Hope on the Streets
God healed Darlene Smith-Atkins of fatal kidney disease at the age of 7. At 19, she survived a near-fatal car crash. At 31, she died on the operating table during bilateral breast cancer surgery, but God brought her back to life.
Now, at 61, Smith-Atkins pastors a Sunday evening Street Church in Greenville, South Carolina, sharing a meal and a message of hope with people on the streets.
Born to a musically talented and ministry-driven family, Smith-Atkins accepted Christ at age 5 and declared one day she’d be an Assemblies of God pastor.
Smith-Atkins attended Southeastern University, then later earned a Bachelor of Arts in Pastoral Theology from Holmes Bible College and a Master’s Degree in Biblical Theology from Luther Rice Seminary.
In 1980, Smith-Atkins married Randell Atkins. They traveled for nine years as Assemblies of God evangelists before becoming full-time pastors in 1988. Doctors diagnosed Smith-Atkins with breast cancer when her daughter was 3 years old.
“I was given a death sentence,” she says. “The enemy thought he would stop the power of the God who had called me and keep me from continuing to carry the gospel to the world.”
Following seven major surgeries, massive chemotherapy, and a heart attack, Atkins says God healed her. In 1991, Randell assumed the lead pastorate of CrossPoint Assembly, which Darlene attended as a child. They still serve together.
“I love ministry inside the walls, but I had to go beyond to find the most desperate, the most hopeless, and reach out to them with the hope I know is possible,” Smith-Atkins says.
After witnessing poverty and homelessness in Greenville, especially among the children on the streets, Smith-Atkins asked her family to join her for street ministry. The first such service took place on Halloween in 2009, with five children attending. Smith-Atkins and her team passed out candy, played music, and shared a short Bible story.
By Christmas, Smith-Atkins and her team ministered to around 300 people weekly. The church has met downtown every Sunday night for the past nine years, with crowds ranging from 80 to 400. Atkins says the gathering is akin to a traditional church service, with worship and a sermon — just no walls.
After worship, a team of volunteers serves a meal from the ministry’s food truck, provides a take-home bag with extra food, and meets with attendees to suggest life resources such as shelters, housing, jobs, and rehabilitation services.
G. Ed Nelson, South Carolina District secretary-treasurer, says the ministry Smith-Atkins operates has changed the city. He encouraged her in the beginning.
“She had no name recognition among the city leaders, and now today, she’s a common household name,” Nelson says. “She has turned what was once seen as suspicious — working with street people in Greenville — into a highly accepted activity.”
Not everyone who attends Street Church is homeless. Over the past nine years, hundreds have received Christ as Savior, and many have come back to share their testimonies and to volunteer.
This year, Street Church has partnered with SHARE Head Start Centers in upstate South Carolina. Every weekend, over 490 children receive weekend hope bags filled with nutritious food. Atkins says the financial provisions for the ministry come from individuals, local businesses, and national food brokers.
“I don’t want these children’s hope to be in the streets, I want it to be in a Savior,” she says. “If we can reach the children, we can reach their families, so they together will be able to have the life-changing power of God in their lives.”
Street Church, a 501c3 nonprofit and partner ministry of CrossPoint Assembly, now provides supplies for young, expectant mothers and birthday parties for homeless, sheltered, or in-need children through Dream Big Babies and Birthdays, directed by Darlene and Randell’s daughter, Doranden.
Randell, Doranden, and Doranden’s husband, Brent Powell, who is young adult and associate pastor at CrossPoint, all minister with Darlene weekly at Street Church. So do Randell and Darlene’s three grandchildren: Drake, 9, Annalyn, 6, and Maverick, 1.