Pastor Chris Jones ran a thriving food ministry for years out of a small church on South Blount Street, but he had a bigger vision for this notorious corner of Southeast Raleigh.
Jones, who grew up nearby, wanted to transform this community where drug dealers, prostitutes and gangs roam in plain sight, median incomes hover around $20,000 and bullet holes pockmark the buildings, including those of his church. He dreamed of offering health care, affordable housing and job training. He wanted to raise up the community and hope they found Jesus along the way.
Then, four years apart, two pastors in suburban Raleigh churches felt called to steer their congregations to local mission work. By coincidence, those two pastors in two separate churches turned to two men. Both named Bill. Both retired from IBM. Both called to do outreach ministry.
And that is how Chris Jones met Bill Woodworth and later Bill Fulton. Woodworth was a member of Raleigh First Assembly, a Pentecostal congregation of 2,000 in west Raleigh. Fulton was a member of Hope Community Church, an evangelical megachurch based on the Raleigh-Cary border with about 9,000 members.
Their joint mission is simple: People cannot even begin to think about accepting Jesus Christ if they are hungry, unhealthy, struggling financially or feel unsafe in their homes. Try to tackle those issues and “we can better minister to their souls,” Fulton explained.
By many accounts, this partnership’s ministry is having an impact. Raleigh city councilman Eugene Weeks, who represents Southeast Raleigh, has seen criminal activity decrease since Jones and his church have become active in the South Park neighborhood, an area of about 30 blocks south of Lenoir Street between Blount and East streets that includes some of the Shaw University campus.
“I’ve seen less and less,” Weeks said. “No, it’s not eliminated. I just hope more faith ministry groups will come together to assist what he’s doing.”
About Jones, Weeks said, “This is a young man who is really doing God’s work. He believes in this community. He believes in the people in this community.”
Others believe so much in Jones that they’re investing money in that community and his church.
At Christmas, Hope’s congregation donated more than $300,000 to buy a new building for Jones’ church, Ship of Zion. They bought a pristine 2,800-square-foot church around the corner from the bullet-marked house on South Blount Street that had been turned into a musty-smelling chapel. In March, Jones and his 210-person congregation held their first worship service at the new church.
Then in May, the three churches opened a small grocery store called The Galley on Bragg Street, a notorious stretch where criminal activity has been rampant. The store is a bright spot in an area where residents have limited access to fresh food; the closest full-size grocery store is 6 miles away.
“The Galley is a great addition to the neighborhood,” said Jeanne Tedrow, executive director of Passage Home, a nonprofit launched in 1988 by St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in northwest Raleigh and Lincoln Park Holiness Church in Southeast Raleigh.
The local partnerships are a different take on missionary work. While churches, including Hope, which recently opened an outpost in Haiti, will continue to send volunteers and money overseas, there’s also a push to target energy and resources to those in need in their own communities.
‘He’s not judging you’
None of this would likely have been possible without Jones, who started Ship of Zion Church with his wife, Jacqueline, about 14 years ago out of their home. Its partnership with Hope and Raleigh First works because, as both Woodworth and Fulton explain, they take their lead from Jones, who has lived and worked in South Park long enough to have a nickname on the street: “P.C.,” short for Pastor Chris.
“A pastor doesn’t walk that street like Chris does. (Other pastors) are scared of the people out there,” said Jerome Graham, a childhood friend of Jones’ and a member of his flock. “When I see Pastor Jones go out and reach the people, they love him. They see that Chris is out there for you. He’s not down on you. He’s not judging you. He’s there for you.”
Hope’s senior pastor Mike Lee was equally impressed when he met Jones three years ago: “The first time I went down and met Chris, we walked down Bragg Street. I was just amazed with the respect people had for him.”
Jones, 48, the youngest of four boys, grew up in Kingswood Forest, a neighborhood east of Garner Road. His mother moved the family to Raleigh from Brooklyn, N.Y., after his father died of cirrhosis. Jones graduated from Athens Drive High School and did what many young men from his neighborhood did: sold drugs.
“I grew up in that culture. That’s what young people did and I did that,” Jones said.
He sold marijuana. In 1995, he got busted and went to court, where his felony charges were reduced to a misdemeanor. After that, he said he took his lawyer’s advice and stopped dealing drugs. But the experience had a profound influence on his future pastoral work.
