Photo by Ricky Gutierrez

What we’ve been called to do

By MARISA MATA, Student Writer

The sun sets in Downtown Fresno — its last rays extending over barbed wire fences and brick walls covered in graffiti. Traffic slows once the sun sinks below the horizon, and the neighborhood slips into an eerie quietness. This is when On Ramps Covenant Church opens its doors for an evening service.

About 80 people gather and sit in a hall that’s mostly dark, except for a few soft blue lights overhead and the spotlights shining on a stage at the front of the room, where one man sits at an electric piano, another with a bass. Rici Skei (1999) walks on stage and grabs a microphone. She looks to everyone sitting in the hall and says, “Good evening, family. Welcome, family.”

Rici begins the service by leading the congregation through different songs — belting lyrics, smiling as they sing and clap and dance with each other, encouraging them to keep going. Gray haired men dance. Children sing next to their parents. Women embrace and dance with each other.

Almost an hour has passed when Rici leaves the stage and her husband, Phil (1999), walks up. He talks about community news and continues with the service.

Phil and Rici founded On Ramps five years ago, after Phil took a job as executive director for the Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership (FIFUL) in 2006, which required their family to move from their home off of Herndon and Maple to one in the Lowell neighborhood, formerly called ‘The Devil’s Triangle’ because of its poverty and crime rates.

Phil said, “I took a teaching job at Sunnyside High School when the school was opening in 1999. I had a wonderful experience, but I was a little heartbroken — some of the kids would show up once a week to class or they didn’t have home support, and the neighborhood was winning more battles than we were winning as educators.”

“I [thought], ‘We really need to change and impact these neighborhoods.’”

Phil stopped teaching and started working in housing developments, trying to make a difference in neighborhoods through housing. He then began working for FIFUL in 2006. After moving to Lowell, the Skei family began connecting with the neighborhood by building a communal environment around their home.

Rici, Phil and their two daughters, courtesy of Phil Skei

Rici said, as quoted in Covenant Companion, “If we barbecued, we would barbecue in the front yard so the neighbors could smell the smells and come by and ask, ‘Hey, what’s on the grill?’ We wouldn’t say, ‘Just some hamburgers.’ We’d say, ‘Come hang out and eat with us!’ So we built relationships by barbecuing together. If we had birthday parties for our girls, they were always at our home, in the front yard so the neighbors could see what a safe, sane, celebration could look like and also be a part of it. If we played football, it was in the front yard. Everything we did was in the front yard as opposed to tucked away in the back yard.”

Phil said, “[We formed] a neighborhood association, eventually formed a neighborhood development corporation and over the years we became so connected that we kept getting calls from police officers and principals that would say, ‘I need to send a family your way.’ We [thought], ‘We can’t have more people in our house, we have kids here all the time and have people knocking on our door constantly.’ And we came to the conclusion that we needed to plant a church to enable us to have a broader community of people and have a much greater impact on the neighborhood.”

From a community event

In the 10 years that the Skei family has been in the Lowell neighborhood, quality of housing and academic scores have increased, crime rates have decreased and a sense of community has been built — more and more people are tutoring out of their homes and hosting events in their front yards, such as movie nights and carnivals.

“Everything you would look to see happening, is happening, and that’s exactly what we want to do over and over again,” Phil said, “my wife and I are dedicated to our city for the rest of our lives. We’re going to be fighting for our city’s most deteriorated neighborhoods for the rest of our lives. It’s what we’ve been called to do.”

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