When The Passage Church partnered with local church plants to clean up a St. Louis suburb following rioting, looting and heated protests that erupted there late last week, 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 – putting on block parties and reaching out to the community,” Joe Costephens, who replanted The Passage five years ago on the border of the two St. Louis area suburbs, said. “So when this came up, I called some church planting buddies, and said, ‘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, Costephens and his colleagues mobilized between 100 and 200 people to clean up embattled Ferguson before participating in a prayer service Aug. 13 at First Baptist Church of Ferguson.
Problems in Ferguson, Mo., began on Aug. 9 when an unarmed 18-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a police officer. After a day of relative peace the next day, a crowd grew unruly that evening and the situation turned violent with businesses looted, vehicles vandalized and confrontations with police.
Photo from The Passage
Joe Costephens, pastor of The Passage in suburban St. Louis, talks to Ferguson, Mo., residents during a cleanup project he organized along with other Send North America: St. Louis church planters.
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 event, a quarterly meeting for church planters and other Christian leaders in Missouri and Illinois. The church planters mobilized their congregations to help clean up Ferguson and look for other ways to serve the community. 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 turnout – 120, 150, 180, I really didn’t get a great count – 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 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 St. Louis’ north side, participated in the cleanup project and said the Ferguson residents he met were appreciative of the group’s efforts. Residents urged visitors not to get the wrong idea of their community, saying outsiders had initiated much of the violence.
“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 the prayer service at First Baptist Ferguson. Petty grew up 10 minutes from Ferguson and, at age 19, watched a police officer shoot a friend multiple times in front of him. He said anger and hate grew in him stemming from that incident. Eventually Petty served time in jail, but in retrospect he said he is grateful because jail 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 me – I had been antagonistic about the gospel and the Bible – 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 guys. 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 Aug. 13. During the prayer meeting he explained to his congregation – and a number of visitors – how to view the Ferguson events from a gospel perspective.
“We closed with hope,” Oldham said. “We said, ‘We know, God, You’re not done here.’ We sang ‘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 asked Southern Baptists to pray that God would 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.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tobin Perry writes for the North American Mission Board.)