Churches partner to improve lives in north Baton Rouge

The roof of New Beginning Baptist Church needed repairs, but the small congregation couldn’t afford to fix it.

The roof of Glynnitra Ellzey’s house on Oaklon Avenue sagged in spots, but she didn’t have the money to repair it, and she said her insurance company wouldn’t pay for it.

Down the street and around a corner, Gladys Ross’ home and day care center on McClelland Avenue also needed a new roof because of inadequate repairs made after Hurricane Gustav.

New Beginning Baptist Church, Ellzey, Ross and two other residents of Glen Oaks West neighborhood all received new roofs this summer thanks to a divinely inspired partnership formed last year between The Chapel and New Beginning Baptist and their pastors, the Rev. Kevin McKee and the Rev. Donald R. Hunter Sr.

The two churches couldn’t be more different. The Chapel is a non-denominational, predominantly white church near LSU, which draws about 1,800 people to its services.

New Beginning Baptist is an African-American church in a high-crime neighborhood in north Baton Rouge. Church attendance averages 50 to 70, Hunter said.

“I am humbled by what I see because it is more than a roof being put on a church — it is a Christian family working together for a common cause,” said Hunter as he watched a crew from Premier South Roofing and Gutter install a new steel roof. “The (New Testament) church has one head, according to Scripture, and that head is Jesus Christ, but the body has many members. The members may be of different nationalities, different races, different countries, but they are still of one body.”

“We are blessed by a group of Christians, who happen to be affluent, that are being led by a tremendously gifted pastor,” Hunter added. “They have embraced us here at this church and also at Glen Oaks West neighborhood.”

The Chapel last year began “Project GeneroCity,” McKee explained, where they dedicate one Sunday’s offering to particular causes, including New Beginning Baptist Church and Hunter’s Black Family Initiative, a hugely complicated effort to solve problems in the African-American community, which the minister said is often caused by a lack of responsible fathers.

Last year a single Sunday Chapel offering paid for remodeling New Beginning’s sanctuary, and this year the Chapel’s Easter Sunday offering — thousands of dollars — was dedicated to new roofs at the church and also for four neighborhood homes.

The partnership will also pay for the installation of more than 100 streetlights in the Glen Oaks neighborhood and pay the electric bill for the next year as a way to reduce nighttime crime.

“We were led of the Lord to help a church in need,” McKee said. “There is a passage in Romans chapter 15 where the church takes up an offering to take back to Jerusalem — the wealthy church takes up an offering for the church in need.”

The Project GeneroCity offering was divided among Hunter’s projects, some global mission projects and to build a playground at Wildwood Elementary, which The Chapel has adopted, McKee said. Hunter and McKee meet often and some worshipers visit each other’s churches on a regular basis.

Religious leaders often say that Sunday morning in America is the most segregated time of the week, an adage that both Hunter and McKee would like to change.

“Personally, a segregated ‘church’ just makes no sense,” McKee said. “I think it is a major black eye to the power of the Gospel. One of the things I really like about Donald is that he is able to get the different denominations of the black church to work together.”

Hunter’s Black Family Initiative includes a half-dozen African-American churches that are providing counseling, tutoring and mentoring to at-risk children in one of Baton Rouge’s most crime-ridden areas.

Hunter also last year organized the Glen Oaks West Neighborhood Association that he hopes, among other things, will restore pride in property ownership.

Glynnitra Ellzey was all smiles the day her new roof was completed several weeks ago.

“I’m blessed, I’m favored!” the single mother of two young daughters said. “Miracles do happen. We serve a God who is alive!”

Gladys Ross has lived in her house for 39 years along with her husband and two now-grown sons. She also cares for 19 children on a daily basis.

“I am so blessed to have the neighborhood reach out to me and take care of my roof,” said Ross as roofers’ hammers pounded in the background.

Charman Hebert, neighborhood association president, was visiting with Ross and another neighbor, Velma Barnes, association vice president, as workers from Premier climbed on Ross’ roof.

“I think, No. 1, it’s building morale with the neighborhood,” Hebert said about the roofing and upcoming lighting project. “We’re doing whatever we can do to save the neighborhood and to make a pleasant environment for our families to live in.”

“My thoughts are happy thoughts,” added Barnes. “We’re thankful to the Chapel at LSU and New Beginning Baptist Church, and we’re excited they are throwing their arms around us and helping us with this endeavor.”

Chapel member Jenny Johansen, account manager for Premier South, said the roofing company’s owner and local distributor “cut costs wherever we could,” and were able to expand the original plan to roof two homes into four homes.

“We’re just really blessed,” Johansen said, speaking for the company. “A lot of times we get requests to sponsor football teams or tennis clubs, but we didn’t do this for a sponsorship, we did it to give back to the community.”

Hunter said their mission is much bigger than new roofs. “The culture that we have is, in many ways, putting our children and our families in harm’s way,” Hunter said. “You see it in the failing of our schools. You see it in the absence of the father in the black family. You see it in the rate of crime in our neighborhoods. That is the culture that we seek to alter.

“We are seeking to change it not by our might, not by our money, not by our wisdom, but we’re seeking to change it by the word of God,” Hunter said. “We put a roof on a house and that is a superficial change. But if we put a roof on their house to build a relationship to bring them to Christ, that’s when you make a real change.”