EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill .(ABP) – In an inner-city ministry in the shadow of St. Louis, seventh-grader Brandon Smith writes a homemade card for Mother's Day. Writing on a folded sheet of paper, he thanks his mom for teaching him right from wrong, for keeping him off the streets.
This 13-year-old, a junior-high student at Clark Middle School, is one of 16 children spending a Saturday afternoon in the Christian Activity Center's computer lab making cards for their moms, for their grandmas, for anyone else they love.
For these budding writers, the Christian Activity Center is an oasis in their dry neighborhoods. No bowling alleys, no miniature golf courses, no movie theaters exist. Parks and playgrounds are sparse. Instead, abandoned buildings, weed-infested lots and pockets of crime abound.
Helping these students with this writing project are 11 adults with the Baptist Communicators Association. Meeting in downtown St. Louis and celebrating its 50th anniversary, the group wrapped up its annual workshop with this mission trip to the East St. Louis center.
Keeping Brandon and other children off the streets, where drugs and prostitution can flare up on any corner, is also the heartbeat of the Christian Activity Center. Every weekday during the school year, between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., 240 children from 6 to 18 years old find a fun sanctuary within the center's walls. They shoot basketball in the gym, which has been Brandon's main reason to come. He dreams of growing up to be a professional basketball player.
Others bounce on a mammoth trampoline in a rec room near the kitchen. Older boys work out on the weight equipment tucked behind the trampoline. They copy and paste on the 15 computers in the computer lab. A few compose songs in the lab's music studio.
It's more than fun and games, though. With volunteer help from doctors and other clinicians, the center operates a health clinic, providing free screenings and check-ups to uninsured children. More than 1,200 children are served nutritious snacks every month as part of an after-school snack program.
Age-appropriate health classes include topics such as hygiene, substance abuse, conflict resolution, sexually transmitted diseases and abstinence. The media center houses more than 2,000 books, magazines and education materials to instill a love of reading. Classes teach biblical principles. Bible verses painted on the walls offer encouragement and hope.
All these ministries, however, could be toppled by the center's greatest enemy — instability — according to director Chet Cantrell. “The population we serve cannot support a ministry. We're totally dependent on outside help to run this ministry.”
That help comes from not only financial contributions, but from donations and volunteer support. The center must raise $13,000 just to pay for building and liability insurance. After that, there are the salaries of eight full- and part-time staffers. Most of Cantrell's salary is still paid by the North American Mission Board (NAMB), an agency of the national Southern Baptist Convention.
NAMB relinquished ownership of the Christian Activity Center in July 2001, turning it over to the Metro East Baptist Association, a regional affiliation of about five dozen churches in southwestern Illinois. At one point, NAMB owned 86 Baptist centers but has whittled that down to a handful as it sought to turn the ministries over to local control.
As the new owner, the Metro East Baptist Association has said it does not have the financial resources to pick up the cost of any major repair or replacement items. The need to replace heating and air-conditioning units, for example, could deal a severe blow to the center's ability to operate.
Less than one third of the center's annual budget comes from denominational sources. The remaining 70 percent comes from grants, a soft source of income that could easily dry up from one year to the next, Cantrell said. Director since 1989, Cantrell hopes the center can raise a $4 million endowment, which would allow it to pay staff salaries.
It's a dream that Cantrell hopes to see fulfilled because he believes that centers like the Christian Activity Center are one of the best ways to do ministry.
Being able to play a part in that ministry resonated with Doug Rogers, communications coordinator for the Alabama State Board of Missions and past president of the Baptist Communicators Association.
“As communicators we don't often get to see the people who are impacted by our work,” he said. “This has been a great opportunity to have a direct mission involvement with children and share the love of Jesus.”
For more information, check out the center's Web site at www.cacesl.org.