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Fostering hope where ‘rural Appalachia meets the inner city’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (BP)–As a sports journalist and editor for 10 years, Norm Cannada had no idea a few years ago he would wind up living and ministering in the struggling inner city of Charleston, W.Va. But it was while serving on a mission trip in New York City that he and his wife, Debbie, realized God was calling them to live and minister among people many others had forgotten.

“I believe for the most part the church ignores the inner city,” said Cannada, a church planter strategist in Charleston. “But as far as living day to day, living among the people, there are not a lot of people who are willing to do that. I just fell in love with the whole concept of touching lives. If we lived somewhere else, we would never be part of the community.”

The Cannadas are among the missionaries featured during the 2003 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 2-9. Coincidentally, it was the ministry of fellow week of prayer missionaries Taylor and Susan Field that God used to ignite a passion for the city in their own hearts.

After being called by God to leave his job and enter the ministry in 1994, Cannada was serving on a church staff in Statesville, N.C., when he and Debbie had the opportunity to work with the Fields on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“It was during that time that we knew God’s call to the city. We just knew that that’s where we were supposed to be, with inner-city people,” said Debbie, who has been amazed over the past five years at how God has used all of her training as a special education teacher and experience in ministry.

While attending Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Cannadas contacted all 42 of the Southern Baptist state conventions to discover what inner-city ministry opportunities were available. But they never imagined West Virginia would be much of a candidate.

“Everybody knows there’s no inner city in West Virginia,” Debbie said of their preconceptions.

But after a visit to Charleston right before Norm’s graduation, “we knew immediately that this was where God was calling us to be,” she said. They moved that June, intent on starting a multiracial church in a unique environment where Norm says “rural Appalachia meets the inner city.”

“God led us to an area that was considered the worst corner in Charleston,” he said. “… There would be 15 to 20 drug dealers there all the time.”

They established West Charleston Baptist Church in their own home. Rather than taking the usual approach of first reaching out to the people with ministries then beginning a church from that base, the Cannadas decided to start a church that would minister to the community.

The congregation started with Norm and Debbie’s family and four new friends. Soon they had 49 regular attendees, and they moved into a former convenience store. While also working to establish congregations in a trailer park and a government housing project on the outskirts of Charleston, Cannada challenged the West Charleston congregation to begin praying for the money to obtain the abandoned building across the street from the convenience store — an old print shop and warehouse.

“We prayed and fasted. We believed God did not want us to go into debt for it,” Cannada recounted. By March 2002 — with some help from NAMB, the West Virginia Baptist Convention and the Florida Baptist Convention — they purchased the 9,500-square-foot, two-story building with plenty of room to grow.

“It was a miracle itself,” Cannada said, concerning the process of praying and waiting on God for the money to come in. One of the last-minute contributions was an anonymous donation of $45,000.

Along with traditional evangelism tools of Backyard Bible Clubs, Vacation Bible Schools and a food pantry, Cannada has led his congregation to reach out to their community through a combination of church-based ministry and proactive “servant evangelism.”

Everything is done “in the name of Jesus first, but under the name West Charleston Baptist Church,” Cannada said, realizing most people in the community were very familiar with a traditional church. “The church seemed to give [the ministries] more credibility.”

Homeless people are welcomed to take a shower in a newly renovated section of the church building.

Children can get help with their homework after school or just come in to play, as the church sanctuary doubles as a basketball court. Free ballet classes are available, which also are part of a worship ministry.

Unemployed people can learn new work skills in the church’s computer lab, where seven new computer systems were donated and set up last year by Southern Baptists from Florida.

The servant evangelism happens when church members take their ministry out into the community. They clean toilets for store owners in Charleston’s Town Center Mall. They serve free hot coffee, juice and doughnuts to people waiting in lines at the local welfare office. They hand out free cold drinks and doughnuts to weary travelers at the bus station and on Westside streets. At a local grocery store they wash cars for free.

In everything, Cannada has taught volunteers to state simply — as people stare at them incredulously — “We want to serve you to show you God’s love in a practical way.”

The neighborhood residents also are used to seeing Cannada walking their streets, and now they’re familiar with why he is there. They know he’s praying for God’s angels to come into the neighborhood, and they know they can stop him to ask for prayer.

“We have gotten the reputation for being people who care, and that’s a pretty neat thing,” said Cannada, who believes prayer walking and servant evangelism help create opportunities for sharing Christ.

“We’ve been careful to pray for people — not just take requests, but to pray right then. So we’ve gotten the reputation that we love them and will pray for them. I think that’s made a difference,” said Cannada, who recently formalized his third church plant in the area. “We do about anything you can do just to show people that we love them and that we care about them.”

Living Hope Baptist Church is Cannada’s newest endeavor. The thriving baby congregation is located in the building most recently known as Cafe Risque, right in the middle of Charleston’s infamous Badlands area. Several years ago the city designated this mile-long stretch of Route 60 as its relatively out-of-sight destination for strip clubs and porn shops, but Cannada targeted the area in 2001 as a prime location for the gospel.

He started off by meeting some basic needs of the women and children in the neighborhood: after-school care and Bible studies, and, of course, a prayer walk.

In 2002 Cannada obtained a local pastor for the fledgling congregation, James Fitzwater, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary serving as a church planter intern through NAMB’s Nehemiah Project. Cannada also obtained an option to buy the former building of Cafe Risque, whose sign is now long gone from the main drag.

Cannada and his wife also look forward to being the focus of prayers during the Week of Prayer for North American Missions.

“We figure if there’s going to be this many people around the world praying for us, then we want to do something to reach our community that day (March 4),” Cannada said. The most important thing, he said, in his and other inner-city ministries is “praying against hopelessness, praying for hope.”
The Big Picture
— Norm Cannada is one 213 church-planting missionaries working to identify locations for new churches and enlist church planters and sponsoring churches.
— Although Cannada is classified as a church-planting missionary, his ministry-based evangelism work bears similarities to the 87 Baptist centers jointly funded by state conventions and NAMB.
— Southern Baptists have a goal of starting 2,300 churches in 2003. About 800 of NAMB’s 5,204 missionaries are church-planter pastors.
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: REACHING ALL AGES, READY TO PRAY and READY TO CARE.

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  • Debbie Moore