O’FALLON, Ill. (BP) — People from elsewhere are confused when I say I am from Illinois, near St. Louis. For many, Illinois means Chicago. But our state is much bigger than that.
When James Eads built the first bridge across the Mississippi in 1874, downtown St. Louis was connected to Illinois as never before. We love Chicago, our giant city to the north, but much of our state is closer to St. Louis.
If you live near enough, you know that our region is called Metro East. Let me tell you some of the Metro East story.
The Metro East is five counties on the Illinois side of the river. With 700,000 residents, it’s about one-fourth of the population of metropolitan St. Louis, which comes in at 2.8 million. It includes places like East St. Louis, Alton, Belleville, Edwardsville, Columbia, Collinsville, Fairview Heights and, yes, my town of O’Fallon.
We are diverse, but sometimes segregated. For example, East St. Louis is 98 percent African American, while O’Fallon is 82 percent white.
We are old towns, but there is a lot of new growth. Many of us work downtown, but new jobs are being created on our side of the river as well. And Scott Air Force Base has a large influence here. We have poverty and wealth. We have struggling churches and churches that are growing rapidly. We have challenges and opportunities.
Our relationship with St. Louis is complex. We love the city, the sports teams (at least those who don’t move away!) and the many things to see and do there. But we feel forgotten by the Missouri side. We go to the west side of the river often. They rarely come to the east side. We love and need St. Louis, but we identify closely with our own towns and schools.
Our area has many Catholics, but Baptists have a strong influence as well. St. Louis was founded by French explorers and Catholic missionaries. About half of the people in St. Louis consider themselves religious because they have a Catholic background, but the other half don’t claim to be anything.
The first Baptist church in the state of Illinois was in a community called New Design. It was formed in 1786 near the Metro East city of Waterloo. Colonists traveled from Virginia and Kentucky to that spot near the Mississippi River. Among their number were two preachers, James Smith and David Badgley, who preached at New Design. The colony had more than 200 residents by 1800 and was the largest settlement in Illinois at the time.
Since that day, Baptists have impacted the region with the message of the Gospel. Many of the strongest churches in the Illinois Baptist State Association are in Metro East and there are numerous new church plants here.
When the Southern Baptist Convention comes to St. Louis this summer there will be many Metro East Baptists in attendance. We will work and host many of the events that precede the convention. Our churches are planning to host and participate in Crossover events during the weekend before the convention. And my wife Vickie is president of the Ministers’ Wives luncheon that will be held on Tuesday of the convention week. She will be very busy!
Okay, we get it. Metro East isn’t Chicago. It isn’t even St. Louis, exactly. But it is a great place to live and we have a great view of the Arch. And God is at work here, which we pray our fellow Southern Baptists will see in June.