NEW ORLEANS (BP)–His background as a successful businessman was of no help to Mel Jones when an addiction to crack cocaine left him homeless for nearly a year. But then someone told Jones about the Clovis T. Brantley Center in New Orleans, one of at least 100 ministry centers operated by Southern Baptists across the country.
“It’s a homeless shelter, but to me that night it was like a palace,” said Jones, who found in the center an environment where he could begin to pull his life back together.
He eventually completed a four-month rehabilitation program that gave him the spiritual and emotional foundation he needed to begin long-term recovery. He left in 1996 after two years at the center and today is working toward a degree at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary that will enable him to be a licensed addiction counselor.
“It was a foundation for me to restart life,” Jones said of the help he found at the Brantley Center, noting that the Christian nature of the ministry gave him a more complete framework for recovery than is possible through purely secular programs.
“It would have given me some tools to start the journey, but I don’t think a secular program would have been effective for me,” he said. “I’ve come to the understanding that only God can give you the type of healing that you need. And only God can sustain you on a daily basis.”
Not all of the Baptist centers operated by the North American Mission Board or its state convention and Baptist association partners offer addiction recovery programs like the Brantley Center, but all follow a similar philosophy of reaching out to those most desperately in need of help.
Their services also include food and clothing distribution, after-school programs for children, job training programs, parenting classes, literacy classes and a variety of other ministries aimed at helping people in the surrounding community improve their lives.
“It’s just a matter of having a tender heart and wanting to share the gospel with all people — whether it’s in rural areas or the inner cities,” said Gerry Hutchinson, manager of church and community ministries for the North American Mission Board.
“To me the big thing is being compelled by the images in Matthew 25:31-46, that the least of these in our society are indeed Christ,” he added. “I think people are touched by human need and want to share Christ in both word and deed.”
Hutchinson said there are 43 Baptist centers staffed by at least one missionary of the North American Mission Board, and an estimated additional 50 to 150 centers offering similar services operated by local churches, associations or state conventions.
Ministering to the poor has been part of the Christian experience throughout history. But the concept of a ministry center in an impoverished area came in the late 1800s to the United States from the “settlement house” movement in England, according to a 1987 paper recounting the history of Baptist centers penned by former Southern Baptist educator C. Anne Davis.
“Like their predecessors in England, settlements in America were centers of community services located in areas of large cities which were characterized by overcrowding, poverty, poor housing, high unemployment, poor health care services, and high ethnic and minority populations,” she wrote.
The first Southern Baptist center of this kind was the Baptist Training School Settlement in Louisville, Ky., founded in 1912 by the Woman’s Missionary Union Training School. Other centers followed, including Baltimore’s Mallory Center in 1916, an outgrowth of the work of missionary advocate Annie Armstrong.
By 1930 the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) began taking responsibility for more of the efforts that were initiated by WMU and the seminaries. In the 1960s, the emphasis shifted to encouraging church-based ministry rather than simply relying on centralized mission centers to do the work.
Baptist centers also began to house churches of their own, which allowed individuals led to Christ through the centers to become a part of a local congregation there as well. This gave Southern Baptist ministry a continued presence in inner-city areas as Southern Baptists and their churches increasingly relocated to the suburbs.
The centers also serve as one of the outlets for local church ministry-based evangelism efforts, a concept stressed in NAMB’s recently released Ministry Evangelism Toolkit.
“These centers will be not only continuing their incredible work of meeting needs and sharing Christ — they will be reproducing themselves through helping equip more than 44,000 Southern Baptist churches,” said Jerry Pipes, NAMB’s director of ministry evangelism.
The Baptist centers’ role as a provider of social services as well as proclaimers of the gospel has at times allowed them to work effectively with government agencies for particular non-sectarian purposes, Hutchinson noted.
Although the centers don’t receive government assistance for their ministry, they sometimes administer federal funds for rental or emergency heating assistance. It serves the government’s needs by eliminating many of the administrative costs of providing assistance, while it allows the Baptist centers to form relationships with people who receive the aid.
“While they’re there you would take an opportunity to pray with them, explore their faith or lack thereof, and perhaps have an opportunity to present the gospel message,” Hutchinson said.
To people like Mel Jones, or any of the thousands of others who find hope through the Baptist centers’ ministry, it is the commitment to meeting physical and spiritual needs that makes the difference.
Jones had previously accepted Christ, but nonetheless found himself powerless to control the addictions that haunted him.
“I thought God and I would do it together,” he said. “But I found out that God doesn’t always choose to heal us that way. He brings us into relationships with other people, and through those people he helps us to heal.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http:/www.bpnews.net. Photo title: HELPING THE HURTING.