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Urban pastor leads people, communities to restoration

BRONX, N.Y. (BP)–“Come join us, my friend,” Sam Simpson encouraged a reporter during their first “meeting” — a cross-town telephone call.

He and members of the two churches he pastored and other people from the community were going to picket a bar — one with nudity to draw clientele — that had opened for business on a main thoroughfare in the South Bronx.

Somehow it’s hard to say no to someone who calls you “my friend.”

Standing under an unrelenting August sun with only a street sign for shade, the reporter didn’t think the silent protest of perhaps 20 people was doing a bit of good until Simpson pointed out to his followers that no one had gone in the establishment during the two hours they’d been standing there. He also mentioned contacts made and witnessing moments with passersby who’d dribbled down the street on their way to or from a nearby shopping area and school.

That episode is typical of Jamaican-born Simpson’s ministry strategy since 1964, when he and his wife Lola were called as church starters in the South Bronx by Southern Baptists in Brooklyn, who’d noticed the growing number of unreached people from the Caribbean living north of Manhattan in metro New York.

Simpson’s strategy, as described by those who’ve worked with him the last four decades: He involves others in ministry; pro-actively and re-actively responds immediately to community issues; and looks for the good in every situation. A master of urban ministry, Simpson is the subject of a book due out this fall by Orman Press of Lithonia, Ga.: “To Dream the Impossible Dream — Church Planning and Church Planting.”

Simpson’s accomplishments:

— He started five churches that are thriving today in the Bronx.

— At the same time he was starting churches he was integrally involved with the community, becoming known on a first-name basis with mayors, city officials, community movers and shakers, and other pastors.

— Quick to not take sole credit, he was a leader among various Christian groups that refashioned what today is a thriving community out of the ashes of mindless destruction in the 1960s and ’70s.

— Because of working with Simpson on community projects, several other pastors led their congregations to join the SBC.

— At least a half-dozen men under Simpson’s tutelage have gone into fulltime Christian service; countless other men and women have become local church leaders wherever life has taken them.

— A strong advocate for the Cooperative Program, Simpson has led Bronx Baptist Church from its inception to give 10 percent of undesignated giving to CP Missions, and another 10 percent to through the Metro New York Baptist Association. The other church he pastors, Wake-Eden Community Baptist Church, gives 8 percent of its offerings to CP missions and 8 percent through the local association.

“When we think of the mission of the church in the city, immediately we begin to think of lack of personnel, lack of money, lack of facilities, etc.,” Simpson said in an interview. “Jesus did not spend his time thinking about the lack of these things. He simply began with the resources at his disposal.”

In 1966, two years after he arrived in the Bronx, Simpson joined Twin Parks Urban Renewal, a group of church leaders who saw some empty land and developed it into 3,000 housing units still today touted as “an imaginative set of scatter-site residences … [that] helped to stitch [the Tremont neighborhood] together again,” according to a website on the history of the Bronx. Simpson became vice president of that group.

He was instrumental in 1978 in the formation of the Bronx Shepherd’s Restoration Corp., an organization of churches that had a four-faceted purpose: housing, evangelism, economic development and employment. Over the years “The Shepherds” — as the organization is known — have invested $35 million from state and city coffers in renovation of apartments, row houses and commercial buildings in the Bronx, which have an aggregate value today of perhaps $1 billion.

One example shows how skillfully Simpson intertwines his denominational affiliation with his community ministry: The city was about to demolish a 64-unit apartment building in 1978 so decrepit that no more than five families were still living there. The Shepherds persuaded the city not to tear down the building but to fund restoration by the community group.

Simpson put out a call and Southern Baptist construction mission volunteers from across the nation came to help renovate the property, which has earned rental income ever since — money plowed back into more urban revitalization.

After restoration, the city offered to sell it to The Shepherds for $16,500. They gathered $1,000 from each member church; it was their first project. The Shepherds sold that property last November for $1.8 million.

Simpson was president and chairman of the board of The Shepherds for several years. He was president for two years and chairman of the board for two years of the Council of Churches in New York. He was president for two terms of the Baptist Convention of New York and moderator of Metro New York Baptist Association.

