UPDATED Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Sylvia Davis* struggled to make herself heard over the roar of 30 boys as they tumbled and played during a monthly “Boys’ Night” at the Pinewood Pointe Apartments’ clubhouse.
Sponge balls flew through the air as the boys played dodge ball -– and Davis, the 23-year-old apartments “activities director,” attempted to keep the chaos under control.
In spite of being the second of nine children, Davis said handling the elementary school boys is a challenge — even a bigger one than many of the community activities she regularly organizes in her job as a USC2 missionary appointed by the North American Mission Board (NAMB).
It may be easier for Davis to build relationships with the ladies’ involved in the Bible studies and community cookouts she arranges at the low-income apartment complex in Jacksonville, Fla. -– but that doesn’t mean she would want to miss wrestling with the boys.
“I don’t know that I’m always doing the best thing for that community,” Davis told the Florida Baptist Witness. “But I pray that God would be at work there, that He would work in spite of me.”
Davis’s 18-hour trek from her home in St. Peters, Mo., to become a two-year missionary in Jacksonville’s multi-housing ministries resulted from a cooperative effort between NAMB, Neptune Baptist Church in Neptune Beach, the Jacksonville Baptist Association (JBA) and the Florida Baptist Convention
Davis soon saw the impact God’s love on the community. She recounted, for instance, when one apartment resident, a Hindu man from India working to bring his family to America, bought a Bible. Davis said the apartment manager told her the resident had said he was amazed by Jesus’ miracles and forgiveness and that he wanted to read more.
Davis said ultimately she wants to be sure God receives all the glory for any spiritual progress made in the apartments. “I was just so in awe of God,” she said. “[H]e is doing things all over that community and sometimes it has nothing to do with me.”
Davis said she didn’t set out to be a missionary but changed her mind after her Baptist Student Union director in Missouri told her she should look into missions.
Although she had grown up as a Southern Baptist and is the daughter of Steven Davis*, pastor of Oakridge Baptist Church in St. Peters, Mo., Sylvia said she was not attuned to NAMB’s work before she applied to be a two-year missionary, putting on hold her decision to pursue a master’s degree in speech communication.
NAMB was silent at first, but even so, after much prayer and despite her uncertainty about what God intended for her, Davis called the university office and withdrew from classes.
The next day, she was elated when someone from NAMB called to offer a position in Jacksonville, but speechless when JBA’s director of multi-housing ministries, Arlene Skinner, called to discuss ministry qualifications.
“‘Honestly, I have none,’” Davis said she told Skinner of her skills. “‘I don’t know what multi-housing is. I’ve never lived in Florida.’”
Evidently, Skinner believed Davis’s inexperience could be a bonus, rather than a detriment, which Davis credits to God working things out “so intricately.”
Housing was taken care of when an intern with the association had a room in her apartment where Davis could stay. And transportation was arranged when someone donated a car to the JBA after the 12-year-old car she used to drive across the country with her dad broke down shortly after their arrival in Jacksonville.
Skinner said she has never regretted giving Davis a chance.
“She just really has a passion for lost people,” Skinner told the Witness. “She has a real gift for being creative in presenting the Gospel message to people in a way that they can understand and receive it. Sylvia is one of the few people I’ve known who is just 24/7 when it comes to reaching out to lost people.”
After her dad returned to Missouri, Skinner and the rest of the staff at the JBA became her family, often fielding her calls when she got lost in Jacksonville and needed directions home.
“It was hardest right when he left,” Davis said. “[I was] thinking, ‘I’m here all by myself. My dad’s not here; he’s 18 hours away.’”
As a new missionary, Davis began ministering in the apartments by baking cookies for the apartment managers, playing Frisbee with kids after school and “visiting” with the landscapers. She has since added to that list basketball tournaments, community festivals and movie days.
“In the community there are so many people and you want to make a difference and you see the need and you don’t even know where to start,” Davis said.
She recounted a time when one of the girls during a middle-school “Girls’ Night” asked for an extra Bible study guide. The girl said her mother had started reading the Bible and she thought the guide would help her.
“It’s not about whether I’m qualified to go there or whether I have all the right things or know how to do multi-housing ministry,” Davis reflected. “God is at work and He used me because I want to be faithful and obedient to Him and I don’t have to know how to do that. He is the one at work.”
Recruiting volunteers for apartment ministry can be a challenge, but Davis encourages people to “invest in others” by sharing God’s love rather than looking at the ministry as just another program.
“I want them to have a heart to come because that’s when they’re going to make a difference,” she said.
Davis’s term as a two-year missionary ends in August, but she will stay in Jacksonville as Neptune Baptist Church’s director of missions.
Noting that 13 apartment communities in Jacksonville are waiting for churches to send people like her to plan community-building activities, Davis compared multi-housing ministries with the commission in Acts 1:8.
“Go into your Jerusalem, your Judea, your Samaria and to the ends of the earth,” Davis paraphrased the Bible verse. “This is our Jerusalem right here, and you know, this is part of that Great Commission of going.”
Eva Wolever is a writer with the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.
*Names changed for security reasons.