... You shall love your neighbor as yourself ...
When we started Antioch Community Church in 1999, we began to renovate an old grocery store building that had been empty for ten years. It was a revealing picture of the problems of that neighborhood—homeless men and prostitutes lived inside, and the roof was falling in. It was in the middle of a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of crime and poverty in our city at the time. Drug use and prostitution were rampant, and few businesses would locate there. The number of families living below the poverty line was far above average.
We were reaching out to people from all over our city, but our commitment to the inner city had to be at the forefront. We were called to be a multi-racial, multi-economic church, and we knew if we didn't position ourselves there, it would never happen. We also knew that if God had called us to be a people with a passion for Jesus and His purposes in all the earth, then it needed to start at home. So we intentionally moved our church building and offices into that neighborhood in Waco, Texas.
After we restored the auditorium part of the building and moved in during December 2000, Waco's city manager asked if we would host a meeting of churches interested in helping with local community development.
"I've done the math," she started. "There are more than two hundred churches in Waco proper. If each of you took four square blocks and actually loved your neighbors as yourselves, then we could take care of almost every social issue in our city. But because you won't do it, we have to do meetings like this to come up with committees and other solutions to solve the problems."
She was direct, maybe even harsh, but she wasn't wrong. Always up for a challenge, I thought to myself, Oh, yeah, there are great churches in this city, and Antioch will join with them to see real change in Waco.
In response to the challenge to love our neighbors as ourselves, we marked off an area of 450 homes in a nine-by-nine block area we would serve. Not only did we place the church building and offices in the inner city, but today more than a hundred people from Antioch also call the neighborhood home.
As we moved in, we saw great needs, but we weren't quite sure where to start. Plenty of experts would say we should have started a program or secured grant funding to meet the needs. As we prayed, though, we were convinced that we needed to start by simply loving and living among our neighbors. We would love our neighbor as ourselves. We would learn about their real needs without making assumptions about what those needs were. We would walk alongside our neighbors as friends and figure it out from there.
We put a moratorium on formal programming for two years. We encouraged people to start small groups, which we called Lifegroups, for prayer, Bible study, and community in their homes. We also encouraged people to start kids' Bible clubs in their front yards. But we would not create programs to meet practical needs. When someone in a Lifegroup mentioned a specific need, the group would pray about it and provide in ways that seemed appropriate. For two years we got to know our neighbors not as projects or people to fix but as friends. In that process, we learned as much from them as they did from us, and we worked together to meet the needs we saw.
Large-scale change didn't take place over night, but little by little and person by person, God used us to change lives and transform a neighborhood. In 2013, a graduate student studying social work conducted a formal survey on the impact of our church in the community. The results of that study, plus previous surveys, confirmed what we had heard from friends and neighbors: both violent and non-violent crimes decreased significantly, prostitution went from rampant to almost non-existent, student performance in the local elementary school went up, and test scores jumped significantly. Property values and home ownership increased, and neighbors expressed respect for the church's presence and work in our neighborhood.
We didn't set out with a plan to systematically change the circumstances in the neighborhood. We did set out to listen to God and to do the things He asked us to do. We asked God to open our ears and eyes to the needs around us and to what He wanted to do both in and through us.
It didn't take long at all to notice that many neighbors were unable to meet their basic need for food. Many people were homeless, out of work, or both, so they struggled to make it day to day. In response, we began a community meal on Friday nights and called it The Feast. More than a soup kitchen to provide food, The Feast was a way to build relationships, talk about Jesus, break into small groups, and see discipleship happen. Real transformation would require intentional investment in people's lives. God was using love and meals as a doorway.
One of our leaders, Travis, started investing in a man named Branch, who started coming to The Feast each Friday with his wife, Edna, and their children. They had been homeless for almost two years, mainly because of Branch's struggle with drugs and alcohol. They were not receiving any government assistance, so they went to the different meals offered by faith-based organizations or churches to get food. Although they had claimed Jesus as their Savior, they didn't claim to be committed in their walk with Him. According to Branch, he just wasn't willing to give up that much control.
After coming to The Feast for a while, Branch realized his true need for Jesus and saw people who were willing to walk with him. He fully committed his life to Jesus, and God began to deal with him on both internal and external issues. As a church, we were able very early on to help Branch find a job and then walk alongside him as he learned what it meant to work diligently. Soon he and his family were able to move into a home, and we were able to help the kids with the tutoring they needed to be successful in school.
