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Protectors getting protection: churches ‘adopt’ policemen

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Maintaining law and order is seldom easy — and for police officers in Zone 1, Jacksonville, Fla., it’s one of the toughest jobs in town. Zone 1, based in the city’s historic but declining Springfield district, is an area notorious for crime and dysfunctional lifestyles: drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, domestic violence, undisciplined youth and parents who don’t seem to care.
Putting their lives on the line to uphold the law, the officers of the city’s consolidated police and sheriff’s office “are fighting the effects of what sin is all about,” said pastor Matthew Gossett, welcoming officers from Zone 1 to Main Street Baptist Church on April 19.
The occasion was the official “adoption” of the Zone 1 officers by members of the church, who have pledged to see that the officers are “Held By His Hands” through intercessory prayer.
“There are a lot of lost souls in this neighborhood,” said officer J.B. Knudsen, one of those attending the service. The goal of law enforcement, backed by the church and community, “is to help them get cleaned up, straighten out their lives,” he said.
Officer E.K. Creech, who often is called to schools to deal with truancy and other student problems, voiced a concern about children growing up in the crime-ridden community.
“I’ve seen a lot of children with a lot of hate in their eyes,” she said. She asked for prayer that she will have patience and the ability “to know what’s right” as she deals with situations on the job.
Main Street’s “Held By His Hands” program is one of several organized intercessory prayer efforts for Jacksonville law enforcement officers. The programs are modeled to some extent after “Shield a Badge,” an emphasis developed by Second Baptist Church, Houston.
Jacksonville’s Mayfair Baptist Church and 62 other local congregations began praying for officers in Zone 3 almost a year ago, noted Ted Corley, Mayfair’s pastor. Corley, who coordinates efforts citywide, said more than 100 Jacksonville churches currently are involved in intercessory prayer for police in their respective zones.
Both in Zone 3 and in Houston, a drop has been seen in crime rates since the prayer efforts began.
The results of prayer have been seen not only in the statistics, but in the testimony of Jacksonville police officer Pete Soulis, who survived being shot five times by a motorist he had pulled over in October 1997. Just days before the incident, more than 3,000 people had been praying for his protection, Soulis recounted in an article in the Florida Times-Union.
A prayer calendar, distributed monthly to each church participating in the Zone 3 prayer effort, lists one officer by name on each day of the week. Soulis’ name was listed the week he was shot.
Soulis was shot three times in the arm, once in the leg and once in the chest. The bullet that hit his chest bounced off his bulletproof vest.
“I do believe in the power of prayer, and I do believe it helped me,” he told the Times-Union.
Zone 3 Commander Justin Hill told the Times-Union the police officers often check the prayer calendar, which is posted in the Zone 3 substation, to see when their name is up.
“It’s been really positive,” Hill said. “It shows a level of concern from the community that we haven’t seen before.”
Such prayer efforts easily cross denominational lines, Corley pointed out. “Everybody can pray for a police officer.”
Patrol Division Zone Commander R.L. “Bobby” Drummond, a member of Christian Fellowship Baptist Church in Jacksonville, is convinced of the need for prayer support in Zone 1. While there has been a reduction in the community’s crime rate over the past three years, and especially in the past six months or so, he said there still are all kinds of imminent dangers officers face every day.
The Sunday of the adoption service at Main Street Baptist, Drummond was called at 2 a.m. to check on an officer who had been taken to the hospital, knocked unconscious during a disturbance at a night club where he was working in an off-duty capacity.
“Things like that occur daily,” Drummond said.
The 150 officers under his command “really go above and beyond the call of duty,” Drummond added. Although Zone 1 is the roughest in the city, “most of them want to work here. They ask for the assignment because they care.”
Speaking briefly during the adoption service, Drummond acknowledged crime has a hold on the Springfield community and “we can’t eliminate it.”
“It will take a higher source than us to change the hearts and minds of men and women,” he said.
The zone commander openly shared his testimony of how prayer has impacted his own life. In dangerous situations, “there was a protector in my corner,” he said.
When he worked as an undercover narcotics officer, dealing with criminals “who take no prisoners,” Drummond said, “an angel was watching over me.”
In a different area of conflict, when he contested a promotional system in the face of considerable criticism, he walked into his hearing “with my advocate,” he said.
“God is real. God is able. Prayer is real. Prayer and faith change things,” Drummond said.
The spacious, immaculately kept sanctuary of Main Street Church stands in sharp contrast to the peeling paint and crumbling masonry that characterize the buildings around it.
The church has been in the Springfield community for 92 years; in the 1930s it was one of Florida’s leading churches, with 1,500 people attending Sunday school.
As the community changed, Main Street Baptist became what pastor Gossett calls an “ex-community church,” with members living elsewhere and driving back into the city for worship — while people living in the community were driving out of the area to attend other churches. Currently Main Street has only about 130 active members, Gossett said.
But those members are serious about “bringing the church back to the community,” Gossett added.
“Held By His Hands” is a first step. During the adoption service, members pledged to pray for the officers by name and for their families.
The church is planning to establish a prayer line for officers to call and share their needs, and they also will be able to give the number to families in the community that need prayer, Gossett said.
Personalized certificates have been prepared for each of the Zone 1 officers as a tangible reminder of the church’s support.
In addition to praying for the law enforcement officers, Main Street members plan to go prayerwalking in the community, street by street, block by block, house by house, praying for God to change lives.
People will respond, Gossett believes, “when the community realizes we do give a flip.”
Gossett has a compassion for people living in declining communities and dysfunctional families. “I know what it’s like to live in the projects,” he told church members.
He knows what it’s like to have an alcoholic father, to not have enough food, to be beaten on and to have a brother die from AIDS.
Growing up, he said, “There was no religion in my house.”
But Gossett came to know the Lord at age 40, through the ministry of North Phoenix (Ariz.) Baptist Church. At age 48, he surrendered to the ministry and went to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
“I asked the Lord to give me 30 good years” of ministry, he said.
Main Street Baptist Church, where Gossett was called several months ago, is his second Florida pastorate; he previously served First Baptist Church, Citra.
He is confident God has led him to minister in the Springfield community. Because of his background, “I understand these people,” he said. “God has prepared me with that.”
When communities deteriorate, Gossett observed, the response of churches often is, “It’s time to move on. … These people don’t matter.”
But, Gossett asked, “What would Jesus do if he walked down Main Street today?”

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  • Shari Schubert