A pair of ministries led by U.S. Missions personnel serving with Intercultural Ministries are thriving in East St. Louis, the Illinois city known as one of the most violent and neglected urban centers in America.
Shameca C. Black, lead pastor of Urban Outreach Worship Center, grew up in what she dubs a middle-class African-American church in a different part of East St. Louis.
“I knew church, but I didn’t know church on the street,” she says.
She neared a career as an embalmer when she participated in street ministry with U.S. missionary Jay S. Covert, an Adult & Teen Challenge graduate who has been planting churches in East St. Louis since 2004. The experience so impacted Black that she wept and answered God’s call to inner-city ministry.
“I learned that God is attracted to seeing someone saved on the street — people who were drug-addicted and homeless and in their mess,” Black says.
In 2010, she took the helm of the church which met in a building surrounded by nightclubs and blight, where people slept in alleyways and lived in rat-and-roach-infested housing projects.
“I had to know this is where God wanted me to be,” Blacks recalls, laughing. “It took a lot of faith. But it’s been nothing but a blessing to see lives change.”
The church’s approach is to love people and welcome them into a vibrant spiritual community.
“When a new family or person comes, we do what pastor Jay taught us and attack them with love,” says Black, whose husband, George L. Black, is a major in the U.S. Army and with whom she raised their five daughters. “The church rallies around people. God will use someone to say something to them, or someone will pray for them, or the sermon will get all up in their business.”
She tells of one young woman living in inhuman conditions in a low-income housing development. Within two years, God turned around her circumstances.
“She started working as a maid, then became a nurse in the midst of being a single mother,” Black recalls. “She found a godly man and is in her career.”
When people move away, it’s not a loss, it’s a blessing, according to Black.
“Now they’re out working, serving people, doing things they never thought they’d do,” he says.
Another woman with four children went from living in promiscuity and abject poverty to working a good job and helping her kids aim for college.
“The Word changed her,” Black says. “We prayed God would move her out of those projects and take her to a different place. God is not only making them productive financially, but productive for the Kingdom.”
One of the church’s greatest achievements, Black says, is its high rate of college graduates.
“We see kids graduate high school, go to college, go to the military,” she says. “Through the power of God, they are growing up to be contributors to the city and the world rather than a liability. They’re not in prison. They are going on to do greater things.”
ERASING RACIAL BOUNDARIES
Not far away, in Washington Park, Illinois, Ramon N. Granados Jr. pastors Iglesia Gran Luz (Great Light Christian Center) in a village where the mayor was shot to death in his car in 2010.
For Granados, who served 20 years in prison before committing himself to the Lord and to ministry, the milieu doesn’t faze him. Neither did the fact that he and wife, Laura, planted a Hispanic church in a completely Black neighborhood.
“Everybody said Hispanics wouldn’t go here to church,” Granados says. “God proved them wrong. The blood erases all racial boundaries.”
Granados went to prison at 19 and spent nearly the next 20 years there almost continuously. But while locked up in “the hole” in prison (for practicing his talent as a tattoo artist), he recalled attending Temple Bethel Assembly of God church as a boy and seeing the signs and wonders. He gave his life to Christ and began reading the Bible voraciously and seeking the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
“I read every Scripture and book about the Baptism,” he says. “One day in the prison yard, I got prayed for and I received the baptism in the Holy Spirit right there on the spot.”
Upon his release from incarceration, he jumped into street ministry in Juarez, Mexico, and in prisons, where he saw revival. Then a friend invited him to East St. Louis. Feeling a call there, Granados moved his family, took a job in a Walmart bakery, and began planting a church with Urban Outreach as one of Covert’s missionary associates.
“We started from zero,” Granados says.
After making early-morning doughnuts at Walmart, he daily renovated the church building by hand. He also completed Global University courses and received his ordination. Soon, Spanish-speaking people from nearby areas began attending, though the church and its activity center are surrounded by strip clubs and beset by violence.
“Our church is very Pentecostal,” Granados says. “We see people delivered and saved. We’re in a bad place. We can’t give the enemy an upper hand.”
Laura is a local schoolteacher and leads worship for the church. Together, they have four children, and Ramon has a fifth child as well. He maintains great relationships with the mayor and police officers, and is adept at talking to people of any racial or economic background because of his time in prison.
“Our vision is that whoever walks into our church will have an encounter with Jesus Christ,” he says. “People are receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit, getting delivered, baptized, and healed.”