Editor’s note: Kempton and Caryn Turner are two of the missionaries featured in the 2018 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering and Week of Prayer for North American Missions. The annual offering, collected in many IBSA churches this spring, supports missionaries appointed by the North American Mission Board.
East St. Louis | Kempton Turner grew up on the same streets where he now serves as a church planting missionary and pastor.
“Because I was raised here, I’ve got a real heart for the people,” says Turner. He launched City of Joy Fellowship in East St. Louis in September 2016. “It’s a small city. It’s a dangerous, poor place, 85% fatherlessness. The houses, the buildings, and the roads show the desperate place that East St. Louis is in. The people know struggle.”
In East St. Louis, buildings sit abandoned. The public library, the McDonald’s Turner visited as a child, family-owned restaurants—all closed now. Though the decline in population started more than 100 years ago with an infamous race riot, recent years have seen the numbers dwindle from around 60,000 to 26,000.
“Jobs and police officers have left this city,” says Turner. “Downtown is kind of like a ghost town, but it’s ripe for the gospel. The Lord hasn’t forgotten this city.”
Faith on the rise
It is 6 a.m. and a group of men from City of Joy Fellowship are up before the sun, worshiping with an acoustic guitar. Says Turner, “As the psalmist looked around at the tragic condition of the people in his city, it appeared as though God was unaware, inactive, or asleep. So, he prays, ‘Arise, O Lord.’
“Likewise, we cry out in one way or another every Wednesday morning.”
The prayers ring out over a people facing poverty, gang violence, environmental contamination, and continued decline. Turner, his wife, Caryn, and their five children believe that change is possible. They are working side by side with other believers to show their neighbors that love is real and hope is alive.
Recognizing that teenagers here are in need of community and a safe place to gather, Turner and the team at City of Joy host a youth night on Tuesdays where they train young people how to serve others and hold down a job. The church also goes to the places where youth already gather during the week—schools and community centers—to establish consistency. Their desire is to show teens that they care and are invested in their well-being and future.
Turner names a long list of men and women who have moved to the area to help with the youth: Matt and Hannah, who moved their young family from Missouri; Staricia, who came from Indiana to work in the school system; Lydia, a nurse who has a heart for young people; Joel, a skilled basketball player and coach who uses the sport to connect with the youth; and Zach, who started a Bible study for the youth in his home that has already outgrown the space. The list goes on and on.
“These precious believers are a picture of Jesus, coming out of comfortable suburbs, moving into the heart of a 99.9% African-American city with danger, poverty, and fatherlessness,” Turner says. “They’re moving because Jesus is sending them as a reflection of his heart for this city, and God is blessing their efforts. It’s amazing.”
Building the future
Home renovation is another practical way City of Joy is connecting with their community. Hammers and nails, primer and paint—these are the tools that are allowing believers to build a relationship with people who live near the church.
“All we need is a way to start a conversation,” says Turner. He is training the members to intersect with nonbelievers, meet needs, and share their personal stories of redemption.
Dubbed R3, the outreach ministry is focused on community development, house restoration, business restoration, and employment. The goal is to work corner by corner and house by house throughout the city until each square foot has been covered in both repairs and improvements, as well as prayer.
In their business revitalization program, they work on providing local businesses with the resources to launch or relaunch. They also strive to connect young men and women from the youth program with job opportunities in these local businesses as a way to benefit the local economy and foster a sense of community.
As more people come to know Christ, City of Joy is celebrating more baptisms. And it all started with a very special one that healed a broken relationship from the past. Turner says, “The first baptism at the church was my birth mother who did not raise me. Praise the Lord!”
Indeed, the church is appropriately named. With prayers, planning, and consistent efforts, they are working toward bringing that same kind of joy into every home in East St. Louis. They want people to not only remember this place but to invest in it.
“Some of the neediest places in America are in the inner city,” Turner says. “We’re excited to join the momentum of what God is already doing in this city with so much potential. Acts 8:8—that’s our hope and prayer for East St. Louis: that the Lord will fill the city with joy.”
Turner explains that they are praying for the Lord of the Harvest to send more laborers. The vision for change is great—and so is the need for ministry partners.
“Psalm 127 says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it,’” Turner noted. “And so, the Lord is the builder. The church is not about bricks and mortar and boards. He redeems his people and puts them in front of others in houses, on street corners, in Sunday school classes and in large- and small-group gatherings.
The Lord builds his people through the Word. And our vision is that the Word of God would so transform East St. Louis that multitudes of souls are saved and established in faith, families are restored, children can have a mom and dad in their house again, prevailing cultural brokenness—like drug addiction and gang violence—would be healed, and churches would be started near and far.
“Our house renovation ministry is just a small echo of the thunderclap of spiritual renovation that we see God doing,” Turner said, “one soul, one house, one block at a time in my hometown.”