When Rob Paul first got to Huffman Baptist Church in Birmingham in July 2019, he spent several months talking with church members and “getting the lay of the land.”
One question kept coming up: “I was looking at this huge building and thinking, ‘What are we going to do with this?’”
In its heyday, the church ran about 1,500 in worship, but when Paul came on as lead pastor, around 125 came through the doors on Sundays.
“At this point we had shut down over half of our usable space,” he said. “Our three-story education building and two-story children’s building were completely shuttered.”
Advancing the gospel
So he began to lead the church to look at the community around them and think about what they could do to reach the next generation of neighbors.
“We started to ask, ‘How can we use the space that we have in a way that advances the gospel and benefits the community?’” Paul recalled. “We started looking at how do we as a diverse congregation but still mostly white, how do we impact a community that is flipped what our church is? We have as many as 75,000 people within a 10-minute drive, and 70% of them don’t look like me.”
In January 2020, he presented a plan called Vision 2025 — a plan to become a revitalized church that helped revitalize other churches. He wanted to consider ministry partnerships that would help them meet the needs of the neighborhood.
And he started praying for God to send the church one young family with children — a contact point to begin reaching others in the community.
But these days, Paul says in retrospect that his prayer was too small. Earlier this year they began preparing the third floor of the adult education building to become a community ministry hub. That space now is home to Elevate Birmingham, an organization that teaches character-based education at Huffman High School and tutors students off campus after school; Birmingham Urban East Young Life, which runs Christian-based clubs aimed at helping students know Christ and prepare for their futures; and Kingdom Family Christian Fellowship, an African American church plant.
The church has partnered with Kingdom Family and Christian Service Mission to provide food boxes to neighbors once a month.
And this summer more than one family is moving in — there is a whole school.
Starting Aug. 1, Banks Academy, a predominantly African American Christian high school, will hold classes in the two buildings that previously were shuttered.
It’s all left Paul, the church’s pastoral staff and the rest of the leadership team and congregation amazed.
Putting it together
And the way God put the pieces together has amazed them even more, Paul noted.
It all started with the food boxes, a pandemic-inspired project, and a conversation with Tracy Hipps, executive director of Christian Service Mission.
“He’s such a connector,” Paul said. “He knew we were looking for partners and started sending people our way.”
The first was Danny Brister Jr., executive director of Elevate Birmingham, which moved onto Huffman’s campus last summer. In February, Brister was praying over potential space in one of Huffman’s shuttered buildings to expand Elevate’s ministry, and while he was doing so he mentioned to Bill Sears, the church’s executive pastor, that the building could hold a school. He also mentioned that Banks Academy was looking for space.
Sears asked if he could set up a meeting. Brister did, and Paul and Sears met with the school’s administrator, Cathy Trimble, and several Banks board members.
“Thirteen days later, we had signed a memorandum of understanding,” Sears recalled. “When [Paul] announced that from the pulpit to the church, they broke out in spontaneous applause. They’re so excited that the building is going to be used again to reach the community.”
Around the same time, Paul began talking with Brister about hiring him as Huffman staff, but Brister told him he was “already on your team.”
‘Building His kingdom’
“What I see God is doing is building His kingdom and bringing organizations of people together who are like-minded and have that same heart of really engaging and reaching the people of this community, and He’s uniting them together,” Brister said during Huffman’s homecoming celebration May 22. “They may have different missions, but their heartbeat is the same.”
Around the same time, Brister connected Huffman with Banks Academy, he also introduced Sedrick Moore, executive director of Birmingham Urban East Young Life, and all of them began meeting on Friday mornings to see how God might want them to work together.
The organization’s offices are now at Huffman too.
Moore remembered that when offered the space, he said, “You mean I can bring my teenagers here and they can learn about the Lord and it’s safe? Sign me up!”
He told the Huffman congregation at the homecoming celebration that his aim for student ministry is “to say that you matter when other people say you are so far gone” and disciple students to grow in their walk with the Lord.
Trimble said she sees the whole partnership as something that will bring students to the cross.
“I thank God that He put this together,” she told the Huffman congregation May 22. “And second, I thank you guys for seeing this not as an invasion but as an invitation so that we all can expand.”
Paul said he’s looking forward to that.
“To me the biggest part is we’re not just bringing in a school and saying, ‘Y’all go do your thing,’” he said. “Huffman, Banks, Elevate and Young Life are going to work together to reach the next generation.”