By Paula Schlueter Ross (firstname.lastname@example.org)
FERGUSON, Mo. — Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, this beleaguered city in North St. Louis is on the road to renewal and rebirth, thanks to the efforts of numerous community and business leaders, and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Representatives of the Synod and three partners — the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis Inc., Provident Inc. and Better Family Life Inc. — donned hard hats, grasped shovels and ceremoniously turned the dirt at the oft-mentioned “historic” July 9 groundbreaking for the proposed Community Empowerment Center of Ferguson, a St. Louis city- and countywide effort to change lives for the better.
The site of the new center — which is expected to open its doors next summer — is significant: the burned-out QuikTrip gas station that served as “ground zero” for authorities after the police shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. on Aug. 9, 2014, ignited weeks of often-violent protests heard and seen across the country, and even around the world.
With the primary goal of helping the community’s young black men receive job and life-skills training in order to secure gainful employment, the center will show the world “how to turn a tragedy into a triumph,” according to Urban League of St. Louis President and CEO Michael McMillan.
In the wake of the violence here (in August and November of 2014), Urban League workers walked Ferguson’s streets, talking to residents about the problems and possible solutions. “Every one” of the young black men they spoke to “said they needed jobs,” McMillan said.
As a result, the League has provided so far more than 100 jobs to young adults in North St. Louis County — many of those through its Save Our Sons (SOS) program, which will be among the services offered at the new Empowerment Center.
In an emotional testimony, SOS graduate William Ruffin, a 20-year-old whose single mother worked long hours to support the family, said the program changed his life.
A high-school graduate, Ruffin said he was unable to find a job so he “always looked to the streets” for what he needed. After completing SOS classes — the program even provided two of the three suits he now owns — he got five job interviews and said he “rocked every one.” With several job offers on the table, Ruffin chose Dobbs Tire & Auto Centers and said he’s “loving it.” Now he thinks of himself as an example — and unofficial spokesman — for the SOS program, showing his peers how they, too, can turn their lives around.
‘An opportunity to change lives’
Addressing some 300 people at the groundbreaking, the Rev. Steven Schave, director of LCMS Urban & Inner City Mission and LCMS Church Planting, said the Synod considers itself “blessed to be called a partner in the community of Ferguson — to help bring peace, and hope, and a brighter future for generations to come.”
This summer the church body already has distributed nearly 13 tons of food to children in need in North St. Louis, he said to applause, and he invited those at the groundbreaking to a free vacation Bible school/backpack-and-food giveaway/lunch — planned for July 25 at the Ferguson Community Center — that’s intended to “feed children and their families both in body and soul.”
Schave introduced a “very special guest” — Remi (REM-ee), a 15-year-old from inner-city Cincinnati he had met years ago while serving as a pastor there. According to a local coroner, male students who did not pass the fourth-grade proficiency test had a “great likelihood” of dying young from street violence or ending up in prison. So Schave challenged his congregation to change that statistic, leading the way by asking the public elementary school near his church, “Can I work with a third-grader?” That’s when he met Remi, from a broken home, who was welcomed by the Schave family and spent time with them, taking part in family activities.
“We have an opportunity to change lives,” Schave told the gathering. “We have an opportunity to save lives. We have the opportunity to say, not one more statistic.
“I’m so happy and proud to be a partner here in this place, that we can work together as God’s children. And I ask that God would bless our efforts to empower and to strengthen every soul that walks through these doors.”
It’s ‘definitely needed’
The Synod’s contribution to the Empowerment Center — currently dubbed the “Lutheran Hope Center” — includes plans to offer after-school tutoring and mentoring for children ages 9 to 18, sports camps, character-building presentations, opportunities for town-hall meetings and programs such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), Bible studies, pastoral counseling for local families and police officers, a “share-a-ride” program to transport families to nearby Lutheran churches for worship and a food pantry to provide groceries for low-income residents.
“We hope to ensure the basic needs of the poor in a way that is empowering,” Schave told Reporter. But even higher on that agenda, he said, is connecting people with nearby LCMS congregations: “We hope to bring the Gospel and to bring people into the life of the church.”
Although there are no LCMS congregations in Ferguson, five are in close proximity to the community, as is Lutheran High School North. All — and especially the LCMS Missouri District — are contributing to the Synod’s ministry in this community, notes Schave.
Retiring Missouri District President Rev. Dr. Ray Mirly, also at the groundbreaking, described the new center as “exciting” and said the district looks forward to “partnering with the Urban League here in order to work from our strength of working with youth, and education, and helping at-risk children to succeed academically and get jobs,” as well as sharing the Gospel.
“I think it has a lot of potential and it gives us an opportunity to do what the church should be doing — ministering to people,” Mirly told Reporter.
The Rev. Dr. Kevin Golden, pastor of Village Lutheran Church, Ladue, Mo., and a member of the Missouri District’s Ferguson Task Force, said the project allows the Synod and each of its partners to “walk hand in hand,” doing “what they’re really good at,” including, from the LCMS perspective, “serve the members of this community so that they might enjoy the Lord’s good gifts.”
The Empowerment Center “is a wonderful idea,” said Mattie Spearman of St. Louis, who attended the groundbreaking as an Urban League volunteer. The violence in Ferguson “really disturbed” her, she said.
“Why does it take somebody dying to make us realize we have a serious problem?” Spearman asked. “If the [St. Louis city] schools are closing, the jails are full and the churches are losing membership, that should tell you that we have a serious problem.”
Dellena Jones, owner of the 911 Hair Salon in Ferguson, said she expects the new center to “bring great building blocks to the community — for the businesses, for the residents.
“And it’s something that is definitely needed,” she added. “Our young black men definitely need the opportunity, need the encouragement, to persevere.”
Cora Anderson, 75, said the hourlong groundbreaking ceremony — with an agenda full of speakers (including St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger and Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, and acknowledgment of Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, in the audience) — was “very emotional” for her and “the most awesome thing I’ve ever attended in my life. As old as I am, I’ve never seen this many people come together to do something good.”
But, she added, “more is needed. This is a great start.”
God, His Word will be ever-present
Project donors include QuikTrip, the Centene Charitable Foundation, Home State Health, Enterprise, Ameren, Emerson, Civic Progress, the Regional Business Council, Edward Jones, Starbucks, Altria, the Centric Group, the Ferring Family Foundation and the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation.
The architect, project manager and general contractor for the project are all African-American-owned companies, according to Kwame Building Group, St. Louis, which is handling construction management.
A highlight for many during the groundbreaking ceremony was a rousing — and moving — performance of “We Are the World” by preschoolers from a local Head Start program, who sang, perhaps prophetically: “We are the world, We are the children, We are the ones who make a brighter day, So let’s start giving. There’s a choice we’re making, We’re saving our own lives, It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me.”
God and His Word will be ever-present among the volunteers at the Lutheran Hope Center, Schave notes.
“The church can help a struggling community, we can care for basic needs, but through Word and Sacrament ministry we have that which is truly transformative and not just superficial,” he said.
“What is truly life-changing? It is Christ, where we find our true riches and our hope.”
For more information about the Empowerment Center, contact Schave at email@example.com.
Posted July 14, 2015 / Updated July 16 and July 17, 2015