How We Got Here
In June of 2013 I was appointed as the pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in South Louisville. Grace is located two blocks from world famous Churchill Downs, in a depressed, high crime, poverty ridden neighborhood. My first exposure to Grace was the stop sign above.
The sign sits on the corner of the church. What was it talking about? The intersection? The neighborhood? The church itself? Needless to say, it was a chilling welcome to the neighborhood. I had a singular mandate; to start a missional community. I began my work towards these ends by diving into the neighborhood. As the representative of the church, I did not want to come in and to tell the neighborhood what they needed. I wanted to hear from them what they felt they needed and wanted.
It was tough sledding in those days. Most people in the neighborhood did not even know that my church was a church, much less that it was open and had a worship service. As I got people to talk with me, every single person I spoke to, spoke of the needs of the children.
My first full day in the office I stepped outside in the afternoon to find fifteen children lined up along the building, sitting in the shade offered by our structure. They immediately rose as if I were going to chase them off; I encouraged them to stay.
“What do you guys do around here? What is there for kids?”
“Nothing. The park is dangerous, they closed the Boys and Girls club, and they bulldozed in our pool.”
“Come back here Friday at five; we’ll have something for you.”
That Friday I set up a projector in our basement and had popcorn on hand; we had over thirty children show up. Instantly we had a children and youth ministry. That first Friday was the last time the children entered the building and didn’t receive a warm meal.
While obviously there was great need for the children in my context; they didn’t necessarily fit the bill of my mandate. Over the next four years we developed a thriving ministry dedicated to “the least, the lost, and the last” called “Heathen Church”. During that time we served in excess of 70,000 people in the Louisville Metro area. We counted among our charge drug addicts, gang bangers, prostitutes, alcoholics, the homeless…and more children than we knew what to do with.
If we started a new worship service, we were overrun by kids. Adult Bible studies? Kids. Celebrate Recovery? Kids. Alcoholics anonymous? Kids. If there were cars in the parking lot, kids flooded the building. As I prayed for direction for this ministry and Heathen Church, it seemed as if I had to shake children from my legs in order to pray. God was showing me something.
In the Spring of 2016, we had a roster of over 200 at risk children and youth. Children from critically broken homes. Children from homes where prostitution and drugs were emanating. Children who were dealing with profound loss, poverty, hunger, depression, behavioral disorders, and overwhelmingly, the idea that they were unwanted. Our children come to us unaccompanied; with no knowledge of Jesus. They get themselves to church at night, in the rain, and the bitter cold. We cannot keep them away.
In the Spring of 2017 I finally worked up the courage to act on what God had been showing me for the previous four years. I had toyed with the idea in those early days of what a church devoted to children would look like. Now was the time to act. I went to my District and Conference leadership with a proposal, “Let us close Grace and Heathen Church as we know it and relaunch as a church devoted entirely and unapologetically to the spiritual needs of children and youth.”
On September 5, 2017 “Grace Kids! A Church for Children” became a reality. We are the first of our kind anywhere in the world; that we know of. We are seeing lives changed and transformed in the name of Jesus Christ. Hope is not being restored; there had been none to begin with. Hope is being created and the results have been truly spectacular. We are writing the book as we go, but it has been an amazing story so far.
The stop sign at the beginning of this piece? It has been replaced, as has the sentiment. Grace Kids is now a destination; where children worship, build community, are fed, safe, loved, and learning what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.