By Tobin Perry
FERGUSON, Mo. â€”When The Passage Church, on the border of the St. Louis suburbs of Florissant and Ferguson, partnered with local church plants to initiate a Ferguson cleanup effort of the area following Sunday night’s rioting and looting and multiple days of heated protests, they weren’t doing anything new.
“We bring in anywhere between 8 to 15 mission teams every summer to serve the cities of Florissant and Ferguson â€” putting on block parties and reaching out to the community,” said Joe Costephens who replanted The Passage five years ago. “So when this came up, I called some church planting buddies, and said â€˜Hey we want to bless our city, let’s do a cleanup day.'”
Thanks to social media and a growing brotherhood among Southern Baptist church planters in metro St. Louis, church planters mobilized between 100 and 200 people to help embattled Ferguson cleanup before participating in a prayer service that evening at First Baptist Church of Ferguson.
Problems in the St. Louis suburb began on Saturday when an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man was shot and killed by a police officer. After a day of relative peace on Sunday, a crowd grew unruly that evening as the situation turned violent with businesses looted, vehicles vandalized and confrontations with police.
As tensions increased in Ferguson, Costephens connected with four other church planters he had developed friendships with through Send North America: St. Louis and Plant Midwest. The church planters mobilized their congregations to help clean up Ferguson and look for other ways to serve the community on Wednesday. A few tweets by one of The Passage’s members led to local news coverage and more than 100 people pitching in to help in the cleanup effort.
“What started out as a couple of church plants trying to get together to clean up the streets turned into a great turnoutâ€”120, 150, 180, I really didn’t get a great countâ€”from all over St. Louis,” Costephens said. “We walked the major streets of Ferguson with trash bags. People from all different ages and backgrounds picked up trash and debris off the streets just to help beautify the city.”
Costephens’ Passage Church is also helping to organize a Saturday school-supply drive for residents of Ferguson, particularly those in the Canfield Green apartment complex, where the shooting took place.
Todd Genteman, a North American Mission Board church planting apprentice who is starting Apostles Church on the city’s north side, participated in the cleanup project and said the Ferguson residents he met were appreciative of the group’s efforts. They also urged visitors not to get the wrong idea of their community, saying that outsiders had initiated much of the violence.
“Honestly, the response we got was overwhelmingly positive,”
“Honestly, the response we got was overwhelmingly positive,” Genteman said. “We were walking up the streets of West Florissant, where a lot of the activities happened, picking up trash on the side of the street, helping the businesses that had been looted and the whole day we were out there people were driving by and honking. At bus stops, people were giving us high fives and hugs.”
Kenny Petty, an African-American pastor who started The Gate in St. Louis in 2012, had opportunities to share his story with Ferguson pastors before Wednesday’s prayer service at First Baptist Church of Ferguson. Petty had grown up 10 minutes away from Ferguson and, at age 19, watched a police officer shoot a friend multiple times in front of him. He says anger and hate grew in him from that incident. In retrospect, he says, he is grateful he was put in jail at that time because it kept him from seriously hurting someone.
“I understand the anger, the hate and the violence that can come from an unredeemed heart,” Petty said. “While I was incarcerated, the Gospel was presented to meâ€”I had been antagonistic about the Gospel and the Bibleâ€”but the Gospel was presented to me, and my life was radically changed. That heart of hate and violence turned into a heart of love.”
Noting the lack of racial diversity in many of Ferguson’s strong churches, Petty offered pastors his help in engaging the community’s majority African-American population. Petty’s church is about 20 minutes from Ferguson.
“I want to come alongside of them,” Petty said. “I want to bring some of my guysâ€”we have plenty of young men, African-American young men, who are being raised up with part of their DNA to be on mission and engage the community. We’ll come out there, and we’ll help you bridge the gap.”
Send North America: St. Louis city coordinator Noah Oldham sent interns from his church, August Gate, to the cleanup effort and hosted a prayer meeting at his church on Wednesday. Throughout the prayer meeting he walked his congregationâ€”and a number visitorsâ€”through a Gospel perspective of the Ferguson events.
“We closed with hope,” said Oldham (@noaholdham). “We said, â€˜We know, God, you’re not done here.’ We sang â€˜God of This City.’ We had everyone break up in groups and pray for all the things they want to see the city become. They may not even see it as possible to see those things happen, but we asked them to be bold. People were just crying out asking God to change the city in huge ways.'”
Oldham asks Southern Baptists to pray that God will use the tensions to show people in St. Louis their need for the Gospel and pray for church planters God has called to reach the city.
For more information about how your church can push back lostness in St. Louis, visit namb.net/stlouis.
Tobin Perry (@tobinperry) writes for the North American Mission Board.