Cleveland prays

A diverse movement is unifying churches and impacting neighborhoods /

At 3 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in Cleveland, the kingdom of God breaks out.

A schoolteacher and two pastors from different denominations are talking at the kitchen table in the Family Ministry Center, where they share workspace.

Julie Jones, the FMC executive director, walks in from her office across the hall. She’s just received a text message. Napoleon, the pastor of an African immigrant church that meets here, has lost his brother in Liberia to Ebola.

“We need to pray,” Jones says through tears. And so they do – for Napoleon and his family, for African villages and nations in the way of a pandemic, and for the African people within their reach here.

The impromptu prayer gathering isn’t anything out of the ordinary here, yet it helps illustrate what’s happening on Cleveland’s ultra-diverse West Side. In a mashup of races and ethnicities, urban and suburban churches, denominations and economic strata, a prayer movement has given rise to unity that most involved agree is rarely seen.

Julie Jones

Julie Jones

“When you’re regularly praying with folks, you can’t hide your heart,” Jones says later that afternoon. “You can’t hide your motives. People really get to know each other in a deeper, much more intimate way.”

The FMC occupies the five-building campus that was once Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and school in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. After the diocese closed the campus, suburban Bay Presbyterian Church bought it in 2011. But this isn’t a case of suburban “saviors” parachuting in to help urban “victims.” More, it’s a connection point for a loose network of partnership-oriented Christians choosing to live in these neighborhoods and minister to the people there: Incarnational ministry, to use the buzzword.

“You can get so much more done when you all have a big, crazy, bold vision and you’re working together,” Jones says. “God seemed to put a multitude of us in strategically different places. And we’re all starting to get to know each other, and then it was nothing but God – it was no longer about individual churches, but it was more and more about the kingdom.”

The three-story, red brick school building buzzes with daily activity. FMC now hosts a Christian alternative elementary school called The Bridge Avenue School; a dozen or so urban ministries; and several churches whose pastors rent office space or who use the church sanctuary next door for worship.

The campus also has become known in this neighborhood as a place of refuge. More than once, people have fled domestic violence situations across the street and come here. Another time, a boy in the process of being kidnapped escaped and ran here.

“We were like, how did you know to come here?” Jones says. “And he said, ‘I knew this would be a safe place.’”

The center fulfills a lifelong dream for Jones, who grew up a half-mile from here and turned down a lucrative governmental career to do urban ministry on the west side.

“The enemy’s work is to put people in isolation,” she says. “So I just had this thing – ‘OK, what if pastors were bumping up against each other and they’re forming friendships with each other across denominations and across ethnic groups? What could that do?’

“So now it’s just incredible, to see pastors who didn’t necessarily always get along now be like, ‘Oh, I heard about so-and-so. I’ve been praying for him.’ Or you go upstairs and they’re sitting in the hall, praying together. And then behind that, you have music, the arts, worship, training, schools of prayer. A lot of times, small urban congregations don’t have the resources to do those things effectively, and God has drawn to this place unbelievable talented, gifted partners to help carry some of that.”

A melting pot

All of this in a city where immigrants and refugees represent about 115 nations – more than half the world.

“God is giving the church a lot of opportunities to reach the world right in their backyard,” says James, who with his wife, Renee (not their real names), lives in the Little Arabia neighborhood and works with Muslim refugees from myriad countries. “I think the opportunities for the church right now are just mind-boggling. In church we talk about how are we going to get people to the darkest corners of the world? Well, God’s already bringing them here.”

The international diversity overlays an economy where average income can range from $16,000 to $100,000 … just a block or two apart, or even next door. Parts of Cleveland remain intensely segregated by race or ethnicity, but in some near-west neighborhoods you’ll find a half-dozen ethnicities or races on the same block.

That’s a challenge for churches, but also an opportunity for unity. Jones remembers the recent words of a visiting international minister.

“She told us: ‘I don’t say this to make you prideful or boastful, but God is doing something with the corporate church in Cleveland that I don’t see anywhere else I travel in the United States.’

“I can barely say that without getting teary-eyed.”

Neighborhood ministry

Pastor Juri Ammari (right) of Metro Alliance Church, with Pastor Ron Morrison of Hope Alliance Bible Church of nearby Maple Heights, Ohio.

Pastor Juri Ammari (right) of Metro Alliance Church, with Pastor Ron Morrison of Hope Alliance Bible Church of nearby Maple Heights, Ohio.

One of the FMC’s early leaders was Juri Ammari, the Jordanian-raised pastor of Metro Alliance Church on nearby Bridge Avenue.

“All of these churches are bumping into each other with different philosophies of ministry, different theologies,” he says. “Some of them are figuring out ways to work together and work together well. Others are just renting space. But it’s having a good overall effect on the area when you have the spirit of God working in and through his people in a common area. There’s a ripple effect of grace we’re seeing sociologically with people reinvesting in their neighborhoods.”

Ammari and his family have lived on the West Side for 14 years, with a calling to live and minister among people who are poor and hurting. For him, that means church is less about numbers and more about building deeply into the lives of a small group of people who then may impact their world. (See related story.) It also makes ministry a constant financial struggle, even when people give sacrificially. It’s a tradeoff he’s willing to make.

Will Henderson

Will Henderson

Other leaders include Will Henderson and Calvin Dorsey. At Ammari’s encouragement, they’ve planted Village Alliance Church on the city’s mostly African-American East Side, with the idea that a mostly black congregation eventually could locate itself in a more diverse neighborhood.

“In order to be faithful to the Great Commission and in order to be faithful to making disciples of all nations and people groups, we have to be intentional about going to people who are different from us,” Henderson says.

Or there’s Mark and Evie Pratt, Tennessee natives who moved here in 2011 to help plant a church with Toward the City Ministries. If you want to picture their 11th Avenue neighborhood, think of “A Christmas Story.” They live a block from the house where the classic movie was filmed. On Sunday nights, they lease an empty neighborhood lot and host a cookout where tell Bible stories and hand out donated books to kids.

Mark and Evie Pratt

Mark and Evie Pratt

The Pratts’ small church meets at the FMC now, and also rents space there for Mark’s office and for a Christmas Store, where people can shop for new, low-cost gifts that have been donated. Mark and Evie say they’re committed to staying here long-term, working with other churches to slowly and steadily make disciples.

“I haven’t seen anything like the way churches work together in Cleveland anywhere else,” Mark says.

Nearby, Joe Abraham has pastored Scranton Road Baptist Church for 26 years. Along the way he’s seen partnerships develop across denominational lines: community outreach events, training and equipping people for ministry.

“The monster’s too big for anybody,” he says. “And unity is a beautiful thing in God’s sight.”

The previous night, the ethnically and economically diverse church hosted a car wash as a community outreach event.

“All of a sudden for several hours it doesn’t matter where you come from,” Abraham says. “People working together, serving together, and that does promote a spirit of love. It would be really hard for me to go to a single-culture, suburban church right now. No knocking that, but we’ve got a rainbow here.”

Kind of like what the kingdom of God supposed to look like?

He smiles. “That’s the rumor.”

Back at the FMC, Jones has the same thought.

“You get these little tastes,” she says. “The bride that the Lord is ultimately coming back for, and what most of us Americans have actually experienced, looks so totally different. And on a pretty regular basis here on this campus, and what we’re seeing in Cleveland is, we’re getting more and more beyond tastes. We’re starting to get gulps that are like a foretaste of what this could actually be.”

Related story: The Great Commission at street level

Related video: Urban ministry in Cleveland



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