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7/31/97 Struggling neighborhood receives 3rd year of World Changers’ care

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. (BP)–Erma Harris had her world changed as college and high school students stripped six layers of shingles from her home in West Memphis, Ark., and replaced them with tar paper and a fresh shingle layer.
A group of 120 Baptist students and 57 adult leaders from across the nation replaced and repaired roofing, porches, siding and foundations of 15 homes — the third consecutive year a World Changers project has been held in West Memphis, with most of the work done in a predominantly poor black neighborhood on the city’s south side.
Harris, who watched from her porch along with her husband, Rass, was quick to note the value of the work. “What would I be doing if they weren’t doing this? I would have no means of getting it done because I am not able.”
The long-term impact of the work of World Changers in West Memphis has begun to show, noted construction coordinator Ronnie O’Neal.
“Three years ago, the only people that you would see on the streets on the south side were drug dealers and a few prostitutes. It is amazing the children you see this year. A lot of this is because of World Changers.”
Crew chief Turk Cunningham of Newark (Ark.) Southern Baptist Church agreed. “You can tell by driving down the road that people’s yards are cleaner, there’s more pride in the community. I talked to one of the residents who said that a lot of the undesirables have left. When we first got here, people didn’t get out. Yesterday, kids were walking up and down the street and neighbors were talking.”
While the neighborhood has improved, signs of vice still exist. One World Changers team prayed in a circle with a woman three doors from a crack house adorned with spray-painted gang graffiti where a young man was “greeting” streetside customers.
Since their first project in 1995, students have renovated 64 homes in West Memphis. The project is one of 44 World Changers operations held in 1997 through Southern Baptists’ North American Mission Board, entailing 40 domestic projects and foreign projects in Antigua, Nicaragua, Trinidad and the Dominican Republic. World Changers is again scheduled for West Memphis in 1998.
The projects have helped build trust among neighbors and workers. Resident William Gillespie noted last year students “did a wonderful job” renovating his neighbor’s home. “That house needed destroying. It was in pitiful shape. They did a new top, new rafters, new studs and shingles. She appreciated the good job. She was a widow woman.”
Resident Dovie Jones, whose house was reroofed, said the work “makes me feel good. I just fell in love with them, their attitude and they were just like me, down-to-earth Christian people.”
For many of the students, such as Erin Grice of Georgia, it was their “very first missions trip. I love helping people and I’ve done Habitat for Humanity before, but this has been a good time for me to get away and get closer to God while helping others.”
Candice Sharp of Texas said she overcame “a fear of heights” to work on the Harris house roof, adding, “They couldn’t do this themselves. We tore off six layers of shingles because others who did this work didn’t. They (the Harrises) got ripped off.”
The July 14-18 week in West Memphis also featured nightly worship at First Baptist Church there, with a program urging students to be “A Step Above.” Team leader Audette Jenkins of Alabama said the theme challenged students “to go above and beyond what is normally required, whether that is in their Christian faith or just getting up on a roof.”
While construction is the thrust of World Changers, the projects also build trust and opportunities to witness to residents. During the week, 39 people made professions of faith in Christ.
“We haven’t intentionally set this up to do evangelism, but these young people walk down streets, share their testimony and what they are doing,” O’Neal observed. People in the neighborhood are “very receptive because of what we are doing,” he said.
At one location, Steve Cox of Texas led a garbage collector to the Lord. “I started talking to Darnell and he indicated he had a fear of meeting God,” Cox recounted. “So we talked a little bit about that. I asked Darnell if he would like to meet Jesus someday and not have that fear. He said, ‘Yeah, that would be great.’
“I said, ‘We can all ask Jesus into our lives,'” Cox continued. “The guy was beeping his horn on the truck, getting ready to go. I asked, ‘Would you like to pray?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know how.’ I prayed with him and he asked God to come into his life.”
“These young people are so devoted in their work,” said crew chief Les Childers of First Baptist Church, Glenwood, Ark. “These kids will get down off the roof … and they witness to people. On their day off, Wednesday, they took a half day and went over to witness in Memphis at gas stations and on street corners. Baptists all over Arkansas need to be aware of what we are doing.”

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  • Russell N. Dilday