Eddie and Jamal: Loving the lost in L.A.
By Kirk Noonan
1965. Plumes of thick black smoke spout from buildings into the Los
Angeles skyline. In the streets, thugs attack innocent bystanders and
battle with police as looters grab all they can carry from stores. Within
six days 34 people are dead and millions of dollars in property have
Among the looters is 14-year-old Jamal Alexander. "In the riots all
we did was loot and hide," says Alexander, now 50 and pastor of First
Inner City Assembly of God in Los Angeles. "Wed loot then
hide and do it again. But after the riots the police came through the
neighborhood and went door to door recovering what was stolen."
Criminal activity hadnt always been a way of life for Jamal.
And it had never been a way of life for Eddie Robinson, then a 29-year-old
in search of Gods destiny for his life. But the mid-1960s would
be the starting point for both on two extremely different roads that
began and ended in the same place: inner-city Los Angeles.
As a child Jamal attended church and spent many of his summer days
in vacation Bible school. When he was 10, he committed his life to Christ.
But as a teen he gravitated toward a life of crime.
Jamal stole cars, burglarized homes and sold and abused drugs. Juvenile
hall and prison became second homes. As an adult he sold, transported
and became addicted to heroin and crack. By his mid-20s he was far removed
from the spiritual roots of his childhood, but something was nagging
at his soul. Jamal would occasionally investigate Christianity and other
religions, but the pull of the street proved too inviting. There Jamal
was the man others turned to if they needed a fix. It would take tough
love from his mother, a television preachers sermon and the voice
of God to change Jamals hardened heart.
In the early 1980s Jamal visited his mother. Within minutes of his
arrival she challenged him. "She asked me where all of my friends were,"
says Jamal. "Before I could answer, she said, Theyre still
on the streets hustling, in prison or dead. For whatever reason
I listened to her that day."
To satisfy his piqued interest Jamal watched religious television programs
when he was not selling goods and services. One day he watched in disbelief
as a pastor on television explained the significance and involvement
of black people in Gods plan. It was a side of Christianity he
had never heard. Nearly convinced that Jesus was worth serving, Jamal
decided to make a life change after he committed one more crime.
"I planned to rob another drug dealer," says Jamal. "But to avoid retribution
I knew I would have to execute him if I wanted to live without always
having to look over my shoulder. But God intervened and told me either
I was going to get killed or I was going to get locked up in a cage
for the rest of my life. I abandoned the plan."
He enrolled in Teen Challenge, the Assemblies of God drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation
program. During his second night in Teen Challenge he attended a service
and recommitted his life to Jesus. He began studying the Bible and praying
for hours each day. During one of his extended prayer times he received
the baptism in the Holy Spirit. "I was shocked and scared at first and
wanted to stop," says Jamal. "But I had already investigated it and
knew it was from God."
While in Teen Challenge Jamal also received a vision from God. "He
told me I would go through Teen Challenge," he says, "then Bible training,
then Id work in the ministry and plant churches in the inner city.
He didnt tell me how, where and when, but from that day forward
everything I did was focused on that."
Meeting a mentor
In 1967, Eddie Robinson, now 65 and pastor of Trinity Chapel of Compton
(Assemblies of God), volunteered to work with the youth at Trinity,
which was founded in 1961 by a white Assemblies of God woman, Grace
Elliot (affectionately known as Sister Grace).
"She had Hispanic, African-American, Caucasian and Asian children in
clubs," says Eddie. "Bar-None Clubs were held wherever she could find
a place. She would hold them in a laundry room, front room or at one
time in an old abandoned chicken coop that she gladly cleaned out."
Though Eddie was 30 and African-American and Elliot was 60 and white,
they combined to make a powerful team. A year after she asked him to
volunteer, Elliot asked Eddie to join the church staff.
"After my wife and I prayed about it we felt we had Gods blessing,"
Like Jamal, Eddie was raised in a Christian home. Going to Sunday school,
vacation Bible school and church, he says, "were as familiar as drinking
"Until I reached high school I was just a religious person with certain
morals about me," he says. "But when I made a commitment to make Jesus
my Savior my life changed."
While studying at Cal Poly University to be a farmer, Eddie says God
called him into ministry. He dropped out of Poly to attend a Bible college
in Portland, Ore. While taking a class based on the Book of Acts, Eddie
was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.
"I couldnt speak in English for about a day," he says. "For a
19-year-old that experience was phenomenal, and it gave me boldness
and insight into the Word."
In 1968, Eddie became the first African-American to be ordained by
the Southern California District. Five years later, in 1973, Elliott
turned the church over to him. She served as his assistant pastor until
her death in October 1991.
In the mid-1980s Eddie met Jamal during Jamals last year of Bible
college. When Jamal shared his vision of planting churches in inner-city
L.A., Eddie was excited. "I told him Id been waiting nearly 20
years for him," says Eddie. "It brought tears to my eyes."