He was instrumental in the rejuvenation of the Clergy Coalition of the 47th Precinct in the South Bronx, which includes police, Christian pastors and Jewish rabbis “united to rebuild and reclaim our community.” He served four years at the coalition’s president.

“He’s a dynamo,” said Ted Jefferson, executive director of Bronx Shepherd’s Restoration. “Sam likes to involve those that are a part of whatever the effort is. He likes to involve everybody. He also likes to cultivate and develop people.”

The secret to accomplish anything is commitment, Simpson said.

“I love people; I love the work I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t see why anything a person can think of cannot work. If God puts it on your heart, He will make it happen. Sometimes in a group what I’ve discovered is that it’s not how many people are in the group, it’s how many are committed to make it happen.”

The secret to pastoring two congregations at the same time — Bronx Baptist, where about 250 attend Sunday morning worship, and Wake-Eden Community Baptist, where about 200 attend on Sunday mornings — is delegation of responsibility, Simpson said.

“The church is not mine; it’s all of us,” Simpson said. “I’m the motivator, the helper. The dynamics of church growth requires delegation. You’ve got to recognize people’s gifts.

“In our churches we have lawyers, doctors, people from different strata of life,” the pastor continued. “You recognize their gifts and encourage them. They may not carry [an idea] out the way you would carry it out but you need to accept it, and let them have ownership of it.”

Simpson’s carries that concept over to his role as a community activist. He participates just as easily in another person’s idea as he does his own.

“No one person can carry out the responsibility for all the community,” Simpson said. “What one church cannot do, all of us can do more effectively. You’re not losing your identity when you do this. We’re serving people; they’re from different backgrounds, different perspectives.

“When I look at an organization, I see the potential — like the Clergy Coalition,” Simpson noted. “I took some of the things they’d been planning to do for several years and began to carry them out. I try to do that in most everything I do, so sometimes it’s not my idea. We work with it and change it until we get the best way of doing it.”

Everything he does starts with people, Simpson reiterated. In time-honored SBC style, he helps people establish a relationship with Jesus Christ, disciples them, helps them discover ways they can serve God, gives them opportunities and leaves the results to God.

That’s how Bronx Baptist and Wake-Eden Community Baptist started daycare centers, after-school centers, nursing home ministries, jail ministries, feeding ministries and more.

Frank Williams, a member at Bronx Baptist for 10 years, recently was named assistant pastor.

“I am learning from Dr. Simpson commitment and faithfulness to the call of God on your life no matter what the situation you’re facing,” Williams said. “Another thing I’m learning from him is to not respond to people according to their weaknesses.

“I also learned that you need to have collaborative efforts and relationships with community organizations such as the police force and other community-based organizations because that would only help enhance the overall effect of ministry in that community when those different entities work in harmony.”

Simpson’s relationships with local political figures from the New York mayor to assistant district attorneys has worked both ways, Williams said. The congregations are knowledgeable and they vote.

“Through his positive relationships he has been able to help others in the community develop relationships, and that has had only positive fruit,” Williams said. “He has a lot of wisdom, for sure, and not only wisdom but he always wants to include the laity in the work of ministry. He does not stifle but sets you free to do what God has called you to.”

Simpson also coordinates with mission teams who come in to participate in a variety of outreach activities including street evangelism and Bible day camps at area parks. He expects perhaps 15 groups this year between Spring break and mid-August.

All this, plus three grown children and three grandchildren, including 4-year-old Kieron who likes to mimic his grandpa: “God is good. It is good to be good. It is good to do good.”

And about that bar: Within six months, it was closed down. It is now an office building.

“We sent letters out first to city officials and said we wouldn’t tolerate that,” Simpson said. “I don’t think that was the first one in the Bronx, but it was the first in our community. It was near a school, near a bank, opposite a church and we wouldn’t tolerate it.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SAM SIMPSON. This story can be used in tandem with a BP story 7/1/03 focusing on the two churches led by Sam Simpson.