Branch and Edna began to attend a Lifegroup, and they brought their friends and family. Many of them came to know Jesus. Within a few short months, Branch and Edna were leading a Lifegroup, and they even helped begin three others. Eventually, their kids gave their lives to Jesus and were baptized. Over the next few months, seventeen immediate and extended family members gave their lives to Jesus. Branch, Edna, and their kids are now core members of our church. He has been on mission trips with us around the world, serving practically with his carpentry skills. Whenever I see Branch or Edna or their family, a big smile spreads across my face because they are givers as much as anyone in our congregation, both with their resources and their lives.
It all began because a hungry man needed food and found Jesus in the process.
Provident Heights is the main elementary school in our neighborhood. When we moved in, ninety percent of the 500 children it served lived below the poverty line, and overall student performance was low. Our desire was to see that change. One of our church members had become the school's principal, so we began to talk with him about how we could help.
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said that our neighborhood had one of the highest poverty rates among children in the entire state of Texas. We knew we had to address the issue of education if we wanted to break this cycle. One of the alarming statistics we learned is that if a child does not learn to read at grade level by third grade, there is a ninety percent chance he or she will not graduate from high school. If someone does not graduate from high school, there is a ninety percent chance he or she will be incarcerated at some point in life, if not for the majority of life. If students do not graduate from high school, they are ten times more likely to experience teen pregnancy and the related cycles that have made poverty so debilitating through the years. I could go on with the numbers, but obviously you get the point. It matters that kids are educated and cared for in their developmental years. If the family structure is not stable, then we as the church need to step in.
So step in we did. We started a program called STARS where children could come after school for help with homework and mentoring in life skills. It was simple, but the impact was profound. One of the teachers from the school wrote this letter to illustrate the way lives have been changing:
Last year as a teacher at Provident Heights, I noticed a little boy who had transferred in from another school. He was small and wiggly and had an all too familiar wild look in his eyes. To say he got in trouble at least five times a day is not an exaggeration. Everyone was at wit's end, and we were only in the second month of school. He was two grade levels behind in reading—and every other subject for that matter. Then the teachers began to notice slight changes in him as the year continued. He wasn't getting into trouble as frequently, and his grades were improving slowly but surely. He started applying himself at school and wasn't bullying the other kids or starting fights.
This gradual improvement continued throughout the school year until one day I realized this little boy hadn't been getting in trouble at all. I also noticed that he even started mediating conflicts between other children, and his grades and reading level improved so much that he was one of the top students in his class. He became an avid reader and one of the most dependable and trustworthy kids in the school.
Transformation had occurred. He'd become a model student. It wasn't until the end of the school year that we discovered a man through STARS had been mentoring him. His aunt was meeting with a woman at church, and his family started attending The Feast. That mentor relationship, along with outreach to his family by other people from the church, had helped this little boy so much that he was a completely different child at the end of the school year. He helped his friends and worked hard at school. His attitude improved, his grades improved, and he was a role model for the rest of the kids in the school. Now his family and extended family are members of the church and have come to Jesus, been baptized, and are being transformed in the journey.
Every week, as many as a hundred of our people are tutoring and mentoring students at Provident Heights. We have seen test scores go up and kids and their families experience the love and grace of Jesus. There are people mentoring them week by week. In one year this school went from the bottom of the rankings to achieving the second highest test scores in the community.
Our inner-city neighborhood was a third Hispanic, a third Caucasian, and a third African American. Among our Hispanic friends, we discovered that many did not speak English at all, let alone as a second language. From that group, we began to deal with the complexities of various circumstances by helping people find jobs, deal with immigration issues, and face struggles with addictions. Despite language barriers, we could be engaged in people's lives. And through our desire to go to the nations, God was bringing the nations to us.
