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African American churches combine spiritual growth with ministry to community needs

HOUSTON (BP)–The primary purpose of at least one McDonald’s restaurant isn’t to make money — though it does make money. This McDonald’s is providing jobs, training and leadership development for members of its owner, Brentwood Baptist Church.

Located in a southwest Houston subdivision, Brentwood Baptist was started as an Anglo church in 1965. But 15 years later 500 members called Joe Samuel Ratliff as the church’s third pastor, and the second African American to lead what had become a predominately African American congregation. Now, numbering about 15,000 members, it is the largest African American church in the Southern Baptist Convention. About 7,500 people gather for morning worship each Sunday.

In addition to starting 14 churches, Brentwood boasts a number of community ministries including a credit union for church members, transitional housing for people who live with AIDS, and a computer training center. A 75,000-square-foot lifelong education and family life center dedicated in February 2001 includes a gymnasium, fitness center, arcade, 60 classrooms and the McDonald’s — perhaps the only church-owned unit in a franchise corporation that encompasses 30,000-plus restaurants in about 120 nations.

“It gives us an opportunity to hire our young people and our seniors, and gives us a chance to show by example African American enterprise,” Ratliff said. “We’re very much involved in trying to help our people, trying to teach our people how to save and invest.”

Brentwood is one of many African American Southern Baptist churches where more than 2,000 people worship each Sunday. Each has a strong community ministries component and vibrant worship. Among them:

St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church, La Puente, Calif.

An array of educational opportunities is provided to members of St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church and the surrounding La Puente, Calif., community about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. E.W. McCall Sr., D.Min., has been pastor of the 4,000-member church since 1970.

With the exception of McCall and a fulltime minister of education, the church’s multiple ministries are led by volunteers trained (at church expense) at the SBC’s LifeWay conference center in Glorieta, N.M., and through St. Stephen’s extensive Discipleship Training program.

A late-October College Fair brings about 30 colleges and universities to St. Stephen, where they interact with college-bound students and parents from the church and greater East L.A. area.

A 14-station computer training center provides equipment for students who don’t have home computers, and tutoring in all school subjects.

An infant/preschool daycare center provides for nearly 100 area youngsters five days a week.

“Sunday School makes church folks Christians,” said Pastor McCall, who also is second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “We feel Sunday School is a priority in terms of developing ministries and also the people God sends our way.

The church offers more than 60 Sunday School classes, along with three Sunday morning worship services attended by about 2,300 people. Seven choirs are active in the congregation.

“Discipleship Training is another high priority in our church…. [We give] in-depth, specific training in order for our members to grow in certain areas of ministry,” McCall said. “We send out our members on short-term mission trips and we reach out into the community to do God’s work.”

The church sends its members on short-term mission trips as much to receive a blessing as to be a blessing, the pastor said. Other hands-on ministries include providing a hot meal in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday nights for perhaps 400 homeless people, and an extensive Courage to Change and Free at Last 12-step drug and alcohol recovery program that includes a support group for family members.

Greenforest Baptist Church, Decatur, Ga.

More than 6,000 people are members at Greenforest Baptist Church in Decatur, Ga., where George O. McCalep Jr., Ph.D., has been pastor since 1979, beginning with 25 members from a formerly Anglo congregation founded in 1958.

Greenforest today sets on a 100-acre campus in metro Atlanta. Its $7 million Early Learning Center and Greenforest Academy provide Christian education with a healthy dose of African American history for 700 students from six weeks old through the 12th grade.

Also on the property: two classroom buildings, a gym/family life building, lighted athletic field, picnic grounds and playground.

Greenforest, through its community development corporation, bought an apartment complex in 1997 for $5 million and renovated it. Plans are on the drawing board for a $7.5 million Mission City complex to include housing for the elderly.

The church’s community development corporation has five divisions: home ownership; youth training and development; senior initiatives; rehabilitative services; and technology. The corporation also manages the church’s apartments, while partnering with financial institutions to provide home ownership opportunities.

Another focus at Greenforest: networking and training to help others develop ministry-driven and teaching-oriented churches. McCalep has authored several books on church growth, with “Sin in the House,” published by Orman Press of Lithonia, Ga. perhaps the best known, detailing a range of crucial church growth problems.

“Dr. McCalep confronts and exposes the sins of carnality, cruelty and complacency in the church, citing them as partial reasons for the absence of church growth in many contemporary churches,” wrote Victory T. Curry of New Birth Baptist Church in Miami, Fla., in the book’s forward. “Dr. McCalep challenges us to change the way we think about church growth.”

