BRONX, N.Y. (BP)–Today there are 16 churches in the Bronx affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Sam Simpson started five and encouraged the others to join the denomination, while at the same time helping restore what was a fire-ravaged community — some say nearly 70,000 fires from 1970 to 1975.
Simpson wasn’t even out of college in 1964 when First Baptist Church of Brooklyn, under the leadership of D.A. Morgan, called Simpson and his wife, Lola, as church planters in the Bronx, north of Manhattan.
“When we came to the Bronx, it was pretty good,” Simpson said. “People were sitting on park benches. The Grand Concourse was very nice. Things were good. But then you saw the deterioration and you watched the fires, thousands and thousands of them.”
The decline of the Bronx saw a corresponding growth of Southern Baptist work in the borough. Simpson didn’t have just a ringside seat — he was in the center ring.
Simpson started with a Thursday evening prayer meeting in the apartment home of Cecilia Robinson. The first worship service was Nov. 6, 1964 in a two-family home on Honeywell Avenue that had been purchased for Simpson’s use by the Home Mission Board, precursor to the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board.
A Southern Baptist work there continues today as Honeywell Baptist Church. The pastor, Aristotle Simpri, is from Ghana. He’s a teacher at Long Island University and one of several people Simpson has mentored from layperson to pastor.
“From the first week of Bronx Baptist Church’s existence, Sunday School, morning and evening worship services and midweek prayer meetings were conducted,” Simpson wrote on the church’s website: www.bronxbaptist.org.
Within a year of the Simpsons’ arrival, the South Bronx began visibly to deteriorate. But the decay had started earlier.
As early as the 1950s, city social workers reported “enduring poverty” in the South Bronx, which was where about 170,000 people displaced from post-WWII slum clearing in Manhattan moved, according to an online history of the borough found on the website www.npl.org.
They were replacing people who had moved from apartments to homes of their own, or perhaps duplexes, north of Bronx County. The new Bronx tenants — often two and three families in an apartment meant for one — reaped the benefit of rent control laws enacted during the war, but the lack of profits limited the maintenance landlords were willing to do, and the press of people added to the maintenance that needed to be done.
“Buildings were often set afire, at some times by unscrupulous landlords hoping to collect insurance, and at others by unscrupulous tenants taking advantage of the city’s policy that burned-out tenants should be given priority for public housing and receive money for new furnishings,” the website reported.
Another website — www.bobbalogh.com — listed six main reasons for the deterioration of the Bronx after 1965: (Keep in mind that while this was going on, Simpson was starting four churches; the fifth followed in 1986.)
— Misguided federal policies on urban renewal, such as “clearing whole blocks of old but salvageable buildings, leaving acres of vacant lots in the middle of once cohesive neighborhoods.”
— New York City “starved the Bronx of funds” and closed two hospitals, “gerrymandering political districts so that no one represented the South Bronx.”
— When profits declined, some landlords “reduced maintenance, stopped paying real estate taxes, and eventually abandoned or torched their properties.”
— Residents torched their properties to get to the top of housing lists that included money for new furniture. “One report states that between 1970 and 1975 there were 68,456 fires in the borough — more than 33 each night, and most in the South Bronx.”
— Jobs disappeared — an estimated 17,688 in manufacturing alone. Large firms left for lower taxes; small businesses left in fear.
— As robbers, muggers and street gangs proliferated, stable families fled.
This was the world God had brought an unsuspecting Sam and Lola Simpson to.
“People were scared because you could never tell what would happen in a building,” Simpson said. “These were large, nine or 10-family houses. But we [Bronx Baptist] grew steadily during that time.”
That’s typical of Simpson, who is known for his optimism.
“He will often get up in his pulpit and say ‘God is good. It is good to be good. It is good to do good.’ I don’t believe I’ve ever heard him speak without saying that,’ said J.B. Graham, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New York. “That’s his trademark.”
On Nov. 6, 1966, two years after its first worship service, the new work started by Simpson was constituted with 64 charter members as Bronx Baptist Church. Its location: In the center of the South Bronx. Despite (or perhaps because of) the chaos going on around it, by 1970 the church had outgrown the two-family home. It moved to its present location on East 187th Street — still in the South Bronx, though about a mile north of the Honeywell Avenue property.
That same year — 1970 — Simpson started the Protestant Church of Co-Op City. Co-Op City was a government housing project built between 1968 and 1970. It consisted of 15,000 apartments in three dozen high-rise buildings that were designed to house about 60,000 people. The opening segment of the recent Sean Connery film “Finding Forrester” was filmed at Co-Op City. As the church’s name implies, the Southern Baptist congregation was the only on-site religious service that wasn’t Roman Catholic or Jewish.
