MIAMI (BP) -- A lonely soul slips into the back row during worship at Miami's Greater Mercy Missionary Baptist Church as pastor Willie Williams proclaims how to manage when "life turns bitter instead of better."
Life is mostly bitter in one of Miami's poorest and most neglected neighborhoods -- Overtown, located northwest of downtown.
Needs are great; hope is fleeting.
As the invitation song begins in the storefront church, the man from the back row walks down the aisle to pray prostrate at the altar, looking for redemption, looking for hope. Soon he is joined by others coveting prayers -- and hope -- of their own.
For eight years, Williams and his wife Creola have dedicated their lives to minister in the predominantly African American community known for drugs, violence and prostitution.
Once a proud neighborhood with a rich musical heritage, urban flight by former residents and the construction of 10 lanes of Highway I-95 at the juncture of State Road 386 through its center have left the community isolated, coping with poverty and fear. Nearly a third of the community lives in public or government-subsidized housing.
Williams planted Greater Mercy Church to combat these evils and demonstrate the compassion of God as he deploys faith "on the battlefield."
"Coming here we found a great need to serve this community," Williams said. "We have the smallest church with the biggest heart. We reach out to people who are walking in the wilderness and we make sure we go out and evangelize them. No other church around here does."
Miami is one of 50 Send North America cities, a North American Mission Board strategy for moving churches and individuals into major metropolitan areas to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ and start new churches.
Williams and his family moved back to the neighborhood in 2005 for him to take over his aunt's barbershop, "Just Right Barbers" on Third Street. The family rented the apartment above the row of stores and soon cleared out years of accumulated refuse in the adjacent storefront for the church.
For years he asked God to remove the tavern adjacent to his barbershop storefront. "A lot of people lost their identity there. I prayed, 'God if you will bless me with that place, I will turn it into something the community will be proud of.'" God answered his prayer and now the storefront houses a hair salon managed by his wife.
"I didn't understand why God would send me to such a dark area with people walking around with guns in their hand and bulletproof vests. It was very, very dark," Williams said of his arrival.
"I came here to show people they can make it without guns, they can make it without drugs and without doing the things Satan receives honor from."
The congregation with nearly 50 in attendance each week goes out into the community to Laundromats and street corners to share water, the Gospel and prayers.
Williams dreams of being able to provide an afterschool program for neighborhood students that would instruct them on computers and provide tutoring in math and reading.
Several months ago, the church hosted a street party that featured face-painting, a ring toss, free haircuts and a strength team demonstration, and they distributed free clothing in an empty lot near the church.
With help from a missions team from Airline Baptist Church in rural Mayo, Fla., the congregation gave out 400 flyers promoting the festival in the impoverished community.
"It seemed as if everyone we met already knew Pastor Willie and his family and had been impacted by them in some way," said Chip Parker, pastor of Airline Baptist.
Williams led other barbers and hairstylists to provide 100 free haircuts to boys and 50 free hairstyles to girls during the festival. This ministry was possible because of the generosity of Airline Baptist members providing $1,200 to help defray costs.
Their efforts resulted in several opportunities to share the Gospel with the approximately 175 attendees during the festival. Using the EvangeCube and Gospel presentations from the Strength Team, the event yielded 30 professions of faith.
With only 41 businesses in the area, the pastor believes their barbershop and hair salon strengthen the economy of the community as they remain committed to rebirth of the neighborhood.
Standing behind the barber chair from dawn to dusk, Williams makes the most of the captive audience to share the Gospel and minister to the people by marrying, baptizing, feeding, teaching and bringing them into the church's fold.
"The barbershop to me, it's just a set up to get people to Christ; it draws people in to minister to them," Williams said.
Parker said he has seen that in action.
"Through his church, barbershop, and salon, Pastor Willie is a vital part of his local community. He has the opportunity to interact with and get to know people who otherwise would never darken the door of the church," Parker said.
The North Florida pastor believes it is "essential" for Florida Baptists to maintain a Christian presence in hard-hit communities like Overtown.
"With change taking place all around at an extremely rapid pace and new challenges arising for the community every day, a consistent Gospel witness through local churches, like Greater Mercy, must continue to bring the hope that only a relationship with Jesus Christ can provide," Parker said.
To Williams, challenges he finds in Overtown are just part of being faithful in the midst of battle -- "faithful to God, faithful to my job, faithful to my family, faithful to the ministry and faithful to this community."
Barbara Denman is director of communications for the Florida Baptist Convention.
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