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Pastor calls himself ‘blessed’ ministering to inner-city hurts

MIAMI (BP)–“How are you, Reverend?”
“I’m blessed” is Joshua Garvin’s usual reply.
His answer reflects the gracious, optimistic spirit that enables Garvin, pastor of New Life Baptist Church in the Carol City area of greater Miami, to bring a ray of hope into communities darkened by poverty, drugs, vandalism, violence and family instability.
As he drives through the streets of nearby Opa Locka to one of the government-subsidized housing complexes where New Life maintains an ongoing ministry, Garvin tells about 4- and 5-year-olds being posted to watch for police while drug deals are made behind apartment doors, public school “battlefields” where youth carry guns and knives, and youngsters whose prayer requests speak volumes about the chaos in their homes and neighborhoods.
One asks God to stop the killing and abuse. Another prays that a father will come home to a mother.
Not all children would share that prayer, Garvin adds. And if the only father they have known has abandoned or abused them, it’s hard to talk to them about a heavenly Father. “If God’s a father, they don’t want any part of God.”
Probably 95 percent of the people in these inner-city Miami areas are unsaved, Garvin estimates. And in the absence of a Christian witness, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and cults such as Santeria are all too ready to offer confusing answers to people’s spiritual questions.
“There’s somebody knocking on people’s doors every day with a different story,” Garvin says.
The pastor stops at a security gate, then enters the housing complex. He parks by an end-unit apartment with a sign in the window that reads: New Life Baptist Church, Partners with 183rd and 187th Street Apartments.
“This is a mission field in itself,” Garvin remarks, noting there are about 400 apartments in these two complexes, plus another 200 units at 22nd Avenue Apartments, where the church also has a ministry presence.
Complex owners have given New Life a three-bedroom apartment to use as an office and ministry base. The church also is allowed to use the complex’s recreation room for Saturday evening worship services.
Garvin tries to keep regular office hours at the complex for prayer, Bible study, counseling and conversation with residents.
“Consistency is important. You have to be here,” he says.
But he admits that with numerous other ministry responsibilities, as well as some health problems during the past year, he needs help to carry on the work.
Some valuable help has come from University Baptist Church in Bradenton. Last summer, volunteers from the church taught a 12-week, two-hour computer basics class for complex residents.
The project has received attention from U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) staff, who hope to use it as a model for projects in other low-income communities.
Working alongside members of New Life, University volunteers have helped with arts and crafts classes, Backyard Bible Clubs and children’s Bible studies, fellowship meals, a Christmas party for single moms, Scripture distribution and other ministries.
Garvin hopes to train residents of the complex to carry on some of the ministries, but he realizes that will not be easy to accomplish.
At 22nd Avenue Apartments, Garvin visits with manager Valerie Robinson, who expresses appreciation for New Life’s ministry efforts.
Constructive activities are needed for both children and adults, especially on weekends when children are home, she explains. A variety of educational and recreational activities are provided at the complex by others, but no Bible study — and “they need that.”
The apartments are one mission field. Another is the Broward Correction Institution, a maximum security prison for women where Garvin is a volunteer chaplain. A number of the women have accepted Christ and have been baptized.
At New Life Baptist Church, “where everybody is somebody and Christ is Lord of all,” Garvin and his congregation seek to meet the needs of a multiethnic community where homeowners’ varied backgrounds include African Americans, Hispanics, Haitians, Jamaicans and Jews.
“Our congregation can’t be identified by race,” Garvin says.
New Life operates the only predominantly black Christian school in Dade County, serving 200 to 250 students age three months through sixth grade.
“We’ve got a lot of parents in the church because of the children,” Garvin notes.
Garvin even managed to make a mission field out of his hospital room while he was recovering from a heart attack and stroke in January 1997.
His own situation was life-threatening, he acknowledges. But he recalls telling doctors, nurses and hospital staff, “If I leave here, I know where I’m going. What about you?”
A relationship with Christ — “that’s the only thing that will make a difference” in troubled lives and communities, Garvin says.
He knows that well from his own experience. Back in the ’60s, he recounts, his occupations included selling liquor and booking horses.
“I was making plenty of money, but I was miserable,” he says.
Then a friend, who had been in some trouble but had found the Lord, shared his faith with Garvin and invited him to church. The Sunday Garvin attended, the pastor preached from Acts 9 — the story of Paul’s conversion.
From Sunday until Thursday, the Scripture stayed in Garvin’s mind. He had one Bible, and he read the chapter constantly. Finally, he knelt and prayed: “If you’re real, take my life and make something meaningful of it.”
The next Sunday, he couldn’t wait to get to church. The sermon “was the longest I’ve ever heard,” he says. When the invitation was offered to walk down the aisle and profess Christ, “No one had to push me — I ran down.”
Garvin, who has been New Life’s pastor since 1981, has the mix of strength and compassion needed for inner-city work, observes Michael Daily, church and community ministries director for Miami Baptist Association. While caring, he has “enough fortitude not to allow people to play games with him.”
Daily says he has seen Garvin face-to-face with a drug dealer, confronting the tough, street-wise young man not only about his illegal business, but about his need for Christ. The pastor’s confidence “pinned him to the wall,” Daily recalls. “You could see who was in charge of the situation.”
Garvin doesn’t worry about what could happen to him in such encounters. “You can’t do anything with fear,” he says. “The Lord says if he’s for us, who can be against us? I practice what I preach.”
And he doesn’t get discouraged if success is elusive.
“God didn’t just say, ‘You have to be successful,'” Garvin points out. “He said, ‘You have to be faithful.'”
When success does come, Garvin gives God the glory.
“I don’t need accolades,” he says.
“I’m blessed.”

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  • Shari Schubert