Anything but covert:
Urban outreach East St. Louis
By Kirk Noonan
At night, the shiny new service station glitters like a pile of diamonds. Gas pumps are in working order, the lot is litter free and the blacktop is freshly oiled and smooth. Such an establishment is out of place for this part of East St. Louis, Ill., but the station serves as the perfect welcome mat for wild-eyed gamblers intent on making their fortunes on the nearby riverboat casino.
From the station a docile road winds down the east bank of the Mississippi River to where the casino is docked. With the picturesque St. Louis skyline and the famous Gateway Arch rising like well-to-do relatives on the other side of the river in Missouri, visitors feel nothing short of safe and welcome.
But just off the beaten path leading from the interstate past the service station to the casino, a very different world waits. Here few suburbanites would venture unless they were lost or in search of X-rated entertainment, drugs or — in Jay Covert’s case — people in need of God.
“We’re aggressive when it comes to street ministry,” says Covert, 36, an Assemblies of God missionary and director of Urban Outreach East St. Louis. “We’re doing what Jesus wants the church to do, and that’s to get on the streets where the sinners are.”
The straight talk is not for show. Covert, a former drug addict, says Jesus delivered him from his addictions and He can do the same for others. Covert takes his message boldly to the residents of East St. Louis, which has been described as one of Illinois’ most distressed cities.
In the past few decades East St. Louis has been racked by unusually high unemployment and murder rates. Recently, the city made national headlines when a woman was arrested for allegedly killing her long-time friend and cutting the friend’s unborn child from her womb. Police later found the murdered woman’s other three children’s dismembered remains in a washer and dryer.
Poverty plagues many of the city’s 31,000 residents — 98 percent of whom are black. Many residents live on less than $21,000 a year. The city’s current administration inherited its problems from generations of previous leaders who have seen the city slowly crumble over the decades as companies and industries have moved out.
A drive through some sections of East St. Louis is similar to driving through a war-torn country. Vacant lots filled with hip-high weeds dot the landscape. Trash blows past buildings burned by arsonists — the charred ruins stand as silent witnesses to the debilitating impact of poverty and depravity.
Yet strangely (or miraculously, depending on how you look at things) Covert is not phased by the omnipresent challenges.
“In the not-so-distant future a revival will happen in East St. Louis,” he says. “It’ll be so powerful it’ll shake this city to its core.”
To penetrate the community with the gospel, Covert and his staff troll city streets — usually at night — looking for people in need of a sack lunch, blanket, shoes, tract, prayer or encouraging word.
On a Saturday night Covert and his staff — Shameca Black, Eddie Witt, and Tommy Smith — pray in front of the Urban Outreach headquarters, a tiny storefront wedged between an abandoned building and a restaurant. They ask for God’s protection and that He will lead them to people who need to hear the gospel.
On some nights the team heads straight for street corners controlled by drug dealers. There, Covert and his team set up a 17-foot grill to cook and serve brats, hot dogs and hamburgers free of charge.
On this night, the team piles into a boxy 1999 Chevrolet Astro van that has Urban Outreach logos painted on its sides. A pack of fliers and several lunch bags filled with drinks and snacks are scattered on the van’s floor.
Covert buckles up then eases onto the street. His gaze shifts constantly as he searches for someone to help. As the van emerges from a littered alley and into a parking lot of an abandoned grocery store, Covert slams on the brakes.
“You guys want a snack bag?” he says into the darkness.
“Give ’em here,” says one of several men who emerge from the shadows of the store. “I’m hungry.”
“What’s your name?” asks Covert of the man closest to the van.
Covert passes several bags to Jared who distributes them to his buddies. Each of the men peeks inside the bag.
“Thanks, pastor,” says Jared. “I appreciate it.”
The other men slink back into the shadows of the night, but Jared remains at Covert’s window.
“We have church right over on Ninth Street tomorrow morning,” says Covert, handing Jared a flier. “Bring your pals.”
“I’ll be there.”
On the other side of the parking lot two young men argue vehemently. As other men encircle the pair, the curses and threats grow louder. Both men posture, pushing their chests out and clenching their fists. The bigger of the two men throws a hard jab. His fist meets the other’s face. The smaller man crumples to the ground.
The bigger man bends down and throws a barrage of wild punches without mercy. Spectators hurl insults and jeers. Satisfied he has beaten the man down, the bigger man kicks his victim in the side before walking away triumphantly.
“That’s the life a lot of these guys live,” says Covert.
A few minutes later the team pulls into a brothel’s parking lot. A prostitute spots the van and runs up to the passenger-side window.
“Is Shameca in there?” she asks.
