Growing up, Dewayne Rembert’s life was fatherless. It was mostly motherless. And as far as he was concerned, it was godless.
God didn’t make it into the dark recesses of his community, and when He did, He didn’t look any different from anyone else, Rembert said. As a teen growing up in Linden, he knew people who went to church, but it didn’t seem to change their lives.
“It was a jacked-up situation,” Rembert said. The world around him was a cocktail of fatherlessness and poverty, which led to petty crimes, small-town gangs, drugs and anger. His earphones served up that mix on repeat too.
“In that culture the music that’s created cultivates that anger and makes it bigger than what it is,” he said. “The devil glorifies their hurt and injects wrath into a child who’s been neglected by his father.”
Rembert got a daily dose of wrath. It grew him up into an angry and resentful man.
He wouldn’t get his first taste of the gospel until years later. And he had no idea that one day his story would be to inject God’s light back into a neighborhood that was a lot like where he grew up, or that he would set out to clean up its music — and build a friendship with a tiny, aging white church that sat right in the middle of everything.
At 19, Rembert looked like he was doing OK from the outside. He moved to Montgomery, enrolled in school and got two jobs, one at a restaurant and one at a hotel.
‘My flesh ruled my life’
“I was climbing the corporate ladder, but I was still angry and doing petty illegal things on the side,” he said. “I didn’t know any better. My flesh ruled my life.”
That’s what first brought him through the doors of a church seven years after he moved there — the chance at some more money. A coworker who was a Christian was getting a promotion, and he wanted her to give him her old job.
“I wanted to impress her, so I thought, ‘The next time she invites me to church, I’m going to say yes,’” he said.
She asked. Rembert went. And God surprised him — He lit up the heart of a man who had been walking in darkness for 26 years.
“God rocked my life and changed me,” Rembert said. “He freed me from an addiction to porn and everything else in my life. I went to church trying to get more money, and God said, ‘No, I’m going to meet you right there instead.’”
Because of that, Rembert — who now serves as youth pastor of Strong Tower at Washington Park, Montgomery — doesn’t get upset these days when high school kids come to his Bible studies with “jacked-up” motives. Every Thursday, he meets with some high school football players to eat pizza and have a two-hour apologetics Bible study that digs deep into the foundations of the faith.
“Some of them just show up for the food, but I don’t care about that,” he said. “That’s what Jesus did. He ate with people, and then He gave them the gospel.”
That’s Rembert’s story too. And much like his story, once those boys hear the truth of the Bible, their lives start to change, he said.
“The school’s administrator tells me that they are changing the culture of the school,” he said. “Some of them were failing and now they are B and C students. We go to the athletes first because they are often the most influential and get them to raise their standards. You get the athletes and you get the whole school — then you get the home, the neighborhood and the whole city.”
Sharing Christ’s love
In two years, Rembert has given away more than 1,000 apologetics Bibles. He’s discipling football players to go out and engage the community with love rather than anger. They walk around sharing the gospel in an area known for its crime.
“There’s no fear in my heart, that’s how I know the Lord sent me there,” Rembert said.
And someone else was there too, right in the middle of all that darkness — the 20 people who attended Chisholm Baptist Church.
The small aging church sits “right in the middle of where everything goes down, the killings and the drive-bys,” Rembert said.
But that doesn’t stop 91-year-old Henryette Bailey from coming to church.
She’s been a part of Chisholm Baptist for 85 years, ever since she and her sister started walking there during the Depression. She was there when a tornado destroyed the church buildings in 1945 and they had to be rebuilt.
And she was there in 1949 when a revival preacher gave a sermon that changed her and her husband’s lives.
“I’d gone to a different church when I was really little, and that teacher had told us that if we were good, we would go to heaven. That stuck with me,” Bailey said. “But this revival preacher told us that Jesus was coming back and we had to be right with Him or we wouldn’t get to go. I told my husband that was different from what I’d heard as a child.”
She and her sister — and later she and her husband — had only attended church here and there. They were more like semi-regular visitors, Bailey said.
“But that night, my husband and I went home and started reading the New Testament,” Bailey said. “We saw what that preacher said was true, and we gave our lives to the Lord.”
From then on, the Baileys didn’t miss. Her husband was the church treasurer for 40 years. Once when a snowstorm blew through, she and her family were the only ones other than the preacher and maybe one other church leader who sloshed through the snow to get there.
And over the years, the church boomed.
So did the nursery, and Bailey was the baby whisperer. If a child was inconsolable, another nursery worker would bring that baby to Bailey to calm down. Former Chisholm Baptist members still joke that she was the one who taught their kids to walk.
“It was a full nursery back then,” she said. “Now we’re all seniors, except the pastor’s grandson.”
And 3-year-old Elijah sits with her.
“He sits in my lap while his grandmamma is in the choir, then when it’s time for the fellowship hymn, he leads me around by the finger to speak to everyone,” Bailey said.
