Published June 12, 2014
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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