Kevin and Stacy Johnson initiated a friendship with one of their neighbors, Emily. She began to open up her heart, life, and home. Through her relationships with friends and family, more than twenty-five people either gave or rededicated their lives to the Lord. Another one of our leaders and his family also started a second Lifegroup in the neighborhood for those who do not speak English. Through those relationships the door opened to many more as we discovered more than forty people were related to this one family. As we got to know them and other friends in the neighborhood, we realized there was a need both for Spanish-speaking Lifegroups and translated worship services. A group of great leaders emerged in our Spanish ministry, and today we not only have Spanish-speaking Lifegroups, but we also have a Spanish-speaking service we simply call "Antioch en Español." Our Hispanic friends became brothers and sisters to walk with in this incredible journey together.
In listening to and walking alongside our neighbors, we found that many had family members and friends who were addicted to drugs. In response, we opened Mercy House in 2005. This year-long residential substance-abuse recovery program requires each resident to go through a biblically based twelve-step program, be involved in community-service projects, and receive teaching, counseling, and mentoring in both one-on-one and group settings.
One of the most powerful testimonies to come out of Mercy House belongs to Wes. For thirty-four years, Wes's use of drugs had destroyed relationships, caused him to lose jobs, and almost killed him. Ruth, Wes's sister and my administrative assistant for eleven years, was a woman of prayer who interceded for Wes consistently for years. When Ruth died of cancer, Wes took it hard. Four months after her death, he took all the drugs he had in one shot, knowing it would either kill him or scare him enough to make a change.
God saved Wes's life that day. He went to church soon after that, and there he encountered Jesus. Wes explained that during the prayer time and altar call, he felt something like warm water pouring over him, and his desire for drugs was gone. Wes bought into the idea of transformation and moved into Mercy House. Little by little, through time with Jesus, counseling, and serving others, Wes became a stronger man.
Wes's decision to follow Jesus became consuming. Before long, he began to open his heart to the nations of the world. As he prayed, the Lord would speak the word China to his heart over and over. His desire to serve in China grew, and later that year he went there on a short-term mission team.
Kandy, who was already living in China, served as the guide for Wes's team. Kandy and Wes shared a similar background. She had abused alcohol and drugs until God saved her at the age of forty. Eventually she moved to China to be a part of a church-planting team there.
After spending time together, Wes and Kandy knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Several months later, Wes proposed at the Great Wall of China, and these two have continued to love God and love their neighbors. God redeemed both of their pasts and brought them to a place where they could partner in service. After two years in China, Wes and Kandy moved back to Waco, where Wes now directs Mercy House, helping dozens of men find freedom from the same pain and brokenness he once experienced. Wes and Kandy's story is an amazing testimony of God's grace, power, and love for His children.
Mercy House was so effective that our women decided to open a women's recovery home called Grace House. One of the women who came through was Brandy. At the age of fourteen, Brandy began experimenting with drugs and eventually moved to using methamphetamines and heavier narcotics. At twenty-two, she was arrested. Shame, guilt, and a broken marriage led her to overdose on prescription pills. In the emergency room she flat lined twice but pulled through. Six months later at a detox facility, someone told her about Grace House. This is how she tells her story:
God's love came upon me in waves. He began to reveal His love to me through His word and to show me He was there even in my darkest times. His love took me by the hand and walked me out of shame and into the fullness of who He is. Even during the times I made horrible decisions, I realized that Jesus was with me. The eyes of my heart were being opened. Jesus had chosen me as His own. I realized that with Him I was wanted and accepted. God sees me as His beloved, so I can't perform my way into or fall out of His grace. I learned this by living in Grace House.
Words were spoken over me, that I would one day have an impact on the lives of women who are walking in darkness. Isaiah 42:16 says, "I will lead the blind by a way they do not know, in paths they do not know I will guide them. I will make darkness into light before them and rugged places into plains. These are the things I will do, and I will not leave them undone." This is exactly what God has done in my life. I can see the truth with God and other people in my life. I listen to God, and I listen to people I walk with. I walk with others so I can be held accountable. And I walk with God because I have tasted the goodness of His love, and He has set my heart free.
I now live in Grace House again, but this time as a leader. Jesus has put it in my heart to live with and love women who have been hurt through their life experiences. It is my desire to take a journey with God so that other women will have a chance to know Him and His unfailing love. I want them to encounter a love so overwhelming that it takes away the heartache and pain of the past. It is the heart of God to have them walk in their true identity—to walk in the beauty of the person God created them to be and to believe and know that they really are daughters of the Most High King.