The Co-Op City church today is one of the largest church buildings in the Bronx, Simpson said. It recently completed a multi-million dollar building campaign for overall expansion. Calvin Owens has been pastor since the 1980s; it is no longer affiliated with Southern Baptists.
Simpson was appointed a Southern Baptist associate missionary and later, pastor-director for the Southern Baptist Church in the Bronx. In 1971, during some of the most virulent fire episodes, he was appointed to full missionary status.
In 1972 Simpson started Wake-Eden Community Baptist Church. That was the year President Jimmy Carter visited the Bronx. Newspapers — which had for the most part avoided the lawless area — described the destruction seen as akin to that of Berlin after World War II.
Like Co-Op City, Wake-Eden was in northeast Bronx — somewhat removed from the ongoing decimation of the South Bronx.
Wake-Eden today is in the final third of a major expansion project. About 200 people attend Sunday services. They give eight percent of their undesignated offerings to the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptist’s acclaimed method for funding national and international missions, and another eight percent to Metro New York Baptist Association for local missions needs.
The multicultural Wake-Eden congregation also contributed about $1.3 million in the last three years toward its building project, with about $1 million yet to be raised. The expansion will add space for another 150 worshippers on the ground level, two floors for education space, day care for 75 youngsters, new elementary school for up to 200 students, one floor for library and prayer room, and one for administrative offices.
Simpson spoke of a “desperate need” for volunteer workers to complete Wake Eden construction so the school can open as planned Sept. 2. Construction workers of all types are needed, the pastor said — plumbers, electricians, drywallers, carpenters and others. The church can provide free housing nearby for workers.
Wake-Eden recently started New Hope Baptist in Spring Valley north of the Bronx, in Rockland County. Peter John, a deacon at Wake Eden, has been licensed to be the new congregation’s pastor.
Wake Eden’s local ministries include the day care and after school center, which has 15 computers for use by students. Others: eight Bible studies, plus nursing home, jail, feeding and an 800-number telephone ministry.
To return to the timeline, Simpson and the mother church, Bronx Baptist, started Grace Baptist, also in northeast Bronx, in 1986. Delroy Reid-Salomon, then youth director at Bronx Baptist, started Grace. It met first in a restaurant, saw some land it wanted, borrowed $1 million to pay for it, and has since paid off that loan.
The Bronx’s other Southern Baptist churches include Japanese and Korean as well as multicultural congregations. The population of the Bronx is “fairly well mixed with blacks, Hispanics and whites,” Simpson said. “There’s a section called ‘Little Italy.'”
About 250 attend 11 a.m. Sunday worship services at Bronx Baptist, where Simpson preaches his second sermon of the day. The first is at 9 a.m. at Wake-Eden.
Bronx Baptist gives 10 percent of its undesignated offerings to the Cooperative Program, and another 10 percent to Metro New York Baptist Association. They also are involved heavily in supporting several community ministries and church planting. Church members have raised about $63,000 toward its $1 million building expansion.
With a $200,000 grant and $700,000 bank loan, the project is finished except for construction gaffes that need to be fixed, Simpson said. The church is selling $25 symbolic “bricks” to pay off the loan and raise the rest of the money needed, with bronze (4), silver (10), gold (20) and diamond (40) donor levels. Names of donors will be inscribed in a journal to be published for the opening of the expansion.
With its expansion Bronx Baptist will add a first floor garage, second floor day care center, third floor offices, library and multipurpose room. On the fourth floor will be a caretaker’s apartment. The building is connected to the present two-floor worship center and a basement currently used for the day care center.
Ministries ebb and flow at Bronx Baptist as the people called to them come and go. At the present time in addition to its day care and afterschool care program, the church provides a hot meal once a week for all who would like to participate.
A Thursday evening “midnight” prayer meeting — so named because it goes from 8 p.m. to midnight or later — has been going on since 1973.
Bronx Baptist also has a strong youth program that becomes even stronger during the summer months with the arrival of summer mission teams who lead day camps at various parks. Youth also meet Friday nights at the church.
“In the city you can’t just do evangelism,” Simpson said. “In the city, evangelism is looking at the needs of the community and beginning to meet those needs. What is unique about Southern Baptists is their evangelism. In the city, that evangelism starts with social ministry.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PLANTING IN THE MIDST OF FIRES and A BEACON IN THE COMMUNITY.