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Serving the least of these: New church merger drawn to dying town

Amos Crews baptizes a new believer at Pillar of Hope Church. Submitted photo

TARRANT, Ala. (BP) – Amos Crews, senior pastor of new merger Pillar of Hope Church, took a drive through the deteriorating Tarrant community that is the church’s newfound home.

“This community, quite frankly, looks like a war zone,” Crews told Baptist Press. “Abandoned properties, burned out houses. And our wheelhouse of ministry has been the hopeless, the helpless, those folks (some) would cross the street to get away from.

“That was who Jesus reached out to throughout His ministry, was the least of these. Those are the people when they receive Christ, run the hardest for Christ. And they deserve to know the goodness of God and a second chance in life, and that’s what we do.”

Crews was drawn to the neighborhood because Robinwood Baptist Church is closing its doors Dec. 18 after dwindling to about seven active members, all retired and some with challenging medical issues. Robinwood is deeding its building to the Birmingham Metro Baptist Association (BMBA), which will in turn sell it to Pillar of Hope at a deep discount and establish a fund for the building’s repair and upkeep.

John Roland (center), interim pastor of Robinwood Baptist Church in Birmingham, stands between two deacons honored by the church for their service. The church, which had dwindled to a handful of people, mostly elderly, is deeding its building the local association, which will then sell it at a deep discount to Pillar of Hope Church. Submitted photo

“Tarrant is one of the most impoverished communities in Jefferson County, Alabama. It’s in bad shape,” Crews said. “While many would run from this community and its people, God has given us a great vision to love, reach and serve the least of these.”

John Roland, a Samford University advancement officer serving as Robinwood’s interim pastor, said the church realized it could no longer meet the community’s needs.

“We’re going to cease to exist,” Roland said of Robinwood. “We’ve decided the need is so big in that community, we just can’t reach it. The church is surrounded by 60 vacant properties … made up of drug dealers; they have a really high rate of registered sex offenders – I know it’s over 30 – that surround the church.

“These senior adults have given their blood, sweat and tears. The only thing that would prevent them from continuing is just their health.”

Adding to the community’s woes is a decades-long battle over environmental pollution from the iron and steel industry that gave Birmingham the name of “Magic City” in the 1800s. Many of the plants that manufacture coke, or hard coal, a main component in the manufacture of steel and iron, have closed, but the ABC Coke plant owned by the Drummond Company remains active in Tarrant. The pollution has driven many away from the town of 6,000; those who remain suffer a 32 percent poverty rate, according to City-Data.com.

Most recently in 2019, an agreement including a $775,000 settlement and emissions monitoring was reached to address cancer-causing benzene pollution from ABC Coke, but environmental activists have called it inadequate.

Josh Cook, BMBA church revitalization specialist, has worked with the churches to smooth the transition. He said the need for revitalization is becoming more common, especially after the slowdowns suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What we’re seeing, at least here in Birmingham, is that there are a lot of churches in communities that, the communities have transitioned, and the churches are struggling to reach the people in the community,” Cook said, “and they see it as almost a failure to stop existing as they are as a church, even though they’re not being really effective.

A lot across the street from Pillar of Hope Church exemplifies the neighborhood. “While many would run from this community and its people, God has given us a great vision to love, reach and serve the least of these,” said Pastor Amos Crews. Submitted photo

“What we’re trying to go is get them to see it’s not a failure to hand off your church to somebody else. That it is just the natural process of the body of Christ as Christ works from one church to another,” Cook said. “We talked to Robinwood and they finally came to the place where they would rather see a vibrant church there, than to continue on until the last person turned out the lights.”

Pillar of Hope’s road to Tarrant was encumbered. The church is a merger of two congregations, Christ First Community Church and Destiny Covenant Church, that were worshiping at the BMBA after losing their places of worship. Each congregation numbered about 30 active members, Crews said.

“We had been in a building for about 10 years, had paid over $250,000 in mortgage, and things went sideways. We secured an attorney and just walked away from the property,” Crews said of Christ First Community Church which he pastored. Destiny Covenant Church, pastored by Cedric Brown, had been meeting at another local church that pulled out of discussions to transfer its building to Destiny.

“Both congregations were dying. We were not drawing in young people. We were doing a great work in the community, just not drawing young people,” Crews said. “The thought was, how do you go out of the soul-saving business?”

Adding to the community’s struggles is the pollution caused by the coal industry, going back decades. Most recently in 2019, an agreement including a $775,000 settlement and emissions monitoring was reached to address cancer-causing benzene pollution from ABC Coke, but environmental activists have called it inadequate.

Crews first saw Tarrant as off-putting.

“When I went out and looked at the community, and I have to be honest, the first thought was no way,” he said. “There’s nothing here. There are no children, there are no families. Property values are in the gutter.

“And then God began to show me this vision of what we could do, and I looked at it as an opportunity to show that the church still can be the center of the community,” Crews said. “God just gave me a vision that this could be done, that His children, no matter their circumstances, deserve His love.

“I’ve learned when God says do something you do it, because if He gives you a vision, He’s going to give you provision. We have a saying that it doesn’t take a megachurch to do a mega-work for the Lord.”

Pillar of Hope plans to move into the Robinwood property Feb. 1, and is making plans to revitalize the community. The new church has launched a nonprofit community development corporation to bridge the financial issues the church will face in buying abandoned properties to build affordable housing and transitional homes for homeless mothers with children.

“We’ve been supported tremendously by the BMBA in this effort,” Crews said of Pillar of Hope’s transition to Tarrant.

The transition comes as the Kids to Love Foundation, a ministry to children in foster care, is buying about 60 abandoned properties in Tarrant to build homes for girls aging out of foster care. In turn, Pillar of Hope plans to buy additional abandoned properties to build homes for boys aging out of foster care.

“The pipeline from classroom to prison is real,” Crews said. Pillar of Hope has plans to teach budgeting and life skills to those in need. He has plans to build a community farm, much more than a garden, to address food insecurity in the community he describes as a food desert. Crews hopes the revitalization will attract young families to the community.

While Pillar of Hope is the merger of two predominantly African American churches, and Robinwood was a predominantly white congregation, Crews has in mind an ethnically diverse congregation.

“If you bring in people who are looking for a hand up, and not just a handout, you can turn that community around,” Crews said. “We want to give families an opportunity to know God and to see what the Kingdom of heaven really looks like. Even though we’re considered an African American congregation, my vision is to build a church that looks like and functions like the Kingdom of God.”