Jeff Belcher had been in music ministry and student ministry for years when he and his wife, Kelly, began to sense God moving in their hearts to plant a church.
He had spent time traveling in a worship band, then had served on staff at Hunter Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, and at two church plants.
“Kelly and I resonated with the work of a church plant,” said Belcher, a Gardendale native. “So in January 2014, we called the North American Mission Board and said, ‘We’ll go to any city, and to any part of the city.’”
Opportunity to minister
At that time, Baltimore had recently been named one of NAMB’s Send Cities — a focus city with a need for healthy church plants. They spoke with Ron Larson, who at the time served as Send City missionary for Baltimore, and he told them there was definitely a need for church plants in other cities, but Baltimore was high on the priority list.
So the Belchers went to visit.
“After a few days in the city, Kelly and I felt a great burden for the people, so we committed to moving there,” he said.
By that fall, they had moved their family to an 800-square-foot row home in inner city Baltimore, and by February 2015 they had started a church in their living room.
The first year, they baptized 12.
Now, more than six years later, their church — Church of the Harbor — has grown and added another church plant with a third on the way.
“It’s been hard. There have been ups and downs, but God has been really kind,” Belcher said.
Where they live, they run into “desperate needs all the time,” he said.
The Belchers — joined by volunteer teams from all over the U.S. — started right away engaging their community through door-to-door visits and compassion ministries.
Since they arrived in Baltimore, they’ve knocked on literally hundreds of thousands of doors.
“Our evangelism efforts help us to build rapport and introduce spiritual conversations.
The first time we knock, they say, ‘Nah, I’m not interested.’ By the 10th time it’s, ‘Hey, Pastor Jeff!’ It’s a way to get to know our neighbors.”
Belcher said they rarely see someone make a decision to follow Christ on their porch or in the park, but these visits and invitations to church often lead people through the church’s doors.
And when that happens, those people are ready to have an honest conversation.
“Sometimes they make a profession of faith the first time they visit,” he said.
God is doing great things there, Belcher said — the church is growing with its third location opening last week. But he also knows Church of the Harbor will likely never be self-sustaining.
They serve a significant number of people, he said.
So the church recently converted a fellowship hall into a thrift store as a way to bring in extra revenue to support its new church plants and outreach efforts.
Belcher says he also sees it as a way to help church members grow in dignity as they grow in their faith.
“We’re happy to lavish grace on people, but we also want to teach people it’s healthier to work and spend even a little to buy a shirt at the thrift store rather than have us provide it for free,” he said.
Belcher says they’ll continue to meet people where they are — they are constantly doing compassion ministry in their area.
The needs are great — it’s not uncommon for them to knock and, when the door is opened, see that there is not a stick of furniture in the house.
Hunger is a problem too. During the pandemic, they were able to get up to 12,000 pounds of food a week from the Maryland Food Bank, and they delivered it to people in their community who were too far from local schools to pick up meals. They also serve meals after their church gatherings.
Pointing to Jesus
They use both of those things as a way to encourage people toward Jesus and toward following Him with their whole life.
“It gives us the opportunity to sit across the table with them for a few minutes and have an honest conversation,” Belcher said.
“Every community is different, and we’re just trying to reach ours right where they are.”
For more information about Church of the Harbor, visit churchoftheharbor.org.