When you talk to Sharon Smith about her life today, she gets excited about her future.
That's a long way from less than a decade ago, when she had lost her job and was facing homelessness.
"I was in an abusive marriage and was finally going through a divorce. It was a hard time for me; I'd been married for 11 years, but had been with my husband for 18 years. When I entered the doors of the Mishkan T'Hillah Worship Center in 2007, I was a broken woman. I was so broken I was even afraid to live alone after I moved out from my husband," Smith said.
But a friend invited her to church, and it was the day Smith said her life changed. She is now a member of the church and a new homeowner.
Looking back on her first visit to the church, Smith said, "I remember being at the altar, waiting to be prayed for, when Pastor Etta [Harbin] came to me and said, ‘It's OK to sleep in your own house alone … remember He is with you always and He won't leave you.’’’
"When I heard those words, I just started screaming and crying. I knew then, that God had let Pastor Etta know about my situation. I'd never had that kind of God-experience before. That's when I knew that God is real."
But Smith's story doesn't end at the church altar. When Harbin and her husband the Rev. Wilbur Harbin learned of Smith's dire need — her unemployment was check was not enough to sustain her — the two pastors stepped in with a program they call Elisha's Rest, where they reached out to families and/or single mothers like Smith, to help them purchase their own homes.
"The program was started in 1990," said Etta Harbin, "and was named for the Biblical prophet, who went throughout the land doing the will of God, when a couple who is not named in the Bible, opened their door to him, giving him food and a place to rest."
Etta Harbin said she and her husband came up with the idea for the program after learning that several members of the church, who worked hard, were never able to purchase their own home.
“Since my own mother lived alone, my husband and I, with my mother's approval, started placing hard-working families in her home for 18 months. They lived rent free and this gave them a chance to save their money for their own home," Harbin said.
The idea works like this: Harbin and her husband meet with the potential homeowners, who must bring with them three credit reports and a paycheck stub to determine how much they would be required to save.
"We then set up a budgeting contract as well and monitored it quarterly. We itemized all their bills and told them what to pay off first. We also helped them set up a savings plan. And we also let them know this was no free ride," she said.
By the 15th month, if their credit was cleaned up, the clients were advised to start looking for a home to buy. If they had been consistent, but hadn't saved quite enough and needed an extension, it was granted, Harbin said.
For Smith, the budgeting was hard.
"I'm 49 and I had never lived on a budget in my life," she said. "I soon learned that it was a blessing.I saved up enough money— about $17,000 — to pay off my bills and student loans and still have enough money for a down payment on my own home."
Smith said Harbin has "such a beautiful spirit. I thank God for her spiritual guidance. We need more spiritual leaders like her."
Since the Elisha's Rest was started, Harbin said only one client had to be placed in her mother's home, because the church acquired three homes in the Miami Gardens area as temporary housing. Two of them were purchased by the church and the third was a gift to the church by the family of a deceased member.
Two of the homes are occupied and two other families besides Smith have become first-time homeowners.
When asked why Elisha's Rest is so important to the church ministry, Harbin said, "Looking at the economy today, it seems that it’s the working family that has been hit the hardest. Elisha's Rest is not about us, it's about families and keeping them together. Everything that Jesus did on earth was to empower the people. That's what we are doing," she said.
The church, which started under a canopy near Palmetto Expressway at 2820 NW 167th Terrace celebrated its 28th anniversary on April 24, and is debt-free, Harbin said. "We collect an offering once a week and for 28 years we have maintained the ministry with our offering only. We are a New Testament ministry and we teach our members to meditate, not calculate. God will direct you as to what you should give to the ministry."
Harbin said the congregation has always met all its needs.
"Even before we had a physical building, we were doing the Elisha's Rest Ministry," Harbin said. "God gave me the idea in a revelation: When Moses was with the people in the wilderness, he lived where they lived, and ate what they ate. He was in the people in the struggle, helping them to get out of the wilderness. This is how we see our role as spiritual leaders. We want to empower people... through our ministry we are trying to deliver people."
So far, Elisha's Rest has provided service to about 40 families. "Not all have been successful," Harbin said, "because they thought it was a free ride. Although they live in the houses rent-free, they still must be responsible for their own utilities."
Helping families to buy their own homes isn't all the church does. On the first Sunday of each month, 10 families get a financial donation from the church. Members names are placed in a hat and a child picks the names. Each one selected receives $20.
"We do this out of our own pockets," Harbin said. “We also have about 12 students in college, who each gets a monthly check of $20 from the church."
Harbin, 70, is a retired Miami-Dade County school teacher. Her husband is a retired U.S. Postal worker.
"We don't get a salary from the church. All the offering collected goes to maintain the ministry," Harbin said. "We don't need much. We have a house, transportation and food. What else do we need?
The Harbins are parents of three adult children: Wilbur Jr., a chief with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue; LaTravia Williams, a licensed marriage and family therapist; and Traveese, who is with the Broward Sheriff Department. LaTravia and Traveese work with their parents in the ministry.
"I'm not marching or protesting anymore," Harbin said. “But I am doing what I can to help others. I believe it is time to put our prayers in action by training and empowering our people …. We shouldn't want our lives to matter to everyone else, but us," she said.