A young woman stands in the shadow of the red brick sanctuary looking across the street.
Atop a building under construction is her husband. He’s on the roof of the house that will become their home. Several young men are there with him.
The little girl standing beside her says something quietly. The mother reaches down and takes her hand. Together they cross the street and climb the steep concrete steps to their future front porch.
“Daddy!” the four-year-old calls.
Her father is showing one of the men how to use a nail gun to fasten decking to the rafters before roofing begins. He shifts the angle of the tool and the air is punctuated by “ka-POW! ka-POW!” The student gets the hang of the pneumatic nailer and continues with his task. The instructor leans over the edge of the roof and switches to doting father-tone with his little girl two stories below.
This is a new adventure for Jesse Webster.
Not fatherhood; he has five children, four girls and a boy from one-and-a-half to nine years old. And not construction; he owned a construction company and he’s built his own house before. It’s the combination of all his skills as builder, family man, and pastor that he’s drawing on for the newest challenge: reaching his new neighborhood with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and giving the young men here skills to build a better life.
Hello, city life
It’s not often a congregation chooses to leave a bucolic country setting where they’ve worshiped since 1842 and move 18 miles into town. But Sugar Camp Baptist Church did.
“There was a rich spiritual heritage there,” Webster said of the church in the rural farming community that was home to his wife, Kayla’s family, going back for generations, “…great seasons and stories of how the Lord had worked, and saved lives, and changed people.”
Webster, now 33, was first called as youth pastor eleven years ago, when he and Kayla moved to Illinois from Springfield, Missouri where he grew up and they both attended Baptist Bible College. He started his own business, working
as he had with his father and brothers. “From the time we could walk, we were on construction projects.”
Then he succeeded the pastor. After a time, it became clear to him that the future for Sugar Camp was limited. As with many rural churches, the population around them was dwindling.
The nearest community, Belle Rive, was seven miles away. With 300 residents, the village had lost 14% of its population in the previous decade. The church of about 50 people might hang on for some years, but not forever. Besides, the real opportunity to share the gospel was in Mt. Vernon.
“Our sphere of influence was in Mt. Vernon where everyone worked. And we wanted to do ministry there—recovery from addictions and restoring families. We would reach people, but they would say it’s a long drive to our church,” he said.
“We started asking, ‘Why do we put the burden on them; why don’t we drive to them?’
“We began praying ‘no reservations’ in our prayer meetings, that God would use us for whatever he wanted to do.”
As might be expected, not everyone was thrilled with leaving their home of 180 years for a community with all the issues born of lostness—poverty, crime, addiction, and broken relationships. The decision was months in development. An October outreach event proved to be a turning point.
“One brother who strongly resisted was upset that we cancelled Sunday night service to come to town to pass out candy. He told me, ‘I was on the cold-water committee; I could have dumped a bucket on it.’
“But later he described a long line of people waiting for candy, over 500 children and families, a line that he could not see the end of. And he said, ‘If the Lord was sending us here how could I say no?’”
Seeing the brokenness in people’s lives revealed a disposition of darkness, the pastor said, and the need for Christian witness in the city. Three months later, Sugar Camp voted to pack up and move. The decision was unanimous.
Their commitment came at the same time Logan Street Baptist Church was completing its own relocation project with a new, larger campus on the west side of Mt. Vernon near I-57/64. Webster learned they would be selling the facility in the city’s center.
Logan Street’s leadership wanted a congregation to begin ministry in the neighborhood with the same focus on drug recovery and life restoration that burdened the Sugar Camp church. The property listed for far more than the church could afford. “If we could buy the Logan Street building, we knew it was something only God could do,” church members told Webster.
Relocation also meant that Webster would finish the dream home he was building for his family, then sell it. And his wife would have to agree to such a sacrificial move.
Over the next year, the young pastor completed the house that was just right for his growing family, sold it, and moved them all to his in-laws’ basement. Perhaps, one day, he would build another.
