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Hartford pastor unafraid to take risks for the gospel

HARTFORD, Conn. (BP)–James Bishop knows what it’s like to take risks for the sake of the gospel.
Bishop, pastor of Welcome Baptist Church, Hartford, Conn., has seen drug deals made outside his church. Just a few blocks away, a public housing project was the scene of more than 50 murders in late 1995 and early ’96.
Yet Bishop and his congregation were not scared away by the violence and drug activity. Instead, they responded with an evangelistic effort in the housing project and help for people struggling with drug addiction.
Hartford police officers became concerned when they heard about the church’s intention to witness at the housing project. Fearing for the safety of the church members, police offered to drive through and sound their sirens before church members entered the area.
The police presence sent the drug dealers into hiding and gave the people from Welcome a chance to distribute English and Spanish Bibles. They continued that ministry for about a year.
“People knew our church and knew we were there to help,” Bishop said. The housing project recently was demolished and violence in the community has subsided. A newly renovated apartment building across the street from the church, a new sanctuary for Welcome and other construction projects stand as evidence that new life is springing forth in the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Bishop and his church continue an aggressive outreach into the community.
As a savvy urban pastor, Bishop knows how to read the signs of drug territory. He can spot the sneakers flung across utility wires and the telling graffiti painted on walls.
Yet Bishop is convinced the gospel can rescue people from any circumstance, even on street corners where the drug culture rules. Since coming to the church in 1988, Bishop has implemented a strong program of Bible teaching and discipleship training. He’s seen lives transformed.
“They say ‘the Word of God has changed my life,'” Bishop said. “They’ve been in every program in town and nothing else worked.” The church provides a “healing ministry” for people who are “addicted to anything, whether it be alcohol, drugs or food,” he said. The healing ministry also is a refuge for victims of physical or sexual abuse.
The ministry meets on Thursday evenings and gives people an opportunity to share their struggles freely. Bishop said the ministry combines the 12-step program for addiction with biblical teachings. “When people get under pressure and nobody listens to them, that’s when they turn to drugs,” Bishop said. “That’s when the drug dealer will be smiling.”
Bishop, a man not given to the slightest hint of braggadocio, shows a small grin as he peers over plans for the new sanctuary under construction. It will accommodate 600 worshipers, and the sanctuary and other related capital projects will cost $800,000.
The old sanctuary will be used as educational space and several nearby houses have been purchased by the church and will be rehabilitated. Some units will be rented to church members and others will house homeless people.
This summer two Kentucky churches, Central Baptist in Paris and First Baptist in Winchester, have helped with construction projects and helped conduct day camps. The two churches are part of Elkhorn Baptist Association, which has entered into a partnership agreement with Western Connecticut Baptist Association.
“We can always use people to come and train and teach for us,” Bishop said.
Members of Welcome Baptist know well the premium Bishop places on teaching. New members of Welcome must complete a 12-week discipleship program.
Bishop attributes the growth of the church to its commitment to the Bible. Since he came to the church, it has grown from a membership of 225 to 700. “We keep the Word at the center of our ministry.”

Meanwhile, the congregation is catching the eye of people at city hall. At a recent ground-breaking service for the new sanctuary, Hartford Mayor Mike Peters promised the city would give the congregation an abandoned apartment building near the church to renovate.
“They’re very interested in doing something with the neighborhood, now that the new church building is coming,” Bishop said.

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  • Pat Cole