By Jennifer Johnson
Broadway Christian Church has stood proudly in downtown Lexington for 100 years. While it was once a wealthy white church in the heart of a thriving city, today Broadway is transforming its ministry and its methods to meet the needs of a radically different neighborhood—and Broadway’s people are being transformed in the process.
Broadway’s building was dedicated in 1917, and over the years the church has welcomed governors, mayors, and members of congress. But when shopping malls sprang up in the suburbs during the 1960s and 1970s, many of the businesses and shops in the city began to close. Fewer open doors downtown meant fewer jobs and more crime, and the area around the church began to change.
Faced with rising levels of crime and more racial diversity, during the 1980s the church voted on whether to start over in the suburbs. It was a split vote, and the church stayed.
“We believe God has called us to be a downtown church,” said senior minister Ernie Perry. “Jim Bird served as the minister here before me and helped lead the church through this transition. I’ve been here six years now, and we continue to go after it—and we say, ‘Help us, Jesus!’ a lot.”
Broadway coordinates a number of programs and outreach initiatives to serve the residents of its neighborhood. The church is one of only two locations across Kentucky that hosts an Evening Reporting Center (ERC) where high school boys who’ve gotten in trouble with the law can serve “good time” instead of going to jail.
“The court sends these guys to ERC so they can finish high school and also be mentored and encouraged to make better choices in the future,” said Doug Piatt, Broadway’s executive minister. “They are on-site in our building from 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. every weekday, where volunteers help them with schoolwork and build relationships with them. The goal is to keep as many of these youth as possible from becoming repeat offenders.”
The church also developed Broadway Live, a summer program for kids that runs for six hours a day—for eight weeks! “We used to do a one-week camp, and it grew to include more than 200 children,” Ernie said. “But our leadership took a fresh look at what we do, and we realized a one-week program just isn’t the way to effect significant long-term change.” Broadway Live includes meals, games, Bible lessons, and an emphasis on the arts. The experience ends with a big production in which many of the children act in skits, play instruments, or display artwork.
Other outreach activities offer help with the practical needs of a lower-income area. God’s Pantry feeds 275 families each week, another ministry provides clothes, and Bread of Life feeds as many as 200 homeless people every Wednesday and Friday. Some of the servers at Bread of Life are children receiving homework help from The Academy, an after-school program led by Broadway members at a school two blocks away.
Most of the church’s programs require a significant number of volunteers, and as the church learns how to reach downtown Lexington, its families are learning how to serve. “Years ago Mike Breaux was the youth minister here, and once he showed up for a service disguised as a homeless man,” Ernie said. “Some people moved to different seats when he sat near them. Now one of those people is part of a Sunday school class that has adopted a family in our community. It takes a while to change a culture, but we see it happening.”
Another Sunday school class discovered that a senior housing development down the street had no visits from any area churches, so the class decided to be the church for this residence. They visit regularly, throw monthly birthday parties for the residents, and build friendships with the people living there.
The elders are united in their leadership of Broadway’s current direction, and while Ernie said he strives to regularly keep the needs before the congregation, many people have stepped up to participate—even when it takes them out of their comfort zones.
“I think people want to serve, but they have their life and their activities, and church things tend to take a back seat,” Doug said. “We focus on helping people understand what it means to be a disciple who follows Jesus, not just a member who attends services.”
The church does have paid staff who lead each program, and grants from the city fund a program coordinator for the Evening Resource Center and subsidize an initiative that recruits kids from the neighborhood to receive service hours for helping with Broadway Live. Broadway also receives help from students at Transylvania University, which is just up the street. Many of their students are majoring in social work or education, and they volunteer with after-school programs as a way to learn about inner-city ministry while giving back to the neighborhood.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Ernie said. “And we have a lot yet to learn. We struggle with the ‘toxic charity’ idea. We know the Scriptures about helping the poor, but we also don’t want to enable the poor. We’re always seeking to find the balance.”
Ernie and Doug have also learned to take the long view, realizing that not every program will be successful and all of them will take time to produce fruit.
“In 2011 we held our anniversary picnic in a public park in the projects, about six blocks from our building, and we invited the people who lived nearby,” Doug said. “We had music, food, and games. And it was just us. The next year we did it again, and a few people from the neighborhood joined us. The third year more people attended, and they joined in the games and the fun. Finally, the fourth year it was impossible to tell who was from Broadway and who was from the neighborhood. But it took that long for them to trust us and believe that we weren’t there for any motive other than getting to know them.”
The same is true in navigating racial tensions and building credibility with Lexington’s African-American leaders. After a young black boy was shot and killed in a city park last summer, Ernie, Doug, and Craig Yates, Broadway’s outreach and pastoral care minister, participated in the peace walk through the city and attended the Father’s Day event weeks later.
“We were the only white men there,” Doug said, “and people wanted to know why. We explained we simply wanted to understand the culture and learn from them, and a few of the people there knew us and made introductions. We have developed a good reputation among government leaders and African-American ministers because we have made efforts like this and because of the work we’re doing at the church.”
The two pastors also emphasize the importance of partnership with other groups that have similar goals. Each Sunday afternoon Broadway hosts Church Under the Bridge, an outreach to homeless people that provides a big meal, a church service, and activities for kids. While Broadway has the facilities to host the gathering, a number of area churches take turns providing the food and presenting the service. “This helps the homeless, of course, but it also helps us develop relationships with other churches,” Doug said. “If you try to do this on your own it will wear you out. We’re all better when we work together.”
Finally, Ernie emphasized that they’ve learned this type of ministry will always be messy. “There are people we’ve invested in, helped with money for counseling or for a lawyer, and they turn around and go back to jail,” he said. “Today I have to write the funeral message for a guy I’ve known for years. I would take him on trips with me, encourage him, and be there for him. And he overdosed. You look back at all that time and money, and it ends in a funeral.”
But he believes the investment is worth the mess, the discouragement, and the struggle. “Jesus taught us to wash the feet of people we may think don’t deserve it,” he said. “I think God has a sense of humor bringing me, this country boy, to inner-city ministry. We’re still learning, and there’s a lot we can’t control. But we believe Broadway is here for a reason.”
Jennifer Johnson is a freelance editor and writer living outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.