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Church & its missions make inner-city inroads

ST. LOUIS (BP)–After starting in 1994 with two home Bible studies, the 10-member Gibson Avenue Baptist Chapel moved into a building at the corner of Gibson and Newstead in St. Louis.
But it was not just any building, back in April 1995.
It was a known “crack house” where people sold and used crack cocaine.
“When we first entered this building, people were afraid to come out of their houses at night because gangs walked the streets and would just shoot in the air,” pastor Jimmy Ward recalled.
“We had gang members who used to stand in front of the building and sell drugs ask us why we made this a church. From that, we developed a relationship with gang members, and they finally stopped hanging out in front of the building and moved down the street.”
But the church did not stop there. “We would go down the street and take them Christian literature, and because of that, they moved off the block,” Ward said. “People have gone from being afraid to come out at night to having block parties last summer. We’ve shown outdoor movies, such as the ‘Jesus’ film and ‘Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames.’ Once a month, we have a community-wide activity.”
It’s a different picture Ward paints today of the same Gibson Avenue community where, six years ago, a 9-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire between rival drug dealers. In fact, it is such a different picture that this former mission of Kingshighway Baptist Church, St. Louis, is being included in a July Time magazine article about the effects of inner-city missions on communities.
“People in the community have really supported and embraced the church,” Ward said. “The community and church are coming together to do things that make it a lot better. That was one of the church’s first goals — to form community block units where residents could discuss problems of the community and come up with solutions. The main priority of the church was to reach out to the community in a five-block area.”
The mission held a constitution service April 13. Now, with 63 members, it is known as Gibson Avenue Baptist Church. It is one of three Kingshighway missions that have become churches within 15 months. Messiah Community Church was the first one.
Mount Olive Baptist Church on Shaw Boulevard in St. Louis was another of the Kingshighway missions. With about 10 members, its first service was in August 1995 in the Mount Olive Lutheran Church building, where the congregation still meets. The church, which now has about 60 members, held a constitution service May 18.
“I feel the presence of the Lord here,” said Donna Bryant, who recently joined Mount Olive. “The people are friendly, they look out for each other and they invite others to eat with them. I feel I can do the Lord’s work here.”
Mount Olive’s beginning dates back to 1993, when pastor Roosevelt Clossum and Paul Powell, then Kingshighway’s pastor, began having Bible studies in people’s homes and passing out bread one day a week.
“Being a mailman, involved in local politics and a salesman helps me go door-to-door to talk with people,” said Clossum, who retired after 32 years with the Postal Service. “All these things involve people; I don’t meet any strangers. We go into the community. In a three-block area, there are 200 families not being reached. Besides the gospel, we’re trying to help the community to become a growing, vital community.”
One way the church is achieving that goal is through a partnership with the Lutheran church, which provided a grant for a computer class for area residents. “The area is primarily unemployed or on welfare,” said William Wyatt, Mount Olive Baptist’s minister of Christian education. “If they can operate a computer, then they have a better chance of getting a job.”
While unusual, the Baptist/Lutheran partnership has the same goal in mind. “Our greatest concern is souls being saved — whether they’re Baptist or Lutheran doesn’t matter — just get them saved,” said Mount Olive Lutheran pastor William Doubek.
Yet another Kingshighway mission plans to have a constitution service sometime this year or next, said the Hispanic mission’s pastor, Amadeo Torres. Organized in 1994, it meets in the Kingshighway sanctuary after the regular morning services.
“I started with only my family, and I prayed to make contact with Spanish people,” said Torres, who noted there are more than 45,000 Hispanic people in the St. Louis area. The Spanish-speaking people are not gathered in a particular community, so Torres and his wife, Rossana, just make contact with them at work or as they meet them.
The congregation has grown to about 60 members. “My vision is we will have two or three services with 300 people each and move to the north, east and west (in the St. Louis area) to establish new missions for Spanish people there,” Torres said. “My dream is to fill this church with the Spanish community.”
A photographer from Time magazine also visited the Hispanic mission on May 11 and took pictures of four people being baptized, reported Bill Jones, Kingshighway’s administrator. Jones said the missions are growing because they are located where the people are.
“I’ve learned if you put a church in their neighborhood, where they can meet and officiate themselves and have a pastor from their neighborhood, someone they can relate to, then they will go,” Jones said. “The idea of storefront missions is to take back our neighborhood.”

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  • Stacey Hamby