Over the years we have had the joy of doing community events to reach out in our neighborhood. We have hosted many of what we call Community Nights. These are afternoon and evening events where we open our parking lots and invite our neighbors for food, games, music, and an opportunity to get to know us, and one another, in a non-threatening environment. Everyone loves a party, and we have had such fun gathering with our neighbors on Community Nights.
During these events we also set up a prayer tent where people could bring their needs and have someone pray for them. One of our members, Sue, shares her story about the impact of Community Nights:
I met Wanda at Community Night. My husband and I were listening to the band, and after it stopped I thought, Well, I'm here to get to know some people. So I started talking to the woman sitting behind me. I asked her if she was a member of Antioch and she said no. She also said she hadn't wanted to come that night but something had prompted her to go. During our conversation I asked her if she knew the Lord, and she replied, "I'm not sure. There are lots of things I don't understand."
I asked if she wanted to be sure, and she said yes. We walked over to the prayer tent. There my friend Sherry explained things further to Wanda, and we both prayed with her to receive Jesus as her Savior.
We exchanged e-mail addresses, and through e-mails Wanda poured her heart out to me. Although Wanda didn't know a lot about the Bible, she was hungry to learn about Jesus. So we started doing discipleship lessons at her house. One of the lessons was about forgiveness. Wanda had been estranged from her daughter for two years, although she was allowed to see her grandchildren. When Wanda's daughter saw such a change in her mother she wanted to have a relationship with her again and they reconciled. Wanda began to bring her grandchildren faithfully to church each week, and I had the privilege of praying with Wanda's daughter when she rededicated her life to Jesus.
The more the church invested in our neighbors, the more we understood the practical needs in our neighborhood. Eventually a group of our guys started what we called Come Together Workdays (CTWs). At the first Saturday workday, more than 120 Antioch volunteers came to serve our neighborhood. The vision of these workdays was to share the love of Jesus with our neighbors by serving them in tangible, practical ways. We cut their grass. We trimmed their trees. We picked up trash. As we did these hands-on activities, we believe we imparted hope and pride back into our neighborhood. That in turn increased people's belief in the potential for change in their neighborhood and in their personal lives.
CTWs would eventually turn into block-by-block workdays on the second Saturday of each month. As we tried to be the hands and feet of Jesus, we saw families encouraged, people come to the Lord and become part of the church, and a new pride and thankfulness develop for the neighborhood.
My family lived in the church neighborhood for nine and a half years. We saw the work of God all around us. Across the street sat a drug and prostitution house, and one of the women there became one of the first residents at Grace House, where she was brought back to a place of health and freedom. A couple of the drug dealers from across the street went into our Mercy House and experienced the grace of God and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
This window of time changed us—me, Laura, our kids, and our Antioch neighbors. We learned to live with people instead of ministering to them. Sure, we learned that they had needs, but we also had needs. We learned from and loved one another.
This became evident when we experienced our one and only break-in while living in the church neighborhood. We had gone out to spend time as a family in a neighboring city, and somewhere in the middle of the day people had broken into our home and ransacked it. They turned over every mattress, took all our clothes out of the closets, and dumped out everything found in drawers or containers. Every square inch of our house was turned upside down, and everything valuable was gone. Even heirloom and sentimental items holding personal memories were taken.
We had decided years ago that whatever we have is God's, and we knew that we were blessed for seven years living there without incidents like this. But the question remained: who would do this? Was it people from the neighborhood or people from outside the neighborhood?
The answer showed up on our doorstep later that evening. A man named Anthony knocked at the door. He was one of our Hispanic friends who had come out of drug addiction and was now part of our church family. It had been about six hours since the break-in when he stood there, tears in his eyes, to say, "I've checked around with everybody. It's nobody in the neighborhood. I wouldn't let it happen. Nobody would let it happen. You're a part of us, and we won't steal from family."
Then he said, "Here, I need to give you this," and he handed me $41 in cash.
"Anthony, I can't take that," I responded automatically. I knew his family was living day to day and many times didn't even have enough for that day.
He looked me in the eyes and said, "You have to—you're family. This is what we do."
As he walked away, I thought, This is what it's all about—people loving people in the name of Jesus. This is the church.
Loving Jesus and loving our neighbor can never be separated. When we live those truths out in community, whole neighborhoods can be transformed.