LAS VEGAS, Nev. (BP)–When Desert Harvest Baptist Church isn’t helping ex-felons, the homeless and teenagers, they’re reaching out in other ways locally and globally.
“By giving to the Cooperative Program, we don’t have to be concerned about ‘How do we help?’ We’re already helping,” Pastor William Upchurch Jr. said. “We’re supporting missions, we’re supporting families, we’re supporting disaster relief through the Cooperative Program.”
When the predominantly African American church was launched in 1999, Upchurch led the congregation to give 10 percent of its offerings to missions through Cooperative Program (CP) Missions, Southern Baptist’s unparalleled way of reaching people and supporting missions across America and around the world.
Upchurch had learned about the need to give a tithe from Desert Harvest’s sponsoring church, Calvary Southern Baptist Church in North Las Vegas, where Jaffus L. Haley Jr. has been senior pastor since 1981.
When Desert Harvest -– where about 70 people participate in Sunday morning services -– started New Creations Baptist Church last April, Upchurch led the new congregation also to give 10 percent to CP Missions.
“I believe we receive blessings by giving 10 percent to the Cooperative Program,” the pastor added.
Desert Harvest believes in blessing its community through such initiatives as its prison integration ministry.
“We get them bus passes, food and clothing,” Upchurch, a 22-year Air Force veteran who saw action in Vietnam in 1970-71, said. “We help them with getting ex-felon registration fees and with utilities [payment] assistance.
“We’ve helped men and we’ve helped families,” the pastor said. “It’s real difficult when they get out; there are a lot of things they need to do to get started.”
Desert Harvest also is involved in a community service program in which individuals under the supervision of the pastor clean up and do maintenance around the church as part of their sentencing for misdemeanor crimes.
“That also affords us a chance to counsel with them and witness; that’s why we got started in it,” Upchurch said. “It’s a mission. A lot of churches fail to get involved in the community; we believe this is fulfilling one of Christ’s commands to help feed the hungry…. That’s part of being in the community, identifying with the community.”
None of the ex-felons or community service workers have joined Desert Harvest, but, as Upchurch put it, “God will take care of the growth of this church — as long as we are faithful to do what He wants done, that is.
“Most of the people stay in town,” Upchurch continued. “Some have done real well and some have not. We try to emphasize that no matter what, to be successful you have to have a relationship with Christ; that’s paramount. And you need to be in fellowship in a church; there are too many unhealthy secular alternatives. Your reliance should be on Christ.”
Desert Harvest also reaches out to another group with serious needs. About 20 youth prepare and pass out food and toiletries to the homeless who congregate in enclaves around Las Vegas.
“They keep them busy,” Upchurch said of outreach leaders Deacon Bernard and Lois Davis, who help the youth “make practical application of what they’re studying, not just a head knowledge of Disciple Training, and it also develops a sense of compassion for the less fortunate.
“With homeless people there’s never enough,” the pastor continued. “If you don’t even have identification, life can be quite difficult for you.”
Upchurch’s identification with Las Vegas includes helping with various food ministries and coaching high school football since 1996; he’s been assistant coach at Mojave High School since 2002.
“I played in high school and in the military, guard and tackle,” Upchurch said. “In the church environment, if you’re a pastor, you’re a coach. And in high school football, you’re coaching them and teaching them and instilling values -– you exhort and encourage them.
“I don’t swear, and that has a positive bearing on the kids,” the pastor continued. “When they learn they can count on you, that makes them stronger, able to grow into men who can be counted on.”
Desert Harvest was planted in northwest Las Vegas where there was no other Southern Baptist presence amid a mix of new construction and homes built in the 1990s.
“The major challenge is visionary,” Upchurch said of growing and strengthening the church. “We need to be following the Great Commission and adhering to that. Some get the vision; some don’t. Some have a missionary heart and some have a maintenance heart.
“We’ve got to go outside of the walls of the church as the body of Christ,” the pastor continued. “We discipline and train ourselves in the body through Discipleship Training in order to be ready to give an answer; this isn’t just for maintenance, but to go out.”
The church’s strengths include members who look around, see what needs done and do it, whether it is a lawn that needs mowed or a family that needs help.
“This is becoming a fast-growing area,” Upchurch said. “Anytime you’ve got people moving in, that presents opportunities for ministry.”
He’s quick to voice a good word about Las Vegas.
“I’ve been here 22 years and I just don’t get the sense that this is the seat of Satan,” Upchurch said.
“I don’t want to give Satan too much credit. I see the mission of Jesus Christ being carried out here,” the pastor continued. “The Cooperative Program is an instrument that is used to break down the strongholds and the barriers of sin, and an instrument of delivering people through the teaching and application of the biblical doctrine of Jesus Christ.
“Yes, we use the Cooperative Program locally and, yes, we use it globally.”