Hope shines in despairing city of East St. Louis

The worst thing we can do is ignore this place,” said Andrew Theising, a professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. 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 missions field — of Kempton and Caryn Turner and their five children.

A native of East St. Louis, Illinois, 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 Sept. 18, 2016, with one mission: restoring hope to the city through Jesus Christ.

“Because I was raised here, I’ve got a real heart for the people,” Turner said. “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.”

‘Ripe for the gospel’

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,” Turner said. “Downtown is kind of like a ghost town, but it’s ripe for the gospel. The Lord hasn’t forgotten this city.”

Every Wednesday a group of men from City of Joy Fellowship are up before the sun, praying for the city and worshipping the Lord. The prayers ring out over a people facing poverty, gang violence, environmental contamination and continued decline.

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.

Their desire is to show teens that they care and are invested in their well-being and future.

One-on-one interaction

“A young lady named Allison came to our church rejecting Jesus,” Turner said.

“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!”

Home renovation is another practical way City of Joy is connecting with their community.

“All we need is a way to start a conversation,” Turner said.

Dubbed R3, the outreach ministry is focused on community development, house restoration, business restoration and employment.

The goal is to work house by house throughout the city until each square foot has been covered in repairs and improvements as well as prayer.

Indeed, the church is appropriately named. With prayers, planning and consistent efforts, they are working toward bringing the joy of Christ into every home in East St. Louis.

“Gifts through the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering are going to help us rebuild the community of East St. Louis,” Turner said.

“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.” (Missions Mosaic, NAMB)