But there’s only a handful of people there to speak to these days. They’re a tight-knit group — on a recent Wednesday night, Bailey fixed chili dogs for Pastor Daniel Edmonds’ birthday, and she put trick candles on his cake. It was the kind of party you’d expect with relatives.
“The group that goes there now are like family, we’re so small,” she said. “But to see the church empty the way it is now — it breaks my heart. I don’t want to see the doors close.”
In its heyday, the church had hundreds. But the reality of a changing neighborhood and a shrinking congregation brought Chisholm to the decision a year or so ago to call Montgomery Baptist Association and ask about their options.
They had several.
And one of them led straight to Rembert.
When Neal Hughes, associational missionary/director of missions for Montgomery Association, got the call from Chisholm Baptist, he knew God might just have something special in mind.
Praying for new ministry
“I asked them, ‘What if somebody else leads the charge and y’all carry out the ministry you have now and pray for the new ministry?’ I encouraged them to explore that idea,” Hughes said. “And I felt the Holy Spirit saying to me that I should go to Dewayne.”
At the time, Rembert’s ministry with area high schools had grown into something he called the Flatline Movement — the “flat line” representing how people are dead in their sin until God brings them to new life. He was seeing people from the darkest corners of the neighborhood saved.
And he wanted to redeem something else too — the music that had fueled his anger.
“We believe most of the secular music out here right now is calling our people to commit genocide,” he said, explaining that it leads them to misuse their bodies to the point where it’s killing them physically and spiritually. “Satan has really weaponized music and entertainment. We attack that by putting out Christian rap music.”
It’s quite the story how that’s come together, he said. The guy who helped produce songs for major rap artists like T.I. got to be friends with Rembert. He came to Christ. Rembert officiated his wedding. And when he decided to move overseas, he offered to sell Rembert his recording studio equipment for a really good price.
“The music scene in Montgomery respects us, and we’re planning to offer to produce any secular artist’s EP (short album) for free if they will sign a contract saying they won’t curse or promote ungodly sex or violence,” Rembert said. “That way, we clean up the music in the area. And of course, hopefully with them being around Christians in the studio, God will use us to rub off on them.”
He had another idea in mind too — to start a church in the area for all these new believers who had nowhere to go.
Hughes knew that, and he made the connection.
“I just thought there might be room for Dewayne to start another church in the Chisholm building while the congregation that’s there now still continues to use it as long as they want to,” he said. “Those precious church members want to live to see the day the church is filled again, but they know they aren’t the ones who can fill it. I can’t imagine that congregation rapping, but I can imagine them rejoicing that there were baptisms, weddings, discipleship and Sunday School classes filled with children again.”
So he floated the idea. He asked both Rembert and Chisholm Baptist to pray.
And pray they did. They had been praying long before they had ever picked up the phone and called Hughes. For months, from the pulpit and in private discussions, Edmonds had been helping the church walk through the process of prayerfully imagining the future.
“I asked them at one point, ‘What would we do if we had 10 children come next week?’ They said we would do the best we could — which we would,” Edmonds said. “But we recognized together that we need partners if we are going to be a church for the community.”
They considered some options. Some doors closed. Some doors didn’t seem like the right thing.
“It’s not a business decision — it’s an emotional decision,” Edmonds said. “It’s tough. They would like to believe they could do it again, but the question was how — how do we invest our lives? How can we redream the dream?”
And then God brought Rembert and began to stir in their hearts. While it took some time to nail it down, over time the story just fit.
Hughes said the people of Chisholm have “absolutely fallen in love” with Rembert.
“There’s a respect there,” he said. “They love him like their grandson. And the neat thing is Dewayne sees that part of town through missional eyes.”
Both Rembert and the church see themselves as brokers in a great work that God is doing — a new day for the church, Hughes said. “It’s a picture of the abundant fruit of living their life on mission in their community. It’s an amazing Kingdom legacy.”
Edmonds said it’s been something that’s breathed new life back into the church.
“We want to give other churches hope that might be in the same situation as us — you don’t have to close your doors,” he said. “You can be a partner in planting.”
Bailey said she’s excited about the way Rembert has become “one of us” at Chisholm Baptist — the way God brought along just the man they needed.
“He’s part of the family,” she said. “And we’re hoping that through him we can reach some of the people around us. We can’t do it at our age, but we definitely want to keep the church going. I’m looking forward to seeing the church full again.”
Chisholm Baptist might not be set up for 10 children at the moment, but it definitely isn’t failing the one who’s there.
“One Sunday recently I got to teach Elijah in Sunday School about how God cares for his sheep,” Bailey said. “I told him that means God cares for him, and he said, ‘But I’m not a sheep.’”
She laughed hard. And as she gathered him on her lap for the service, she said, “God calls us His sheep. And that means He’s going to look after us. We can count on that.”