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Bold evangelism: Pastor Gregory Pembo and his outreach teams take the gospel to the Big Easy on a weekly basis. Pembo visits with a local resident who attends the church’s weekly prayer meetings.

Kennedy part 1

Kennedy part 2

Noonan part 1

Noonan part 2

 

Rosedale, Mississippi
As we roll into this sleepy town, several locals wave as we pass by.

At the edge of town — wedged between a supermarket, another church, a soybean field and a prison — is God’s People in Unity Church (Assemblies of God). As we step inside, Pastor Loraine Bingham, 49, greets us. When this Tuesday night Bible study starts we realize it is more akin to a revival service. The music and singing reach near-eardrum-bursting decibels. Seasons of praise and petitions are peppered throughout the worship service. At one point Bingham implores the congregation to worship with abandonment.

"Be loud and noisy and shout to the Lord," she implores. "Boast in your God."

It’s hard not to get swept into an outpouring of God, so I stop writing to soak up His presence. Others pray vigorously and shout with searing intensity to the Lord. "If the Lord has done something in your life," shouts Bingham, "praise Him! Praise Him! Boast about it and praise Him!"

Bingham was born and raised in Rosedale with her 13 brothers and sisters. Her clearest childhood memories are of being in school and picking cotton. "There wasn’t much else," she says.

But lately, she says, God has been moving in this community of 2,500.

"We’re praying for revival," she tells me. "People are praying, getting baptized in the Holy Spirit and reading their Bibles. We are going to see more as we continue to seek souls."

Octavia Lee, 27, came to the church only to appease her mother-in-law. During her first visit she was frightened by the intense worship and use of spiritual gifts and decided never to attend again. But something, she says, drew her back. Soon after her second visit to the church she committed her life to Christ and was baptized in the Holy Spirit. Bingham’s influence has had a profound effect on her life. "She is in tune with this congregation and I really need that," says Lee. "There isn’t anything I am going through she hasn’t already been through. She has taught me that I can be victorious in Christ — that gives me hope."

Bingham’s difficult experiences — including losing her husband, Max, earlier this year — have forged a spiritually strong woman who uses them to reach others for Christ.

As the service nears an end, my dad and I leave in hope of making it to our next destination before midnight. The singing begins anew after most of those gathered have wished us well. As we pull away from the church the words of Hattie Frank, who is new to the church, echo in my mind: The Spirit of God is moving here. Just being in the presence of God and the assurance of Him moving always gets me here.

Vidalia, Louisiana
As we drive through Vidalia, the words "feed the hungry" pull our eyes from the road and toward a warehouse, which bears the name of Vidalia First Assembly’s ministry to lower-income families. After a U-turn we pull into the church’s parking lot where the warehouse is located. Pastor Albert Fraley, 58, his wife, Coralie, and Linda Bonnette, director of the feeding ministry, come out to greet us.

"God laid it on our hearts for this church to move beyond its walls and really get involved in the community," Albert, who has pastored the church for four years, tells me. "It says in the Bible to feed the hungry. We knew we had to get out and minister to people."

Bonnette started the ministry five years ago with a cracker barrel she placed in the foyer for canned-food donations. Since then the congregation and community have rallied behind the ministry, which feeds more than 275 families each month. A local Boy Scouts troop, the sheriff’s department, numerous businesses, the postal service and even a motorcycle club hold fund-raisers, organize canned-food drives and place donation jars in businesses. "Our church has joined hands with other churches and the community to feed the hungry," says Bonnette. "We see this as an opportunity to reach out to people and share the love of Christ."

In the warehouse boxes on long tables are neatly packed with rice, beans, cooking oil, cereal, bread, other staples and a gospel tract or newsletter from the church. Along the walls of the warehouse are boxes of food. Near the front door is a new shipment of cereal. "When we hand food out we are telling people that we love them," says Fraley.

John Smith receives a box of food each month. "It helps a lot," Smith tells me. "When you’re living on fixed income, all the bills make it so you’re living on practically nothing. This is one of the greatest things any church could do."

Natchez, Mississippi
We cross the Mississippi River into Natchez, perched 200 feet above the river. Historic mansions, dating back to before the Civil War, line many of the area’s tree-covered bluffs and rolling hills.

Nestled at the base of a hillside is First Assembly of God. Here, children rush to classrooms for Missionettes and Royal Rangers. Teens saunter to the youth room as adults make their way to the sanctuary. Greetings, handshakes and hugs are dispersed freely among worshippers.

"There is a sense of family here," Beverly Laurant, an African-American woman who has attended the church for 10 years, tells me. "God is knitting us together, and I’m free to be who I am."

Some churches in the South are still segregated. But when revival swept through the congregation five years ago, Doug Wright, pastor of the church, says he was more determined than ever to break down racial barriers that have plagued the community for generations. "We want everyone to be a part of this church," Wright tells me before the service begins. "Our faith and church are for everyone — no matter what their skin color."

Laurant agrees. "This church accepts people no matter what," she says. "They don’t just tolerate people; they accept them."

