “And the church still has its place in being at the forefront of helping those in need. And I know wherever I live, the best place to start to help others is the person right next to me. There will always be someone right next to me.”