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WEEK OF PRAYER: Meeting needs in Indy’s inner city

EDITOR’S NOTE: The annual Week of Prayer for North American Missions in Southern Baptist churches is March 6-13 in conjunction with the 2011 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, with a goal of $70 million to help pay the salaries and ministry support of 5,000-plus missionaries serving in North America under the SBC’s North American Mission Board. For more information, go to www.anniearmstrong.com.

INDIANAPOLIS (BP)–Robert Maul is a modern day version of the widow best known for her mite, whom Jesus described in Luke 21:1-4 as having “put in more than all of them. For all these people have put in gifts out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”

A 62-year-old tall, slender African American, Robert foraged the sidewalks, curbs and streets of Indianapolis, pocketing lost coins — picking up a penny here, a nickel or dime there. His painstaking work, all on foot, would add up to a sacrificial $25 contribution to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.

By the way, Robert was homeless.

Poor in the pocketbook but not in spirit, Robert is a former heroin addict who liked to fight. He served five different sentences in an Indiana penitentiary. He slept under bridges and interstate overpasses. But through the ministry of missionary Tom Polak, who is jointly funded by the North American Mission Board and the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, Robert was redeemed by the Lord.

Tom and Marla Polak are two of the 5,000-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.

“Robert came to a block party we had about a year ago,” Polak said. “He came, had his lunch, listened to music and, somewhere along the line, somebody witnessed to Robert and shared the Gospel. He was saved that day, a Saturday. The next day, Robert was in our church service and he began to come every Sunday.

“He was baptized, and he’s been very faithful. Now, a year later, you see the growth in him. He’s very genuine, very sincere. He’s really been quite an encouragement to me to see what God can do in a person’s life,” Polak said.

In 1995, Tom and Marla Polak left a Kansas City ministry for Indianapolis, where Polak began serving as director of the Metro Baptist Center in the inner city and pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship.

“We are here helping people, ministering to people, praying, evangelizing and giving people a place to go,” Polak said. “We minister to the people who live in the downtown Indianapolis area, who are homeless, low-income people -– people who are struggling.”

Although 52-year-old Polak pastors an inner-city church where “we don’t have a lot,” he encourages new Christians like Robert to find a way to give.

“These are people who themselves are standing on the corners asking for money. These are people who are homeless. But I encourage them to give what they can to Annie Armstrong. I tell them the money is going to missionaries who are sharing the Gospel around the country. I did that for about three weeks, leading up to the Sunday we took up the Annie offering.”

On that Sunday, Robert had a surprise for Polak.

“Robert calls me over and he hands me this large cylinder and it has some weight to it. I asked him what it was, and he told me it was his offering. ‘I’ve been finding this money and have been dedicating it to the Lord,’ Robert told me. I thought of the woman with the two pennies who gave all she had,” Polak said. “That’s Robert.”

Polak said Christians don’t always meet the “Roberts” of the world.

“We may see them on the corner or may bump into them downtown, but do we see them as people who may have made mistakes, maybe have issues or problems? You know God loves these folks and has a plan for them, and He can use them in many ways.”

On a typical day, Metro Baptist Center runs a food and clothing pantry for the needy and offers job placement services and substance abuse assistance. Polak and his staff not only try to minister to a person’s physical needs — as important as they are –- but also to their spiritual needs.

“When a person comes in and they are in need and hurting, they see we’re here for them. They see a genuine concern in us. That makes them more open to hearing the Gospel and for prayer. They’re more apt to open up and tell you where they’re coming from and what their real needs are.”

In addition to harvesting the “Roberts” for Christ, Polak also is encouraged by the mission groups, including seven last summer, who travel to Indianapolis from Southern Baptist churches around the United States using sports and construction ministries to reach lost people, especially youth.

“For instance, we had a wonderful adult and youth group from Collinsville, Okla., who came to do a weeklong sports camp in one of the low-income housing projects.” Inner-city kids were coached in basketball, football, baseball and golf. More importantly, they heard about Christ.

Born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., Polak earned a bachelor’s degree from Howard Payne University in Texas and a master of divinity degree from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. Although he went to school and pastored in Texas and Missouri, he said he’s more comfortable in the north.

“I’m in a place where I feel God has called me. I have a great assurance that God wants me here for this time, and that’s a great feeling. I like using my talents and abilities on the things God has gifted me with so I’m able to put them into practice and help people.

“Indianapolis is a wonderful city,” Polak said. “It’s a clean city, an active city with many activities and things to do. The Christian organizations here work together well. We see tremendous needs of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction. But we’re trying to address these issues. We have about 80 churches in central Indiana working together.”

Tom and Marla, a native of Topeka, Kan., an occupational therapist and a graduate of the University of Kansas, have five children: Hannah, Rachel, Caleb, Moriah and Joel.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.

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  • Mickey Noah