Opening a swimming pool in an inner-city community isn’t the typical outreach ministry a church plant might try. Maintaining a staff and tending to daily maintenance alone could ward off even the stout of heart.
But for Soul City Church of Jackson, Mississippi, the pool was exactly what they wanted. A public pool meant jobs for a neighborhood in need of the gospel.
“Those are the reasons I wanted to do it,” said Scott Fortenberry (MDIV ‘07) pastor. “I wanted to be able to hire people. I can give people a job.”
The pool is the latest addition to the list of jobs initiatives the church directs as members live out the gospel in a community troubled by poverty. The church’s ministry arm Soul City Works includes also a pottery shop, lawn care business, and a bicycle shop where the kids keep the bicycles they learn to repair.
While gangs often thrive in impoverished areas, Fortenberry’s seven years in the community have helped him understand more clearly why gangs take hold.
“Honestly, they’re looking for protection and they’re looking for family,” Fortenberry said. “And they’re willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of something that will provide those things.
“I look at them and I say that’s exactly what you have in the church. ‘Come,’” Fortenberry invites them, “’be a part of a family that’s going to look out for your best interest, not just in the short term but for eternity.’”
Urban areas face challenges and in Jackson’s “Midtown” the problems often are reduced to “bullet holes and potholes,” Fortenberry explained.
“But that’s only part of the story,” Fortenberry insists. “The real needs are ‘Jesus holes.’”
Playing off Jackson’s nickname “City with Soul,” Soul City Church’s multi-faceted ministry is seeing lives changed through its partnerships with mission teams and like-minded nonprofits. The church’s other ministry arms are Soul City Housing, mobilizing volunteers to renovate homes, and Soul City Serve, where mission teams are hosted to serve in the neighborhood.
Humble beginnings marked the church’s start with “Burgers ‘n Basketball” once a month at a local park. A Sunday afternoon Bible study soon followed and as relationships developed, Fortenberry enlisted their new friends to help their neighbors by mowing lawns or fixing toilets.
The church’s first meeting place—a 900-square-foot former crack house—was renovated with neighbors’ help and when the church held its first service, 88 were in attendance. Fortenberry credited volunteers’ work in the neighborhood for getting the church plant off to the right start.
“We really did spend two years loving people and trying to figure out what they saw as the big needs in our neighborhood,” Fortenberry said.
Word spread and others quickly offered resources including larger meeting spaces. One space offered to the church, significant in a city with a dark history regarding civil rights, was the church building where WWII veteran and civil rights leader Medgar Evers held an NAACP meeting shortly before his assassination by a white supremacist.
GOD AT WORK
While the church and its partnerships with nonprofits are helping change the neighborhood’s socio-economic landscape, the gospel is changing hearts.
Tim Rowan, associate pastor of missions at Soul City’s sponsoring church, and Fortenberry’s long-time friend, noted the impact Soul City Church has made.
“As I sat back and watched this project grow, it’s making a difference in creating volunteerism and is a great example for churches in thinking outside the box,” Rowan said. “We love Soul City and Scott and his family. We’re enjoying them as they see some fruit that is being produced from their work.”
Fortenberry told of a thirteen-year-old girl impacted by her involvement with the youth group and recounted her response when he asked her why her demeanor had changed.
“’You have no idea just how dark my life was,’” Scott recounted as her answer. “’I believe God moved my family two doors down [from the church] because we needed to see what God was doing at Soul City Church.’”
Fortenberry is quick to point out that the ministry’s success is not his doing, but God’s.
“I’m the least likely candidate to do what I’m doing,” Fortenberry said. “I do believe God is using parts of my personality and parts of who I am, but more than anything I think He’s looking for willing and obedient … it’s that willingness to say, ‘God, I don’t know what I’m doing, but you do. I trust You.’”