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Georgians bring resources, Christ to crime-weary McElderry Park

Crossover Baltimore


Joe Westbury/Index

Thousands of children had their nails painted, tossed bean bags, and burned off energy in bouncing tents like this at the Community Day Crossover event in east Baltimore. The four-hour block party on steroids, which was lead by Valdosta Baptist Association, was extended an hour due to the crowd volume in the high crime McElderry Park neighborhood.

BALTIMORE, MD — The ABC television affiliate in Baltimore describes the McElderry Park neighborhood as “an infected wound” full of violent street crime; the federal government calls it one of the nation’s 15 most dangerous neighborhoods – so dangerous that it is investing nearly $1 million to shore up the struggling middle class.

For Southern Baptist church planter Tally Wilgis, who grew up on the streets and remembers standing in line for free milk and cheese, it’s a great place to start a church. And that’s why Georgia Baptists swelled the ranks of 425 volunteers to host a Community Day event in the neighborhood.

Joe Westbury/Index

Bubba Emrich, left, of Greggs Baptist Church in Adel, cooks hot dogs with Christie Petty of Central Baptist Church in Waycross.


Community Day Baltimore

The McElderry Park neighborhood ministry, largely spearheaded by Valdosta Baptist Association and Redland Baptist Church, was one of several Crossover Events scattered throughout Baltimore. Here is an overview of Georgia’s role in that focus event.

► 8,000 attendees at 5-hour event

► 1,700 families registered for follow-up

► 425 volunteers, primarily from Georgia and Baltimore

► 45 professions of faith

A welcome return

For five hours on June 7 the section of east Baltimore – synonymous with stray bullets flying through living rooms in the early evening and late nights – was transformed into the sounds of children playing, families eating hot dogs under shade trees, and parents receiving free medical/dental/vision care for themselves and their children.

It was a momentary return to the Good Old Days – an oasis of safety that brought back memories of when the neighborhood was a desirable place to live rather than a place to be shunned.

Community Day – a block party on steroids – was envisioned by Jay Watkins, pastor of Redland Baptist Church in Valdosta, back in 2009 and implemented in south Georgia through churches in Valdosta Baptist Association. One such gathering attracted 15,000 needy families in a day-long event.


Community Day being rolled out nationwide

The North American Mission Board was so impressed with the outreach that early this year it opted to roll out the ministry nationwide to show other churches how they can impact their communities through the creative approach. Earlier this year the Georgia Baptist Convention donated an 18-wheel trailer to help transport materials to the five sites in the U.S. and Canada.

Richard and Carola Jones of Central Baptist Church in Waycross volunteered to see how the ministry worked so they can use the concept back home. With only one evangelical church for every 96,000 residents, Baltimore is ready for some Good News, they added.

They were two of nearly 50 from the church to serve in the Community Day event.

One woman, who asked not to be identified, could not say enough kind words about the volunteers and the difference they were making in her neighborhood. It may just be for a day, but it’s a worthwhile start that gives a glimmer of hope, she stated.

“This is the happiest group of people I’ve ever been around in my life,” she said as she received a bag of groceries.

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Patricia Beltran, of First Hispanic Baptist Church of Atlanta, shares a witness with an Hispanic family at the Community Day event.

“We are a very low income neighborhood and these free groceries will help my kids eat a little better. And you know what? All these folks are giving it away happily, even the summer clothes for my kids.

“I’m putting this on Facebook in a few minutes so all my friends can come down and see this for themselves.”

At the nail salon set up under a small white tent, Dixie Cameron of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in Macon gently applied polish on the nails of nine-year-old Sa’mauri Fortune. Sitting next to her, Keturah Rogers of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Macon did the same to eleven-year-old Amauri Rome.


Hispanic witness

Nearby Patricia Beltran, a member of First Hispanic Baptist Church of Atlanta, engaged a Spanish-speaking family in conversation under the shade of a large maple tree.

Not far away the scent of grilling hot dogs wafted in the air as Jesse Bush of Redlands Baptist Church and Bubba Emrich of Gospel Baptist Church in Adel, with others, kept the wieners coming in a steady procession.

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Redland Baptist Church pastor Jay Watkins visits with two women and their children entering Patterson Park for the Community Day event. Watkins and his church pioneered the concept in 2009; NAMB is now taking it nationwide with five events set for Canada and the U.S. this year.

Wilgis, the NAMB church planter who was conceived by a 16-year-old unwed teenager who was advised to abort him, was glad to see the response of Georgia Baptists coming to help redeem his old neighborhood.

“I was led to Christ by a Southern Baptist and I’m grateful for the role they played in my life. I can’t tell you how good it feels to see the Baptists bringing the church back to some of Baltimore’s most economically depressed neighborhoods.

“I was raised in the government housing projects and know firsthand what these few hours mean to people living on the edge. You may be bringing them material items like clothes and shoes and healthcare, but most importantly you are bringing them hope – hope through a new life in Jesus Christ.

Thirty-six Baltimore-area Baptist churches joined arms with almost 2,000 volunteers from 18 states and Canada to share Christ with Baltimore residents during Crossover 2014. The event preceded the beginning of the 2014 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting taking place June 10-11 in the city.

“Georgia Baptists have been the backbone of our planting a church here, both Captivate Christian Church in the suburbs and East Baltimore in this community. With the help of churches like Johnny Hunt’s at Woodstock, Michael Catt’s at Sherwood in Albany, and dozens of smaller churches across Georgia, lives are being changed.”

The oldest known attendee at the Crossover events – either at the other locations or the Community Day event – was 92-year-old Jeanette Coody of First Baptist Church of Valdosta, who helped staff the registration desk.


Joe Westbury/Index

Nearly 8,000 residents from the McElderry Park neighborhood flooded into Patterson Park, a large city park, to hear the Gospel presentation and receive free items such as medical/dental/vision care, food, and clothing.

Joe Westbury/Index

NAMB church planter Tally Wilgis, who grew up on the rough-and-tumble streets of east Baltimore, talks to 13-year-old Damien Andrews, who was attending the event. Wilgis expressed gratitude to Georgia Baptists for helping bring the Church back to inner city Baltimore. The community has an unemployment rate of 60 percent.

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An east Baltimore couple, loaded down with free groceries, clothes, and other items, walks by the GBC tractor trailer that transported nearly 40,000 pounds of supplies to the event.

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Residents in need of clothes ranging from suits to casual summer wear availed themselves of any items that would fit. Edwin Berrios, right, thanks Central Baptist Church in Waycross member Levi Herrin for his church's ministry to the down-and-out neighborhood.