Churches are transforming their communities by caring for people in neighborhoods overwhelmed by crime, illiteracy and poverty. Taking the love of Christ into these situations, congregations fulfill their high calling, knowing that the government cannot fully answer these needs.
Pastor Chris Martin's Cathedral of Faith Church of God in Christ (COGIC) was the first to respond to the water emergency in Flint, Michigan, that shocked the nation.
On the streets of Chicago, Pastor Luis Reyes launched a ministry to children plagued by poverty and illiteracy.
In America's heartland, Ray Stribling, a former drug addict and alcoholic, opened Hope City in what the Kansas City Star called the "murder factory" zip code of Missouri.
Martin, Reyes and Stribling are only a few examples of church leaders who have become change agents in their communities. Their churches help lower crime; break the generational cycle of drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty and illiteracy; and bring the gospel to the unreached.
Mobilize to Help the Community
Pastor Martin was thrust in the middle of the water crisis in Flint.
"We've been the victims of a political fiasco," Martin says. "Flint used to purchase water from the Detroit water system, but our mayor decided to save $2.4 million by changing the source of water to the Flint River. This was done without the EPA or any federal oversight. When a pediatrician noticed that her patients had unusually high levels of poison in their system, she blew the whistle and got the attention of the nation."
Cathedral of Faith COGIC stepped in and bought cases of water for Flint residents during the ongoing health crisis.
"There was a mile-long line of people wanting to get into the church for water," Martin says. "We've handed out 25,000 cases of water since January."
COGIC President Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. says there are more than 60 of the denomination's congregations in Flint.
"When we heard about the crisis, we immediately began to mobilize and strategize how we as an organization could help our members and residents," Blake says. "The leadership of the Church of God in Christ cannot stand silent as innocent children of Flint and their parents suffer the ravages of poisonous water."
Martin has a history of leading his church to serve the community. In 2008, when he became pastor at Cathedral of Faith, he launched a "Pullover for Prayer" campaign that was covered by USA Today. The church now also hosts a Head Start after-school program that serves 72 students.
New Church of Joy in Waukegan, Illinois, ministers to over 2,000 kids every week, hosting Sidewalk Sunday School in area parks, tutoring students at a success center and equipping them for ministry through a teen leadership program. The ministry, which started in an apartment and moved to offices in Zion, now operates in an $8 million YMCA facility recently given to the ministry.
"When we launched Sidewalk Sunday School, we didn't have a truck or supplies," says Tricia Reyes, co-founder of Sidewalk Sunday School and Reach a Generation, an outreach to children and teens in Greater Chicago. "My husband was determined that even if he had to use his car, he was going to reach kids with the gospel."
They purchased a flower delivery truck, which a friend refurbished. Now, the ministry has a fleet of Sidewalk Sunday School trucks and buses that pick up kids in 20 cities in Greater Chicago.
"A lot of our students were graduating, so we started a Bible college," she says.
Ministering to children is also important for New Life Church Milton in Ontario, Canada. Pastor Dan Rogge started the church with nine people "in the middle of nowhere," he says. Today it is a growing multicultural congregation of 500 members. When Rogge started the church, he had no idea that a major development was planned around the church property until he submitted plans to build a storage facility, which the City of Milton declined to approve as it would be an "eyesore."
New Life has built a black-box theater and a facility with breakout rooms for youth. The church also created Firm Foundation, an after-school program to teach morality to children, and after learning that the deaf in the community were not being reached, Rogge launched the New Life Deaf Church with captioning.
At Peerless Road Church, a ministry of the Church of God of Prophecy (COGOP), in Cleveland, Tennessee, Pastor Brian Sutton led his congregation to help a distressed neighborhood.
"We prayed for this neighborhood and the needs of this neighborhood," Sutton says. "As we prayed, we tried giving away food, and God opened doors for us."
The need for food led to the launch of Serve, a church outreach that ministers to 85 to 110 families every first and third Saturday.
"On a typical Saturday, we'll gather with a food distribution truck," Sutton says. "We fill up the truck and have volunteers of every age meet us at the church to sort it and serve it. Saturday has grown into a time of worship as we have seen people healed and delivered. They will come back and testify."
