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Man, 70, gets God’s passion for community

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

JONESBORO, Ark., (BP)–In a day when many church planters are young and denim-clad, with a touch of mousse in their hair, Roy Cooper, also a church planter, doesn’t spend a lot of time combing his 73-year-old head.

Retired from the construction business, Cooper still works for God’s Kingdom. He’s served for decades at First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ark., in a variety of roles: deacon, member of various committees and 29 years as Sunday School director.

“I also promoted evangelism, but we never seemed to get it going as good as it should be,” said Cooper, who wasn’t satisfied he’d done all he could for God.

When he turned 70, Cooper reflected on his life of discipleship and his hunger to share the Gospel. “I realized I needed to get with it. All those years I had done paperwork, administrative tasks and even volunteer mission trips for church construction, but I wasn’t out in the field witnessing,” Cooper told Baptist Press.

That was only one of Cooper’s motivations to start Huntington Mission three years ago not far from downtown Jonesboro, where First Baptist is located.

In 2002, First Baptist had a long-range planning meeting in which, as Cooper puts it, “Two things really jumped out at us, evangelism and the need for more prayer in our church.” Various groups started meeting for prayer, and “prayer is really what started the mission, along with our thinking of doing more evangelistic work,” he said.

“Because we don’t bump into a lot of people who aren’t Christians, starting the mission was an opportunity to help me and others reach others for Jesus Christ.”

Departing from modern church planting strategy, Cooper didn’t seek a church site in a booming, newly built real estate development or near a mall. That’s because he wasn’t trying to minister to the upwardly mobile, but to the down-and-out. So he looked several blocks west of First Baptist, where the crime rate is as high as many of its residents, and where they will do most anything to get by: sell their bodies or sell drugs.

Cooper wanted to be where the needy people lived because, after years of promoting high-attendance Sundays, Cooper knew that the poverty-stricken families of prostitutes and addicts wouldn’t come to church. So, he decided to take the church to them.

The church missions committee rallied behind Cooper and his idea for a door-to-door, needs-oriented survey of the neighborhood. The survey revealed that the area was plagued with drugs, and that rampant prostitution and the lack of jobs topped the locals’ deepest concerns.

“The people were desperate and held little hope for their future,” Cooper said. The survey also showed that nearly 80 percent of the families’ fathers were either in jail or had skipped town. “That continues to be a problem,” a problem he sought to address by bringing five family members, all teenagers, to live in his own home for a time.

Cooper and his team followed up the survey with leaflets inviting the residents to a Sunday afternoon service in a local diner whose owner agreed to rent the facilities.

“We started with five, and two of those were restaurant employees,” Cooper said. The church has since grown to about 70 in attendance, and 30 have made professions of faith. But not until the mission held a block party and later offered two free dental clinics did things start to take off.

Recounting details of the free dental clinics, Cooper said two dentists from First Baptist readily agreed to offer free dental care in their offices, with their staffs assisting. Volunteers performed patient screenings several days before the clinic.

“We wouldn’t screen the people until we got their contact information for church follow-up,” Cooper said. “And we made sure everyone got witnessed to one-on-one during the screening process.

“Of all we did, the dental clinics were the most helpful because we got acquainted with a lot of people, and they realized we were there to help them,” he said.

“Volunteers witnessed all day long. About 13 people took turns praying in small groups of four or five all day long, too.”

One astounding statistic is that the dentists pulled more than 200 teeth in one clinic. But the most important statistic is that 13 people committed their lives to Christ from among the 170 who received free dental care.

“I would strongly encourage such an approach for any church wanting to start a mission,” Cooper volunteered. “I’m sure there would be a dentist somewhere willing to do this.”

Such ministry has helped the residents “open up to us more and more,” said Cooper, who explained that other churches had ministered in the area, but only briefly. “We explained we were there to stay. We built trust with them.”

Other mission ministries include a Tuesday prayer meeting; counseling and assistance for pregnant women; a Bible study for women and another for couples; and Sunday School classes and tutoring for children and teens. Huntington Mission also offers a fellowship supper at the restaurant for all who attend Sunday worship, which Cooper said is the best meal many get all week.

Restored families, reformed prostitutes and addicts freed from drugs also typify God’s work through Huntington Mission.

Though dozens have helped with the mission, First Baptist’s pastor, Bruce Tippit, said of Cooper, “Roy has a burden to serve a vastly under-resourced area of our city and a passion for reaching these hurting people. He is a shy and reserved man, but when you look in his eyes you know what is real.”

Cooper is just grateful to have been used by God.

“Who would have ever thought a mission church would grow out of a long-range planning committee?” Cooper said, adding, “I would never have dreamed I’d be down there working.”

Saying he and others who assist him at Huntington Mission are not much different than other Baptists who “like to watch ball games on Sunday afternoon and sleep a little bit,” he noted: “Not one of us would miss it unless we’re out of town. It’s really a blessing and an opportunity we don’t want to miss.”

Cooper said the “key to victories over the evil one is that the Holy Spirit has guided us, and none of this would’ve happened without Him.” Another important key, Cooper said, is “God called 16 people to serve on a steering committee and to serve Him in this neighborhood. The blessings we’ve received is to see many answered prayers, even miracles, and to see real smiles appear on faces saddened by difficult lives.

“We love these folks, and we feel a lot of love back from them,” Cooper said. “In many ways,” he added, “we are them.”

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  • Norm Miller