McCalep’s vision from the Lord is to heal the wounded body of Christ, according to the church’s website, www.greenforest.org. McCalep is president of the African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Brookhollow Baptist Church, Houston

The second-largest African American church in the SBC, like the first, is in Houston. Ralph Douglas West started Brookhollow Baptist Church in 1987 with 32 people present for a Bible study in his home.

Today about 4,800 people gather at two locations for a total of four Sunday morning worship services. The worship center built in 1997 quickly grew too small. A 4,000-seat facility is in the planning stages.

Known as The Church Without Walls, Brookhollow’s vocational staff includes nine pastors in addition to West. They lead nearly 100 ministries, such as Economic Empowerment, Home Blessing, and Telecare, to serve varied groups including prisoners, military personnel, special needs children and their families, as well as people with HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, broken relationships, mental hurts and more. Joshua’s Men and Lydia’s Women are the church’s cornerstone discipleship groups.

“We are committed to bringing men and women who do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ into fellowship with him and into responsible church membership,” said Karl Minor, associate pastor of pastoral ministries. “With that in mind, all the hundred ministries help facilitate the process of evangelizing people, equipping believers, enriching persons, edifying missions and exalting God.”

Brookhollow also operates an academy for children age 2 through the sixth grade and after-school activities for members’ children. A multifaceted recreation ministry operates in some capacity almost every day of the week.

West’s passionate preaching style earned him entry in 1998 to the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Georgia. The focus of West’s preaching of the gospel is Christ exalted and the Word of God explained in a way that meets peoples’ needs and encourages them to become responsible church members, Minor said.

St. Stephen Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky.

About 5,000 people altogether worship each weekend at one of six times (including 6 p.m. Saturday) in three locations known as the St. Stephen Baptist Church of Louisville, Ky. (One is in nearby Clarksville, Ind.)

Kevin W. Cosby has been pastor since 1979 of the church of about 8,000 members that was started by African Americans in 1926. He is the fourth pastor.

St. Stephen in 1989 built the first Family Life Center in an African American church in Kentucky. The facility was expanded in 2001. It now houses the state’s largest daycare center, a cafe, arcade, billiards room, two-court gym, sauna, dance studio, fitness center and classroom space. A 1,700-seat worship center was built in 1993.

According to its website — www.ststephenonline.com — the church exists to worship Christ, lead the lost to Christ, develop the saved, provide fellowship and transform society.

St. Stephen provides more than 110 ministries that reach out to the community. The St. Stephen Economic Development Corp. builds and sells homes, while some of the more unconventional avenues of outreach are Abuse Victors, Homosexual Recovery and Undercover Greeters. The church employs 85 people and maintains three campuses. As a for-profit venture it owns Book Link, said to be west Louisville’s premiere family bookstore.

“Your children cannot walk in truth if you don’t,” Pastor Cosby proclaims on the church’s website. He has been featured on a “48 Hours” documentary hosted by Dan Rather; a PBS special, “The Issue is Race”; and in at least seven major news publications including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, Jet magazine, as well as Louisville-area newspapers and magazines.

St. Stephen was featured as “One of Six Super Churches of the South” in Emerge magazine, and in Business First magazine in 1997 and again in 2000.

St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, Harvey, Ill. near Chicago

William L. “Willie” Jordan is pastor at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Harvey, Ill., near Chicago. When he was called as pastor in 1976, St. Mark’s 40 members were meeting in a little house. Today more than 3,500 people gather in two services in what the church calls its cathedral, built in 1994 on a street corner that once offered prostitution and illegal drugs.

“[Jordan’s] focus has been on raising our community from the ashes, making the community we’re in more appealing,” said Lily Washington, one of 12 fulltime vocational staff members.

St. Mark built a free medical center and a community center in this suburb southeast of Chicago. Its Community Development Service Center has completed the rehabilitation of one house and is in the blueprint stage of three more. It also owns an office complex, a for-profit venture. A 250-unit assisted living facility is expected to be ready for occupancy in the spring of 2004. Jordan and Associates Home Health Care, meanwhile, consists of 12 licensed practical nurses who assist 62 people at the present time, a ministry designed to grow as the Lord brings more nurses, the pastor said.

St. Mark Academy’s $1.3 million building — for 200 students in kindergarten through the eighth grade — was just finished.

In addition to its community outreach, St. Mark has planted 12 churches, four of them in 2002, fueled in part by Jordan’s reputation for mentoring young ministers.

“If we can get folks to change their mind, they can live better and do better,” Jordan said. “Romans 12:2 talks about a new mind, new thinking, new living. One of the things we teach the church is we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Philippians 4:13.

“If leaders will humble themselves and focus on God and not themselves, and love God’s people in spite of their ways, their attitudes, whatever, God will elevate them,” Jordan continued. “If they learn to work together they can do anything. I couldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the Lord and my wife, Belle. She and my six children are my blessing.”