Interfaith partnerships, service to those in poverty and an ATM define Louisiana church

Charlene Kelley says her faith is deeper and stronger than it has ever been thanks to her church in Shreveport, La.

But it’s not just the usual things, like Bible studies and worship, that have transformed her Christian experience. It’s also the Church for the Highlands’ inner city setting and its out-of-the-box embrace of the city’s poorest and most marginalized residents.

Charlene Kelley presents Pastor John Henson a Christmas gift at Church of the Highlands. (Photo/Church fort he Highlands)

Charlene Kelley presents Pastor John Henson a Christmas gift at Church of the Highlands. (Photo/Church fort he Highlands)

And her involvement with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation has transformed not only her faith, but her understanding and compassion for those living on society’s lowest rungs.

“It’s made my faith stronger, it’s made me more willing to help and I see these people as people and not as a statistic out there,” said Kelley, a school teacher and lifelong Baptist.

‘Can’t keep enough money’

Church for the Highlands is a six-year-old plant whose outreach efforts, eclectic membership and ecumenical and interfaith partnerships landed it a chapter in the new book CBF at 25: Stories of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The text was distributed last week during CBF General Assembly.

The congregation is a modest one. It rents its facilities and has a membership of 85, and its average weekly attendance is around 60.

But it’s made a big impact.

It runs a financial services ministry to help citizens avoid the pitfalls of payday lending and other financial traps that often exploit low-income communities, said John Henson, co-founder and pastor of Church for the Highlands.

The church has partnered with a local credit union to make affordable loans to those in need.

“There are 12 payday lending institutions within a mile of our location,” Henson said.

The congregation also partners with the IRS to provide tax preparation services for more than 300 clients this year.

Knowing that many local residents receive their food stamps and other government funds via debit cards, the church used a $25,000 Lilly Endowment grant, via CBF, to purchase and operate an ATM that charges users only 50 cents per transaction, Henson said.

“These days we can’t keep enough money in it,” Henson said about the ATM.

‘It’s for them’

Missional teams at Church for the Highlands are charged with reaching out to veterans, the poor, those struggling with mental illness and addiction and current and former inmates. Housing, clothing and food support services also are provided.

Church members perform for diners at Church for the Highlands' weekly community dinner. (Photo/Church for the Highlands)

Church members perform for diners at Church for the Highlands’ weekly community dinner. (Photo/Church for the Highlands)

But the church and its members don’t do it alone. A wide array of other churches and faiths — including Mormons and Muslims — also partner with Church for the Highlands to serve the area, Henson said.

“We have found the blessing of the synergy that comes from serving together. We have not had theological debates as we are all serving together because we are doing things that we all value.”

That cooperation has attracted a variety of racial and ethnic groups in the community to not just partner with, but join the congregation, Henson said.

“We are a little bit of everybody — we have gay members, poor and rich, educated and uneducated.”

The inclusive membership and the partnerships with religious and civic groups is why the congregation chose “for” as the preposition in its name instead of “of.”

“We wanted the community itself to know why we were there,” Henson said. “It’s for them.”

A more communal experience

Engaging the church to give rather than to receive completely transforms the congregational experience, said Kyle Kelley, Charlene’s husband and chair of the elder board at Church for the Highlands.

“It takes you out of being a consumer. Part of what keeps me going to church is the surprise every week over who’s going to show up.”

That’s a long way from the big steeple churches he’s attended in his adult life, Kelley added.

At Church for the Highlands, the worship style changes each week depending on who is in attendance and often there is someone present who needs help, which kicks the congregation into action.

Kelley said it’s also changed his experience of fellowship from an individualistic one to something more communal.

“I used to go to church because that’s what you are supposed to do. Now I go because it’s exciting and you don’t know what is going to happen.”