Sue Goss came to the church as a single mother. After only being at the church a short while her health deteriorated, and Wright and the congregation stepped in to help. Goss says meals were brought to her home and the church even offered some financial assistance. "That really touched me," she says. "They brought me into the church family even though I hadn’t really even been a part of the church for that long."

Our trip is nearing its end. I am inspired by what God is doing along the river, but, unknown to me, one of our most radical destinations is still to come.

The truth: Evangelism team members like Lou Bilac (holding sign) station themselves in front of strip clubs and bars on Bourbon Street. There they confront partygoers with the message of Christ’s love, compassion and forgiveness.

New Orleans, Louisiana
Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is teeming with partygoers. Neon signs beckon those who pass to enter the Quarter’s many strip clubs. The lure of sin pervades this place. Strolling down the street one middle-aged man walks proudly with a margarita in one hand and a scantily dressed, 20-something woman clinging to his other. Nearby, a pitchman flips a sign. The walls and windows of his establishment are covered with pornographic posters.

But one block away, in front of Vieux Carré Assembly of God, members from the church’s outreach team are preparing for spiritual warfare.

Lou Bilac, a team member, positions an 8-foot banner that he will carry tonight. Another member, who goes by the name Johnny Balloons, straps on a waist pouch filled with hundreds of gospel tracts. A little past 8:30, members split into two teams. One sets up on Bourbon Street; the other, a few blocks away on Jackson Square. Their mission: distribute tracts, share their faith and pray for whoever is willing.

"We’re not afraid to be here in the gates of hell," says Walter Williams.

On Jackson Square, Gregory Pembo, pastor of the church, and Balloons have set up a table among the tarot card readers and fortune-tellers that line the square. On Pembo’s table a candle flickers and a sign reads: "I’ll tell you your future for free."

"This outreach is breaking up hard ground in the devil’s territory," says Pembo as he sits in waiting at his table. "The people of the world come to our doors — we can’t sit inside the church and ignore them. We are fulfilling the Great Commission."

Balloons says at night the French Quarter is filthy and demonic, but there is hope. "I got saved here when I was on the streets," he says. "Now I go into the streets with the same message missionaries gave me. If Jesus could give me that much mercy and forgiveness, I have to give to other people too."

Many of the team members have been punched, kicked, spit on and threatened. Why do they keep coming back?

"I used to work in the French Quarter and I gave a lot of years to the devil," says Bilac, as he holds his banner in one hand and passes out tracts with the other. "It breaks my heart to be down here. But it’s all worth it because in the midst of all this filth people will come to God."

Praying for God’s provision: Pastor Max Latham and other pastors are crossing denominational lines and praying together for revival.

Buras, Louisiana
It’s just before midnight when we reach Buras, which is located a few miles north of the Mississippi River’s mouth.

The air is heavy and humid as we pull off the highway at a site that has three gigantic lit crosses reaching toward the star-dotted sky. Max Latham, pastor of Miracle Assembly of God, meets us and gives us a tour of the property, which also includes a re-creation of the garden tomb and a mini-version of the Sea of Galilee. Miracle Assembly owns the land, called Three Crosses, and plans to build a church there. In the meantime, Latham hopes the site will continue to be a community prayer area and a catalyst for revival.

Most of Buras is in a precarious position, especially now during hurricane season. At some points Buras is only 1,500 feet wide. Driving south, toward Miracle’s building, we see the levee for the Mississippi River on the left and to the right we see the back levee for the Gulf of Mexico. Between the levees is this community of 3,000. In the past 30 years Miracle Assembly has been wiped out twice by hurricanes.

"Many people who live here are afraid that hurricanes are going to wipe them out," says Latham. "So we gather at Three Crosses for prayer at the start of hurricane season with the entire community and believe the Lord is going to protect this place."

Latham and other pastors are also praying for revival. In 1979 a revival swept through Miracle Assembly. Latham and his wife were not Christians at the time, but when his wife attended one of the revival services in search of healing for their daughter her life was radically transformed. "My daughter was not healed," says Latham, recalling the revival, "but my wife got saved. I could see there was such a difference in her that I eventually went to church and got saved too."

The groundwork for another revival is being laid. The Miracle congregation has been joining other congregations for services. Pastors are crossing denominational lines and praying with one another for revival. Cooperation between area churches began on March 19, 2000, when pastors and more than 300 laypeople gathered near the mouth of the Mississippi and held a prayer meeting in boats that stretched across the span of the river.

"We are committed to seeing this place change," says Latham with tears in his eyes. "But it’s not just going to be our church, it’s going to be the entire body of Christ here. All of us want this town transformed for Christ."

Postscript
Kirk Noonan and John W. Kennedy both returned to Springfield, Mo., with many vivid images impressed upon their memories. They saw vibrant churches that are reaching their communities with innovative approaches. They learned there are different worship styles, generations, city sizes and ethnic groups serving the same Lord. Communities along the Mississippi River, a vital part of the country, are being changed because of the influence of Assemblies of God churches.

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