EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (BP) “… it is not the will of your Father in heaven that even one of these little ones perish.” Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:14 are what drive North American missionary Chet Cantrell -– 24/7, 365 days a year.
For the past 16 years -– with his wife Michelle at his side -– Cantrell has served as director of the Southern Baptist-supported Christian Activity Center (CAC) in East St. Louis, Ill. -– a safe haven for hundreds of children and teenagers growing up in a rough-and-tumble town. East St. Louis is not for sissies — physical or spiritual.
The Cantrells are among the 5,300-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. Chet is one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries to be highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 5-12, 2006. The 2006 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $56 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like the Cantrells.
“I’m a North American Mission Board missionary. So that means I work for all those people in the pews out there,” Cantrell noted. “They make all this possible for me to be here.”
As a young college student, Cantrell discovered he had a yearning for mission work in inner-city neighborhoods like those in East St. Louis, despite all that comes with the tough territory -– the crime, the drugs, the poverty, the illiteracy.
“East St. Louis has a nasty reputation and is plagued with problems,” Cantrell said. “It’s the first or second poorest urban area in the nation. About 60 percent of the children live in extreme poverty. A majority of the kids will drop out of school before the 10th grade. Until 1995, East St. Louis was the murder capital of the nation.”
Kids in East St. Louis learn about the hard knocks of life and how to make a buck on street corners. Single moms with several children work hard at low-paying jobs for long hours, just to make ends meet. The ironic result is that the very kids they’re trying to support and protect often grow up alone, without mom around when they come home from school or when they need her most.
Gangs flourish in East St. Louis because they fill in the gaps where the family should be. Gangs tell a kid how to walk and talk, how to dress and even provide a sense of safety and security. Cantrell estimates that when he first arrived on the scene in l989, 95 percent of teens were members of gangs. The teen pregnancy rate is five times the national average.
So in the face of one of the bleakest mission fields in the country, what drives Chet and Michelle Cantrell to work at the CAC?
“I believe God cares about cities like East St. Louis and the people who live here, and that neighborhoods can be transformed. That’s why I’m here,” he said.
“We have a ministry that tries to be comprehensive to children, youth and their families. But we focus on the kids. We’re a place for kids to come -– off the streets. The streets of East St. Louis are not safe. In our town, we have no bowling alleys…. [T]here are no movie theaters. So we try to make the CAC a safe place for the kids. And we have rules, to let kids know what their boundaries are,” Cantrell said.
The busiest part of the day for Cantrell and the CAC is from 3:30–8 p.m., when up to 240 youth and children attend programs between the time school is out and until they go home for the night.
Recreation –- in the form of basketball, trampolines or a simple game of checkers — is the CAC’s fundamental magnet to draw in local kids and young people.
“Our varsity basketball teams are usually known throughout the city,” Cantrell said. “We have won a bunch of city championships. But you can’t play for our teams if you have any failing grades in school or if you have any unexcused tardies or absences. That’s a big incentive for kids to do their schoolwork.”
Much more important than the recreational and educational aspects of the CAC’s work are the center’s activities focusing on the spiritual.
“You can’t save that which you’re unwilling to touch,” Cantrell said. “So the purpose of all these programs is to touch kids’ lives in every way we can. We have formal Bible study for each age group. Sometimes we have 50 teenagers for devotions each night. We have Friday night worship for kids.
“The majority of our kids do not go to church. They feel unwelcome in churches. So we’re often the closest thing to church that they have. Some of the kids consider us as their church. So introducing our kids to God is primary,” he said.
While he successfully works with a few hundred kids and teens, there’s another 20,000 not even being reached.
“I’m not called to save the whole city. I wish I could but I can’t,” he lamented. “I am responsible for this little corner of the world. And I believe I pour out my best here and that we make a difference for a few. God has this way of taking the few and multiplying it, whether it’s talents or gifts or resources.”
Cantrell and the CAC are turning out some extraordinary young people, including lawyers, MBAs, computer analysts, bankers, teachers, military leaders, preachers, politicians and chaplains. Two of Cantrell’s kids have gone on to MIT.
“After a while, the goodness of this place outweighs the bad. And for every horrible thing that happens, there’s a lot of good stuff that happens, too. Even out of the blood and dust of the terrible, God does some miraculous and redemptive things.”