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African American church grows from 9 members to 150 in worship

SULPHUR SPRINGS, Texas (BP)–When LaVelle Hendricks arrived as pastor eight years ago, East Caney Baptist Church was a struggling rural African American congregation of nine members.
Today, the vibrant multiracial church near Sulphur Springs, Texas, draws about 150 worshipers each week from Hopkins County and neighboring Hunt County in northeast Texas, and its members are involved in 26 different ministries — including extensive evangelistic outreach.
“We want to be a part of sharing Jesus Christ with everybody in Hopkins County,” Hendricks said. “We’ve bought into Texas 2000 hook, line and sinker.” Texas 2000 is the statewide Baptist initiative for sharing the gospel with every Texan by the year 2000.
As part of its evangelistic strategy, East Caney has sponsored “Praise in the Park” festivals one Saturday each month during the summer for the last six years.
With the support of local merchants who help to provide refreshments, the church coordinates basketball tournaments, volleyball games and other sports events. Throughout the day, members of the church witness, distribute tracts and share Scripture portions.
Hendricks expected his church to distribute up to 4,000 gospel tracts at a Praise in the Park event on June 19 — the traditional day for “Juneteenth” emancipation day celebrations among black Texans.
“It’s amazing. When we start handing out the Bible tracts, the drug dealers leave, the drug use ceases, the alcohol consumption stops,” Hendricks said. “The Sulphur Springs chief of police has said he wishes we could do it every week.”
Rehoboth Baptist Association has been very supportive of East Caney’s evangelistic emphasis, as well as providing leadership training and other assistance for church-based ministries, Hendricks noted. Four years ago, East Caney Baptist Church became the first historically African American church to affiliate with Rehoboth association in 150 years.
“We wanted to make a point to the community that we are one in the body of Christ,” Hendricks said. “We worship the same God. We’d rather focus on our common thread — our commitment to Jesus Christ — than dwell on the racial differences that have divided us.”
In addition to that desire for unity, Hendricks said he also was attracted by the Texas Baptist and Southern Baptist emphasis on Bible teaching and discipleship.
Hendricks comes honestly by that commitment to teaching. In addition to serving as pastor of East Caney Baptist Church, he teaches psychology and works as assistant director in the office of institutional effectiveness and research at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
He maintains that the distance between his home in Commerce and his church southeast of Sulphur Springs is “the shortest 37 miles I’ve ever driven in my life.” Even so, he acknowledges it’s a challenge to balance the responsibilities of his weekday university job and his calling to pastoral ministry.
“Eight years ago, it didn’t bother me, but I’m not as young anymore. I feel Sunday on Monday and Tuesday. It takes its toll,” he said.
Even so, as trained lay leaders assume more responsibility for day-to-day ministries in the church and community, Hendricks’ level of enthusiasm remains high.
“Our goals are simple,” he says. “We’ll continue to evangelize the lost, edify the saints, equip God’s people through discipleship, and continue to tell everyone about John 14:6. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and one day he is coming again.”

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  • Ken Camp