For nine years now, Jon Hodge has been in the neighborhood-changing business, and while he's changing neighborhoods, he's also working — with God's help — to change hearts, minds, and souls.
Based out of Bartlett, Tennessee, just northeast of Memphis, Jon and Linda Hodge are national missionaries for the North American Mission Board (NAMB), an assignment that takes Jon to middle Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, southern Illinois, and Alaska.
Hodge manages a big chunk of NAMB's nationwide World Changers ministry. Created in 1990, World Changers is a pre-packaged mission experience that enables students — middle schoolers to collegians — and adults to donate a week of their summers to rehabilitate substandard housing and share Christ.
Last summer, some twenty-five thousand World Changers participants partnered with 1,100 churches in eighty-eight separate projects across the United States, which resulted in nine hundred decisions for Christ and the repair and renovation of seventeen hundred homes.
Responsible for planning and coordinating thirteen to seventeen different World Changers projects in the five states he represents, Hodge spends many months — prior to the actual summer project month — picking cities, meeting with city officials, school officials, city economic leaders, and homeowners to choose the renovation projects. He also must ensure that his World Changers participants have a place to stay, get fed, serve, and share.
Hodge also selects and trains about twenty-five college students who serve as summer staff volunteers for four to five World Changers projects, traveling from site to site. The projects are in lower-income neighborhoods of cities large and small.
Each volunteer has a different role — office manager, music leader, audio-visual (AV) person, and even a missions communication specialist responsible for alerting local media to World Changers activities in a given city. They, in turn, work for World Changers' experienced project, construction, and ministry coordinators.
"The college students must be strong people to serve on these teams," Hodge said. "We need leaders who'll take a group and lead it. We have to have people strong in computers and AV. Mainly, we need kids who are willing to go, serve, and work hard because it's long hours. You may go from 5:00 one morning to 1:00 the next morning. You have to be flexible, have a great personality, and be willing to do whatever the Lord wants you to do that week."
Regardless of the project venue, Hodge says the first questions the World Changers always get from local residents are "why are you here?" or "why are you doing this?"
"And we're able to share with them that we're doing this because we love Jesus, and Jesus called us to go, serve, and help people," Hodge says.
Hodge recounts the true story of a man in Gulfport, Mississippi, the victim of Hurricane Katrina. About 350 World Changers were on the scene in Gulfport to help local residents rebuild.
The fifty-something man — naturally suspicious of anyone claiming to want to help him for free — had already run off others from another denomination who had volunteered to re-roof his wind-damaged home.
"Then he met twelve teenagers and adults who had come from different Baptist churches in different places to help hurricane victims," Hodge recalls. "He said he could see in them a love that he had never seen before. He said he had to have what this group had. He accepted Christ because of the witness of the World Changers." He also got his new roof — at no charge.
Prior to his appointment as a NAMB national missionary, Hodge worked as a coach, truck driver, and a Krispy Kreme Doughnut route salesman. Before his call to full-time missions work, he also served as a youth and recreation minister for eleven years in Tennessee and Illinois churches.
"My call to missions came after I took a youth group to a World Changers project in Alabama. The more I became involved on the leadership side of World Changers as a project coordinator and speaker, the stronger the call I felt to be involved in missions.
"I had taken the group to Alabama to rehab the homes of several low-income homeowners. I thought I was going to change their world by repairing their homes and sharing the love of Christ with them. But not only were their lives changed, my life was changed," Hodge said.
After a hard day of installing a new roof or scraping and painting a house in summer's heat, the World Changers spend evenings after dinner in worship services, led by student ministers and music leaders, also volunteers.
"World Changers makes my day, my summer," Hodge says. "It's exciting. I have one of the best jobs in the world. I thank the Lord everyday that I'm a Southern Baptist missionary.
"There are times when it's tough during the summer — long hours and a lot of different things going on, and a lot of fires to put out. But it's all worth it when you see these high school and college students, and hear the stories of how their lives were impacted and changed."
Because Hodge now has been working with World Changers for nine years, he's seen high school and college students grow up, finish their educations, marry, and have their own children.
"I've seen many college students come in, thinking they're going to be something else in life, but God gets a hold of them that summer and they realize they want to be in the ministry or go into missions. It's exciting at the end of the summer when we compile everything and see a thousand or more students who say 'I want missions to be part of my life.' That makes it all worth it right there," said Hodge.
Hodge said he wants to thank "those people who sacrificially give to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
"Because of them, I don't have to come back from the field worried about whether I have food on the table back at home or whether my family is being taken care of. I can go out and do the ministry I've been called to do.
"Southern Baptists need to be involved in World Changers because it's an opportunity for us to be out there and to touch people's lives. I've seen this program open up doors that, through other avenues, we couldn't open up."
Hodge says back home in Bartlett, his wife, Linda, "keeps the home fires burning bright when I am traveling," which is much of the time. Married since 1983, they have three children — a college sophomore, an eleventh grader and a third grader.