From that meeting a cogent friendship and partnership to reach the
inner city for Christ has formed. "Eddie is my role model," says Jamal.
"He taught me that character does not come from how loud we speak, but
it comes from our actions."
In 1991 Jamal returned to South Central to plant First Inner City Assembly
of God. The neighborhood, still reeling from the crack epidemic of the
mid-1980s, was brimming with gang members, drug dealers, addicts and
prostitutes. "Hundreds of people would be on the street doing drugs
in broad daylight," says Jamal. "Robberies and prostitution occurred
without hesitation. The neighborhood was just the opposite from how
it was when I grew up here."
Many of Jamals old friends could see he had changed. Others were
skeptical. "Some people were still scared to death of me," he says.
"They couldnt believe I was back and had a church."
The upstart church had humble beginnings in one of the members
homes. On Easter 1992 more than 70 gathered for the first formal meeting
at a park. That November, Jamal felt God wanted him to have a lot on
51st Street, a hangout for drug addicts and prostitutes. Jamal was able
to obtain the lot for $7,500 because of a little-known law called adverse-possession.
"The law required a bunch of criteria that had to be fulfilled and this
property fit it to a T," he says. "We call our church the miracle on
As Jamal raised money for the building fund, other pastors and congregations
responded. A trailer was loaned to the church and became the temporary
sanctuary. An architect drew up plans free of charge. A church team
did the drywall; another put on the roof. The congregation at Ventura
First Assembly of God donated chairs.
"Our people have grown to love Jamals congregation," says Tony
Cervero, pastor of Ventura First. "We have invested in them but have
reaped so much. Helping them has been a strong reality check for our
people and has given us a burden for residents of the inner city."
Today Jamal, now a nationally appointed church-planting home missionary,
spends much of his time walking the streets and ministering to gang
members, drug dealers, prostitutes and residents of South Central. The
church also partners with organizations to provide low-income housing
and job training. But the cornerstone of the ministry, says Jamal, has
been equipping people in the congregation to use the gifts God has given
them. "I just want to help people be who God wants them to be," he says.
"If someone has a gift, that person uses it at this church."
Geoffry Morris, 38, a former drug dealer who serves as youth and childrens
pastor at the church, has seen firsthand how Jamal disciples. "Pastor
[Alexander] is like a brother, father and friend to me," he says. "Seeing
what God has done in his life has given me the encouragement that the
same things will happen to me."
Time well spent
It has been more than 30 years since Eddie started ministering at Trinity
Chapel. In that time the church has focused its efforts on reaching
community members with the gospel through outreaches such as the churchs
Grace Elliot Medical Center.
"We are here to tell young women they have a life living in them and
we dont want them to abort that life," says Eddie, looking at
pictures on one of the clinic walls of babies who have been spared.
The clinic offers free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, prenatal care,
counseling, parenting classes, baby items and food. A Christian doctor
and registered nurse, who are married, volunteer at the clinic.
"Eddie has been able to develop effective social enterprises along
with the churchs traditional role as a spiritual center," says
T. Ray Rachels, Southern California District superintendent.
Frank Dodson, 46, has been at the church since he was 4 years old and
was one of the youth that Eddie mentored in the late 1960s. "Pastor
Robinson has shown me through example how to handle problems," says
Dodson. "He could have been successful in anything he took part in;
but, because he stayed faithful to God and our church, God has made
him richer spiritually than he could have ever hoped for."
On the back lot of the church property is Royal Rangers Outpost 55,
a fort surrounded by walls made of railroad ties. In the middle of the
fort stand the American, Christian and Royal Rangers flags a
bit out of place in the inner city, but thats the point. "We are
always trying to figure out how to reach people for Christ," says Eddie.
"Over the years we have seen that once God gives us a vision, He provides
More than 50 boys participate in Royal Rangers. For many of the boys,
Royal Rangers is their only opportunity to go camping, hiking and fishing.
Many also learn disciplines. "We dont want the kids just for the
day," says Ralph Pina, senior commander of Outpost 55. "We want to spend
time with them so they know what it is like to live like a Christian
in this crazy world."
Though they confront different battles, Eddie and Jamal fight the same
war. In doing so, a strong relationship has developed between them as
both continue to pour their lives into one another, their congregations
and their communities. This year, Jamal will finish his masters
degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and lead his church in planting
the first of four more planned churches in inner-city Los Angeles. "God
can deliver this city, but its going to take active participation by
the church," says Jamal. "We need people to come and plant churches.
Without that, there is no hope for this city."
Eddie is just as passionate for reaching nonbelievers. "I am 65, but
I feel like it is time to take the city for Christ," he says. "The people
are in need of Him, and thats why were here. There isnt
a person who God cant fix. No matter what they have done, God
can make them new creatures."
Kirk Noonan is associate editor of the Pentecostal