EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — “The worst thing we can do is ignore this place,” said Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville professor Andrew Theising. The quote comes from a discussion with St. Louis Public Radio about the East St. Louis riots that took place in July 1917. Lives and buildings were destroyed during the horrific events, and even now, 101 years later, the city is still trying to recover.
This is the home—and mission field—of Kempton and Caryn Turner.
A native of East St. Louis, Ill., Turner grew up on the streets where he now serves as a church planting missionary and pastor of City of Joy Fellowship. The church was launched on September 18, 2016, with one mission: restoring hope to the city through Jesus Christ. It currently rents space at the local Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center.
“Because I was raised here, I’ve got a real heart for the people,” says Turner. “It’s a small city. It’s a dangerous, poor place, 85 percent fatherlessness. The houses, the buildings and the roads show the desperate place that East St. Louis is in. The people know struggle.”
A drive around the city reveals abandoned buildings. The public library, the McDonald’s Turner visited as a child, family-owned restaurants—all closed now. Though the decline in population started here years ago with the 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, 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.
“The biggest challenges we face are hardness of heart and lack of zealous evangelistic consistency,” says Kempton. In 1989, on the way home from Clark Jr. High School, he was held up at gunpoint by a gang leader with a reputation for pulling the trigger. He says, “Amazingly, I ended up escaping that situation, and as I look back on it, I realize it was God’s grace, but that was the last straw for my father and my family. They had had enough of the violence and the crime, so we moved to Houston, Texas. Little did I know 25 years later, God would give me the privilege to come back to my hometown and preach the Good News of His Son to the people of East St. Louis.”
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. Says Kempton, “A young lady named Allison came to our church rejecting Jesus. After a few months of hearing the Gospel and spending time with a few women one-on-one, she surrendered her life to Jesus. She is the real deal, zealous about spreading His gospel and love!”
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. Says Turner, “These precious believers are a picture of Jesus, coming out of comfortable suburbs, moving into the heart of a 99.9 percent African-American city with danger, poverty and fatherlessness. 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 Kempton. 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 outreach 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 way to benefit the local economy and foster the 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. Says Turner, “Some of the neediest places in America are in the inner city. 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.”
“Gifts through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® are going to help us rebuild the community of East St. Louis. We want to see God spiritually invade this city. We want to see a supernatural awakening in this city turning multitudes of souls to Jesus Christ.”
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. He notes, “Psalm 127 says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.’ 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—one soul, one house, one block at a time in my hometown,” says Turner.
Kempton and Caryn Turner are church planting missionaries featured in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering®. Learn more about the Turners at AnnieArmstrong.com.