The church gives away 250 backpacks filled with school supplies to children.
"Right before school starts, we have a local cosmetology school that donates their staff (services) to cut hair," Sutton says. "Every kid gets a free haircut, backpack filled with supplies, and they hear a gospel message. We have bounce houses and give out hot dogs. We have partners who want to help us give away over 500 backpacks."
Kansas City's 64130 zip code is home to several families with family members who are convicted murderers. Hope City, a 6-year-old ministry in that area, is an outreach of the International House of Prayer Kansas City (IHOPKC) and Forerunner Christian Church. The prayer room is the heart of Hope City's ministry to drug addicts, alcoholics and families.
"When my wife and I got saved, we both had to go back and do some time in jail," says Stribling, director of Hope City. "When we got out, we always had a heart for ministering to people on the streets."
Stribling says that lasting change and freedom starts in the prayer room.
"I've been in the 12-step programs and addiction recovery," he says. "When you sit in the prayer room, you encounter the Lord."
Encompassing half a city block, Hope City has a food pantry and a community center, which is open for anyone to take a shower, get a hot meal or cup of coffee and use WiFi. The center also has a residential program for interns and 30-35 people in addiction recovery. The pantry provides meals for up to 1,000 families a month through a partnership with Harvesters Network.
"When someone comes to the community center, they don't have to go to the prayer room, but most of the time the music draws them," Stribling says. "I've led so many people to the Lord who walk into these doors."
In Adairsville, Georgia, a town with a population of about 4,600, Tina Spellman wanted Living Way Church of Foursquare to be a "transformational church." To fulfill that vision, Pastor Spellman launched community gatherings at locations such as businesses, schools, military bases and courthouses. The purpose of the gatherings is to build relationships and invite people into the community of faith.
The congregation also houses the only coffee shop in town at Living Way Community Center.
"We say Jesus shows up at the shop every day," Spellman says. "This is an experimental enterprise of sorts, a partnership between church and businesses."
The community center is also home to the Living Way Christian Academy and KidZone after-school clubs.
Grow by Meeting Needs
These churches have found that meeting the needs of the community has helped increase church attendance and empowered their members to serve.
"We're the fastest-growing church in Flint," Martin says.
Even local gang members consider Flint's Cathedral of Faith their church.
"One Sunday, 20 gang members walked into the service," Martin says. "When they come to play basketball, we tell them that they have to leave their guns outside."
The crime rate is much lower around the church in a city known for a high rate of homicides. Cathedral of Faith is also one of the few African-American churches that is a member of the Flint Chamber of Commerce.
Jaison Randall says practical evangelism has increased church attendance at CityReach Network, an Assemblies of God church plant in Buffalo, New York. The city has a higher-than-average refugee and Arab population, and CityReach aims to meet community needs with a food pantry, street evangelism and home visitation.
"Our Toys for Tots drive has been really good for us," Pastor Randall says of the Christmas toy campaign. "Our acts of kindness break down barriers between people."
At New Church of Joy, reaching children and teens has added to the congregation.
"What we do draws people to our ministry," Tricia says. "There are more people than we realize who support what we do in the community. When we hosted a summer camp, we had a lot of our members take a vacation from their job to serve the kids. I think more people are seeing that we need to reach the younger generation."
But even though a child in the program may not become a church member, her life can still be changed for the good.
"We had a 6-year-old girl who came to our Sidewalk Sunday School services who was picked up by police," Tricia says. "Her mom was strung out on drugs, and the girl told the police to take her to the church because they would know what to do. We kept her for a few weeks until we knew she was in a stable situation. Today, she is going to college and serving the Lord."
Pastors and leaders who want to change their communities need to start with what they have. Finding a mentor is also critical. Bill Wilson, the founder of Sidewalk Sunday School in New York City, mentored Tricia's husband, Luis.
"There are many people who are desperate," Sutton says of such ministry work. "You will have no competition to reach the hurting."
Leilani Haywood is the online editor of SpiritLed Woman magazine and the author of Ten Keys to Raising Kids That Love God. Follow her on Twitter (@leilanihaywood).
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