“That’s where I learned the streets,” he explained. “I knew there were people out there that even churches wouldn’t touch.”
Hearing God speak
But first he had to find Jesus. Around this same time, Jones was arrested for a driving offense and spent the night in jail. He resolved to go to church when he got out.
Jones went to a Holiness church, like one his grandmother took him to as a child. He gets emotional recounting the story: On his third visit, the female pastor called the elders to pray with him, and Jones said he heard God speak.
“I heard through the pores of my skin – not my ears,” Jones said. “I heard God say, ‘You’ve been looking for a father. I’ve been here all the time.’ ”
Jones said he and Jacqueline, his future wife, were saved at the same service. Their lives changed that day; Jones said, “When we came to the Lord, that was it.” The couple married soon after, raised three children and have been together for 18 years.
Jones worked as a manager for a trucking company while attending Bible college. The couple started a church in 2001 in their house on Joe Louis Avenue near Rock Quarry Road. Eventually, they needed more worship space, so they rented a house that had been converted into a church on South Blount Street.
That’s when Jones connected with Raleigh First Assembly church. He and some RFA church members took over a neighborhood food distribution program. Jones got to know Woodworth, who helped the couple start a job and life skills program for young men in the neighborhood.
Woodworth also helped recruit other churches to help with the Ship of Zion’s Community Day, a food distribution event held the second Saturday of every month. On a recent Saturday, more than 200 people received boxes of food, hot meals, free clothes and a chance to talk to a nurse and get their blood pressure and blood sugar checked. The food ministry has been replicated by a handful of Wake County churches with Ship of Zion providing donated food for their outreach efforts.
Buying a building
In November 2007, Jones called Woodworth with bad news: The landlord was going to put the church’s building up for sale. Woodworth went back to his church, and Raleigh First Assembly donated $52,000 so Ship of Zion could buy the building.
Around the same time, Fulton was recruited by Hope’s Mike Lee to become outreach coordinator and focus on urban communities. Hope Community Church members had already been volunteering at Ship of Zion as part of community day, and Fulton saw that as a natural relationship to build upon.
Three years ago, Fulton took Lee and Hope’s other senior pastors to meet the Joneses and visit Ship of Zion. Lee was impressed with what he saw and figured his congregation’s resources could aid what Ship and other churches were doing in the South Park neighborhood.
“We thought partnering with them, it might make the process go a lot quicker,” Lee said.
About his partnerships with other churches, Jones said, “I’ll work with whoever I need to move the ministry forward.”
‘It’s a blessing’
Investment in the community has picked up since Hope got on board. The three churches formed a nonprofit to oversee the ministry work. In 2011, the nonprofit spent $20,000 to buy a house, catty-corner from the old church, that was a hotbed of neighborhood drug activity. They hope to renovate it or build a new house on the land as a springboard for creating affordable housing in the neighborhood.
Three years ago, a Hope member used an inheritance to buy a 16-foot refrigerated truck for Ship of Zion’s food ministry.
With Jones’ direction, Hope volunteers started fanning out in the South Park neighborhood to help people. They renovated a rental home for an elderly longtime resident. They built an addition to a one-bedroom house that was home to seven people. They renovated several apartments across the street from the old church and Jones now manages two of the properties. They built a wheelchair ramp for a man who lived next to the grocery store.
Two Hope church members who are chiropractors volunteer at Ship of Zion on Tuesday mornings to help adjust anyone in the community.
One grateful patient is Wade Thomas, 63, a regular. “I think this is the best idea for this neighborhood,” said Thomas, who could not afford the treatment. “It’s a blessing for these people to take time out of their day.”
While Hope added both Chris and Jacqueline Jones to its payroll and provides advice and other help as needed, Ship of Zion is clearly their church and their mission.
“We follow Chris and Jacqueline’s lead,” said Woodworth. “In the end, it’s their vision.”
On a recent morning walk through the neighborhood, Jones made clear that his vision is expanding. He talked about adding a second Sunday service and a children’s ministry to serve a growing congregation. He talked about plans to turn the old church into a community center, to build a weightlifting area on an adjacent empty lot, to create a job training center in part of a nearby dilapidated building.
“Our biggest thing is trying to change the atmosphere,” he explained.
If the neighborhood’s atmosphere improves, Jones reasoned, people may treat their neighbors better, raise their children better, and in the end, he hopes, find Jesus.