Before Black can even slide open the door of the van the woman spins around and hops several times with excitement. When Black emerges, the woman embraces her and sobs.
“What’s up girl?” asks Black.
“Hi, baby,” stammers the woman. “How you doing? God bless you. Pray for me. Please pray for me.”
As she holds the woman, Black prays out loud. The woman moans and sobs. It’s as if she is purging all the hurt, pain and fear she has ever felt. A few minutes later she wipes her tears, thanks Black then heads for the streets.
Black and Witt enter the brothel. Witt’s job is to talk to the men and protect Black. They carry bags filled with toothbrushes, combs, toothpaste, soap, dental floss and invitations to church.
Inside the brothel several prostitutes, a pimp and a customer loiter. The women are glad to see Black and Witt, but the pimp slides into a room and shuts the door. The other man takes a flier then glares at Witt as if he has ruined the night.
“Let me give you this bag,” Black tells a woman. “Is there anything I can be in prayer about?”
For a fleeting moment the prostitute lets her guard down and shares a need. As she does, her eyes soften, but like liquid wax exposed to cold air they harden once again soon after Black prays.
“People are dying in the shadow of our steeples,” says Witt, who grew up in East St. Louis before his family was moved by the government to a neighboring community. “How will we stand accountable before God if we don’t minister to those who live in our neighborhoods?”
Black and Smith both grew up in East St. Louis and share Witt’s philosophy. Covert says having an indigenous staff bent on reaching their community has been key, “because it lent instant credibility and trust to Urban Outreach and its mission.”
Abandoned fast-food restaurants, storefronts and run-down houses are visual reminders of how desperate the city and its people are. On each block someone emerges from the darkness in need of help, prayer or a bag of food.
“Pastor Jay!” someone shouts.
“Yo, Urban Outreach!” shouts another.
Covert stops when beckoned. He and his team give each person a bag of snacks and a few minutes of their time. The goal tonight, says Smith, is to spread some hope and invite people to church.
“So you’re gonna be at church tomorrow, right Kirby?” asks Covert of one man.
“I got to work,” says Kirby.
“Tell your boss you need the morning off,” says Covert. “You have an important appointment with God.”
Covert and his crew don’t mince words. They can be as bold and pushy as they are gentle and kind when it comes to sharing their faith. Laying hands on people during prayer, challenging someone to get off drugs and make a genuine commitment to Christ — this is why they’re out here.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
On a lonely corridor running parallel to the interstate, prostitutes — some no older than 16 — stroll along the road. A trucker pulls his big rig over and a thin woman in a short skirt climbs to his door to cut a deal.
A few miles up the road the darkness is pushed back by a pack of strip clubs beckoning commuters with their neon lights and cheap thrills.
“Come in,” reads one sign, “see our beautiful girls for 25 cents.”
The strip club parking lots are filled with nice vehicles straight out of suburbia. Middle-aged males dart in and out of the clubs.
“You can get a prostitute for ten bucks and some crack for four bucks,” says Smith.
Not surprisingly, drug dealers work the corners. When one of the dealers sees the van he approaches it, but suddenly backs off as if repelled when he sees the Urban Outreach logos. “He knows we’re not buying,” says Covert with a wide grin.
The heat and humidity hanging over the city give way to a late night storm. Heavy rains send prostitutes, pimps and drugs dealers scurrying for cover. Suddenly, it’s as if a cease-fire has been declared and the city becomes eerily still and quiet.
A new day
The next morning praise music drifts out of the Urban Outreach center. Weeds in nearby lots sway and a plastic cup tumbles along the empty street. Inside the center, only two visitors have come to church. Usually more than 35 people are in attendance.
Covert is disappointed by the day’s turnout, but optimistic God will intervene in the visitors’ lives. He goes to the pulpit and talks passionately about the power of prayer.
Ten minutes into his sermon another man stumbles into the center. A few minutes after that a teenager wanders in. He takes a seat in the front row, pulls off his hat and slumps in his chair.
Covert asks if his staff can pray with the men. Witt steps toward the teen.
“You’re tired of running,” he says.
The teen nods.
“A couple of weeks ago a couple of young guys were shot on a corner and …” Witt continues.
“Those were my boys,” the teen interrupts.
“You didn’t come here by accident. God was calling you here,” says Covert. “God wants you to know He loves you and has a plan for your life.”
The same is true of East St. Louis and its people. But like the teen, the residents of this city have a decision to make: Will they or won’t they turn their hearts toward God?
No one knows the answer to that, but if Covert and his team have anything to do with it the people of East St. Louis will turn to God — it’s just a matter of time.
Kirk Noonan is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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