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Reaching the Downtrodden

Jay Covert and his team are planting churches in rough urban areas.

In every inner city, you can find a place of darkness, misery, crime, and woe. 

The key to dispelling that darkness, Assemblies of God U.S. missionary Jay S. Covert believes, is by bringing Christ’s light into the darkness by planting churches. But all too often, the inner city has little church presence or power to invade the darkness.

Covert has issued a clarion call to others on whom the Holy Spirit has placed burdens to reach the addicted, afflicted, and hopeless in the inner cities. The former addict is a Teen Challenge graduate as well as a Master’s Commission graduate. He aims to network with AG district superintendents and church planting directors to launch churches in urban centers across the U.S.

Covert, 45, an AG Missionary Church Planting and Development (MCPD) missionary, in 2004 launched his ministry in the poverty-stricken East St. Louis, Illinois. Since then, Covert has facilitated 10 church plants and preaching points in nine cities in some of America’s roughest neighborhoods.

It’s no easy endeavor to reach places with deep, abiding poverty and hopelessness. East St. Louis is located 20 minutes from Ferguson, Missouri, the site of recent racial turmoil. Last year in East St. Louis, a community of only 26,000, a total of 27 people died in homicides.

“One in nine people in East St. Louis will have a violent crime committed against them,” Covert says.

In the 1970s, the city was a middle-class community with more than double its current population. It also had three Assemblies of God congregations, the last of which closed in 1983.

Though he lacked little experience in inner-city ministry, Covert sensed the Holy Spirit moving him to open a second Urban Outreach Ministry in the community, patterned after the first. But he had to dispel mistrust, which included a government ban on ministries in the city’s 15 housing projects. In response, Covert was invited to a who’s-who meeting with East St. Louis officials, including the mayor and the housing projects’ directors.

“The reason why you have the gang violence and rampant drug dealing is that you have a sin issue,” Covert told the assembled leaders. “If you let us address those issues, we’ll talk about Jesus.”

The leaders’ response was overwhelmingly positive, according to Covert. “They granted us permission to do outreach any time,” he says.

The next year, when a storm knocked out the city’s power for two weeks, city leaders called Covert asking for emergency food and water for East St. Louis. That night the first of three Convoy of Hope semi-trailers arrived with 120,000 pounds of provisions. Later that year city leaders presented Covert and Urban Outreach with awards for their service following the storm.

Covert’s outreach activities focus on identifying and meeting human needs. But first he must find ways to open doors to build friendships and trust. Sometimes his team parks a mobile 17-foot cooker at a crack house, offering free food and inviting people to the Urban Outreach Church.

Angela Connors Cantron took her two-year-old daughter to an Urban Outreach East St. Louis Christmas toy giveaway. The team invited her to church the next day, and she gave her life to Christ because of the outreach.

Soon after, Cantron’s second child, Ashauntae, was born with cerebral palsy, but Cantron had no one to help care for her. Not only did the church help her through caregiving for the child and each of Ashauntae’s 10 surgeries, Cantron has now married a police officer and earned a nursing degree.

“Now I know that God can do anything,” Cantron says. “I trust Him with everything.”

As the Holy Spirit has expanded Covert’s vision to share what he's learned, God has connected him with others wanting to plant churches in the inner cities, each with a distinct flavor. St. Louis is home to the world’s largest community of Bosnians outside Bosnia, most of whom immigrated as refugees. Missionary Andrew Austin, who speaks Bosnian, is planting Bosnian International Outreach there.

City Life Church in Denver, an Urban Outreach plant by AG U.S. Missions MCPD Pastor Isaac Olivarez, reaches Denver’s growing homeless population of 20,000. Every Thursday Olivarez and his team offer banquet-style catered meals to more than 150 homeless and hurting people.

Other Urban Outreach plants include Southeast Washington, D.C.; Staten Island, New York; Cincinnati; Cleveland; and New Orleans.

Covert says Urban Outreach aims to plant in Camden, New Jersey; Louisville, Kentucky; Gary, Indiana; Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Houston; Albuquerque; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Salt Lake City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; Boston; Dallas; Omaha, Nebraska; and Oakland, California.

“We have a vision to plant more Urban Outreaches as the Lord of the Harvest gives us people with hearts to plant inner city churches across the United States,” he says.

“I’m excited to see that urban church planting has gained a renewed emphasis in recent years through the efforts of Urban Islands ProjectCityReach Network, Jay, and others,” says Chris Railey, director of the Church Multiplication Network. “As the Assemblies of God moves forward, we need to continue to encourage church planters to prayerfully consider ministry within large population centers. The need for the gospel in these cities only continues to grow.”

Deann Alford

Deann Alford is a journalist and author. She attends Glad Tidings of Austin, an Assemblies of God congregation in the Texas capital.