How doors opened
The neighborhood around the new church property was built mostly in the 1920s and 30s. The houses are wood frame structures with clapboard siding; many are in obvious need of repair. From the toys and bikes in the front yards, it’s obvious that children live in some of these houses. But as the demographics in the area have shifted in recent years, connecting with a diverse population in an area in economic decline has proven challenging.
In the middle of this community sits the red brick church, an expansive property with lots of education space, plenty of well-kept parking, and a full-size gymnasium. Ultimately, the purchase was completed for one-fifth the advertised price, and Sugar Camp moved into a 50,000 square foot home full of promise—and work.
“We’re getting to know our neighbors,” Kayla said, standing in the parking lot. She points to a couple of houses down the street and describes the families. “The older lady in the block behind us has been very interested in the construction.” Kayla is making friends with her future neighbors.
Two events, in particular, began opening doors.
“I got a call from a pastor asking to use our building for a funeral,” Webster said. “There wasn’t a place in Mt. Vernon large enough for the crowd the pastor of this African American church was expecting.”
Webster agreed to open the facility for that funeral, and others have followed. “They knew that our heart was for them.” The pastor has befriended several pastors of African American churches. One would prove instrumental in his future housing plans.
The other key event was a trip to a home improvement store. “I was at Menard’s one day. A young man was loading lumber with me. He asked how I knew how to build a house. I told him that I learned from my father.”
Not knowing a trade school he could recommend, Webster offered to let the man help him in order to learn.
Then the idea was born: For His Glory Trade School. With a decade owning and operating his own construction business, Webster knew he could teach the trade to people who needed a vocation. But how to get started?
A video. Webster found a local producer of hip-hop music videos. As unlikely as it seemed, hip-hop advertising online for a trade school was a good fit.
One of the video maker’s friends, Dee, was the first to sign up; then his brother Aaron, and two more men, Donald and Markeith. Joining them was Landon, a 13-year-old homeschooler who also saw the video ad. He focuses on school lessons in the morning and comes to building classes in the afternoon.
Rounding out the group was a genial woman in her 60s who wasn’t looking for a career, but welcomed the hands-on training. “I have a lot of things that I need to do around my house,” she said, wielding a tape measure and a carpenter’s pencil. “It’s so expensive, so I thought I’d learn how to do it myself. Pastor Jesse let me join in.”
She is very engaged with the crew, and freely tells how the church is connecting with the community where she has lived for a long time.
At first Webster planned to use the gymnasium as a workshop. Each student would build a section of a wall, about 3 x 6, to learn the basics. Then a better idea emerged. A property across from the church became available. Webster envisioned a small house—just two bedrooms, he said, and their son could sleep on the sofa. But one of Webster’s new pastor friends advised him to dream bigger.
With their “forever” house in the country sold, and news that the forty-year-old gym required a roof, there wasn’t enough money to expand the new house. But the pastor assured him. “You need more house for that family,” the pastor said. “God will provide.”
Webster shared that recommendation with the deacons, and with prayer, they agreed. The house became a two-story project, with three bedrooms and a basement that might be finished later.
And within a week, a donor had called with a six-figure gift to repair the gymnasium.
Four days a week, the students meet to learn their trade. They start in the chapel with Bible study and prayer. Webster sits on a stool. Behind him, the platform is lined with windows that will go in the new house.
On this day, the topic is Peter’s denial of Jesus. “I’ve got notes here on my shim,” the pastor said, referring to a sliver of wood he has written Bible references on. Dee makes a good observation comparing Peter’s denial to Judas.
The teacher pulls no punches as the discussion goes to real and challenging life issues, including child rearing and temptation. The class is well engaged. “I can’t tell you they’ve all been saved, but they’re interested,” he said.
After prayer he announces, “The levels are here. They’re the good ones.” There are murmurs of approval as he hands out new tools. “Put these in your kits,” he says, referring to six tall red cases in the hallway that will each hold $2,000 of equipment, gifts the students will keep after graduation later in the spring.
“I want them to be ready to go to work when they finish here,” he said.
On this day the weather is good. They leave the chapel and cross the street to begin measuring and cutting two-by-fours and sheets of decking. Soon the roof will be ready for shingles—a milestone—and interior work can begin.