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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 been destroyed.

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. "We’d 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."

Jamal Alexander

Criminal activity hadn’t 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 God’s 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 preacher’s sermon and the voice of God to change Jamal’s 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, ‘They’re 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 God’s 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 I’d work in the ministry and plant churches in the inner city. He didn’t tell me how, where and when, but from that day forward everything I did was focused on that."

Meeting a mentor

Eddie Robinson

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 God’s blessing," says Eddie.

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 milk.

"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 couldn’t 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 Jamal’s last year of Bible college. When Jamal shared his vision of planting churches in inner-city L.A., Eddie was excited. "I told him I’d 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."

Coming home
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 Jamal’s old friends could see he had changed. Others were skeptical. "Some people were still scared to death of me," he says. "They couldn’t 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 51st Street."

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 Jamal’s 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 children’s 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 church’s Grace Elliot Medical Center.

"We are here to tell young women they have a life living in them and we don’t 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 church’s 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 that’s 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 the provision."

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 don’t 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 master’s 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 that’s why we’re here. There isn’t a person who God can’t fix. No matter what they have done, God can make them new creatures."

Kirk Noonan is associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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