News Articles

East St. Louis center transforms young lives

EAST ST. LOUIS (BP)–A young boy walks through the Christian Activity Center in the heart of this inner-city community, making the rounds with an adult securing the building for the night. Less than an hour earlier, the unobtrusive brick building in East St. Louis had been bustling with children and teenagers. Only a few linger now as the boy asks his older companion a few curious questions about God.

For Chet Cantrell, the center’s director since 1989, that’s where real ministry begins. The after-hours talks. The conversations in the van before the field trips hit the road. Although a myriad of physical and spiritual activities captures the attention of these young people, it is these one-on-one spontaneous opportunities to disciple that represent the center’s heart.

“The easiest thing for us to do is to win kids to Christ,” Cantrell said, “but what we’re called to do is to make disciples.” And to do that, adult leaders have to get involved in the day-to-day lives of the 160 young people, from 6 to 18 years old, who show up at the center every weekday during the summer. When the school year gets up and running, that average attendance will jump to 240. “There’s no sense in fulfilling the Great Commission if you’re not willing to get to know people.”

Maintaining a comfortable environment for the children is particularly important as staff members carry out the center’s “calling card” — an extensive recreation program. Children need an hour to 90 minutes of daily physical activity, Cantrell said, to help them succeed in school. The center meets that need with basketball and other team sports. A new gym was built in the 1990s with help from a $100,000 grant from United Parcel Service. A fenced-in play area is in the back. There’s even an indoor trampoline in a room next to the kitchen. The team sports also help the center teach important values, including sharing, cooperation and interacting with authority.

Workers and volunteers take children on field trips, ranging from the St. Louis Zoo to a nearby water park, and to weeklong summer camps. They took more than 120 children, from 6 to 11 years old, to a camp in Ironton, Mo., for five days and their pre-teen and teenagers to a camp in Branson, Mo., for inner-city youth.

The activities are eye-openers for children and teens who rarely have a chance to leave a city known for its high crime and homicide rates. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, East St. Louis had the highest homicide rate in the nation.

That’s why keeping young people off the streets, where they could be involved in crime or become the victims of crime, is central to the center’s mission. “We’re the place to go. There’s nothing else for the kids,” Cantrell said. “We live in a broken neighborhood, and these kids have a passion for wholeness.” The center responds with firm rules and regulations so children know the boundaries and can feel secure. That also means adult leaders treat each other with respect. “What really matters to kids is how the adults in their lives react to each other. Kids like for us to love them, but they really like to see us love each other.”

Complementing its recreation programs, the center offers educational initiatives, including after-school tutoring and homework assistance during the school year. Student teachers from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville provide the instruction. The center has a part-time worker who teaches computer classes in the second-floor computer lab, and it offers reading classes. Seven high schoolers comprise a youth leadership team absorbing all they can learn about computers so they can teach elementary kids this fall. A grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development will provide salaries for the teen teachers.

Life-enhancement programs inform kids about a variety of topics from bicycle safety to hygiene. A nurse on staff offers health education. Last summer, children received vision testing. About 40 had severe eye problems, with 25 fitted for glasses so far.

All these recreational and educational activities create an environment for discipleship to flourish, Cantrell said. Children know that the adults — at least nine full- and part-time workers as well as a host of volunteers — will spend time with them, answering their questions and praying for their concerns.

“Our purpose is to establish relationships with kids that will make discipleship happen,” Cantrell said. The center offers separate weekly Bible studies for girls and boys. Girl Talk is on Thursdays; Men of Honor meets on Wednesdays. A Friday night worship service is popular with younger children while many of the older youngsters attend a devotion time scheduled shortly before closing each night.

The center has been meeting spiritual needs in East St. Louis since its heyday in the early 1950s, when the ministry was known as the Baptist Goodwill Center. Its ministry then focused on day care, social services and some children’s work. The North American Mission Board owns the center, and the Metro East Baptist Association manages the staff. Cantrell is a NAMB-appointed missionary, whose salary and benefits are provided by NAMB and Illinois Baptist State Association.

The son of missionary parents, Cantrell grew up on an Indian reservation, where he saw poverty, unemployment and alcohol abuse. Those social ills stirred up strong anger in his younger years, wondering how God could allow such suffering and how his people could do so little to alleviate it. God took his anger and replaced it with a compassionate heart for urban ministries, he said.

While many Christians still have fears about coming to East St. Louis, Cantrell has seen others ignore those worries and volunteer their time to help the center’s ministry.

“There would not be a work here if not for the cooperative efforts of Baptists,” Cantrell said. “We can do so many things together that otherwise could not be done.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Leathers