March 4th, 2011 at 12:56 pm
CORPUS CHRISTI – As the sun sets, a rag tag group of Christians with backgrounds of biblical proportions gathers in a small apartment in one of the worst areas of the city. There’s the couple that met in a drug deal that didn’t work out, a security consultant who for reasons he can’t completely explain cares for this part of town that many people are trying to forget exists, a recovering alcoholic who is now a television clown and a pastor of a church that no one says will work.
Around a small table, they study the Bible some, cry a little and laugh a lot in a meeting that feels more like a family reunion than an official gathering of any sort. And there’s always room for someone new. This night, the apartment door remains open, light piercing the surrounding darkness and inviting people join them.
Just as each of them once did.
This group of forgettable pasts and unfathomable futures comprises one of the “home teams” – an off-campus small group Bible study of sorts – for CrossBridge Fellowship, a church start facilitated by Texas Baptists with the help of gifts through the Cooperative Program and to the Mary Hill Davis Offering for Texas Missions.
The church, whose facilities it assumed after the last congregation failed to sell them for three years, is anchored in a region of Corpus Christi that places roughly 1,600 calls to the police each month, said member Jimmy Rodriguez. Nationally, one in every 164 people is a victim of a violent crime such as murder, rape or armed robbery. Here, it’s one in every 32 people.
A memorial rests on a fence a short walk from the church, marking the place a young gang member lost his life while many people in the community – young and old – looked on. Tennis shoes hang from a nearby power line, denoting a place where drugs are sold. Even the church hasn’t been immune to the area crime. The first week it started, more than $15,000 in music equipment was stolen from its facilities.
Many of the families here are broken, said Pastor Mario Quezada, who was told he was stupid for attempting to start a church here. Some of the parents are incarcerated. Some of the residents are addicted to drugs, alcohol or both. Financial pressures squeeze residents tightly. Gangs recruit children as young as eight years old.
“This isn’t a good neighborhood in the least,” home team leader Hector Pena confessed. “To me, this happening, that’s how I see it. It’s a lighthouse. People are out to sea. This [church] is calling them home.”
CrossBridge gives people a choice – lives of drugs, dependency and struggles or the embrace of people who care about others, members said. Many of them have had struggles with dependency in the past and face a variety of hardships now, meaning they welcome others to their respective journeys with Christ without judgment. The congregation is a refuge for wayward pilgrims.
“In this neighborhood, if you don’t have family, you go find family out there – either in the gangs or at CrossBridge Fellowship. I’m so glad we’re here,” said Crystal Womack, who met her husband Lawrence when he was selling drugs on the street.
In an effort to engage all people in the neighborhood, the church attempts to eliminate barriers between it and the community. Quezada preaches in blue jeans. The church partners with the food bank to distribute food twice a month to as many as 200 people. It has partnered with its sponsor congregation, Second Baptist Church, to hand out roughly 300 backpacks full of school supplies to area children. It has provided shoes for more than 30 children.
Each week, the church conducts an after-school program that draws dozens of children from the apartments across the street from the congregation. Students eagerly hop off the school bus and into the arms of Quezada, Pena and other volunteers, including some Second Baptist Church, which is committed to helping CrossBridge beyond finances. Students excitedly parade behind the volunteers to the church, where they have a snack provided by the Woman’s Missionary Union of Second Baptist Church, participate in a Bible study and play on the community “park” – the church playground.
“My heart just breaks for the children here,” said Shirley Graham, a volunteer from Second Baptist Church. “They’re born into a situation. I want them to meet Christ so they have a chance to overcome the many obstacles they will face.”
God is working through the ministry to provide beacons of light in the community like that that shines out the open door of the home team gathering. The congregation already is looking for ways to expand its after-school program next year. Leaders are looking for ways to partner with local schools.
The Womacks – Lawrence, who abused drugs and alcohol and Crystal, who abused drugs – have been clean for three years. They started the congregation’s first home team in their apartment. The congregation has helped the Womacks organize themselves financially and the family now lives in a house they bought.
“Now they’re the example to the community, said Jimmy Rodriguez, church member who owns a security company and serves as vice president of the Corpus Christi Baptist Association.
“Nobody can come and say ‘I can’t do it.’ They did it.”
God is changing lives in the neighborhood like He did with the Womacks, Quezada said. They are being transformed into walking testimonies of His power. And those beacons of light are impacting other people. About 80 people attend Sunday service at the church each week.
“God has brought people to the Lord,” the pastor said. “People have been baptized. People get baptized nearly every month.”
And He continues bringing people to the church. This night as the group was wrapping up, a woman walked through the open door. She saw the light in the darkness and hoped it was a church meeting. She had wrestled with drugs and alcohol and recently suffered a significant relapse. Struggling with a number of issues, she was hoping to find someone who would pray for her.
She found more than that. She discovered a group of people who understood exactly where she was because they’d been there too, coming because they were drawn to the light. They visited with her for a short while, then circled around her and prayed for her. Afterward, a few of the women in the home team pulled her to the side and began visiting with her more.
“Home teams are really a big blessing,” said Adam Reyna, recovering alcoholic and star of Champ’s Training Camp Academy, a local show that teaches Christian principles. “The last home team, we talked about ‘Jesus with skin on.’ This is a church ‘with walls down.’”