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Congregation transforms neighborhood by buying property, operating ministries

(February 17, 2002)

Houses lying along the 1000 stretch of Northwest 22nd and 23rd streets in Des Moines, Iowa, seem the epitome of a tranquil, productive neighborhood. Children play joyfully in the park. Residents wave greetings to one another. Carpenters saw and hammer to renovate an apartment complex.

Gratitude: Kevin Kirgis says New Life Center has offered encouragement and help as he faces life-threatening health problems.

The block is anchored by New Life Center, an Assemblies of God church pastored for its entire 30 years by Helen Martin. The neighborhood has improved vastly in three decades and the ever-smiling Martin is largely responsible.

In the early 1970s, this vicinity regularly featured loud parties, burglaries and illegal drug deals. Martin organized a "Jericho march" around one of the crack houses. Crack dealers yelled death threats. The following day, the occupants suddenly moved out.

A small group from the church prayed in front of another crack house, prompting a dealer to ask about the gathering. "I told him, ‘We’re praying you guys out of the neighborhood,’ " Martin recalls. The dealer laughed, saying police had never concerned him so a group of praying Christians certainly didn’t intimidate him. Two days later police arrested the man on a drug charge.

Prompted by the Lord, Martin sent a letter to all homeowners of the block telling them the church would like to buy their property. Today New Life Center owns 15 residences on the block.

While standing fast against immorality, the church, located a few blocks southeast of Drake University, has changed its focus over the years because of shifting demographics. A current emphasis is refugees. "You have to change ministries to fit in with the changing neighborhood," says Martin, who is tough when she needs to be. But she has a sweet spirit and is driven by an overriding love for people and a desire to meet their needs. "These days, those in our multicultural neighborhood don’t speak a lot of English."

The church began as a coffeehouse in 1972 and has always reached out to those who might not be welcome elsewhere. The tradition continues, with apartments leased not only to refugees but also to a man dying of AIDS and a woman who is a five-time felon.

Martin became a pioneer of the Jesus Movement in Iowa in the early 1970s and literally hundreds of people accepted Jesus as their Savior under her ministry. Miraculous healings and deliverance from addictions took place often at the coffeehouse prayer meetings. Martin became a pastor when the sheep needed a shepherd.

"I never intended to pastor; it just happened," she says. During those booming ministry days, the church purchased most of its property, including a school adjacent to the church that is used as a daycare center and for other educational activities. A 220-acre farm 25 miles west of Des Moines serves as a retreat house and camp for kids.

Today the church is relatively small, with about 90 attendees. Most people stay long enough to be discipled before moving to middle-class confines. Some who have been mentored at the church now serve in ministry posts throughout the country.

Carl Breeding, who manages the church’s apartments, is an exception. Breeding, 51, a former drug user, has been at the church since 1982. He is also worship leader and a Sunday school teacher.

"People praying provided the money to buy these houses," Breeding says. "A lot have been a battle to get. A fraternity owned one on the Historic Register, but the church prayed and they decided to sell."

The apartments, mostly older two-story homes, are a large source of income for the ministry these days. The residences are a lot like the people at New Life Center: despite a troubled past they have been remodeled from a state of disrepair and now are in an improved state.

"The Bible is clear that we are to help the poor and the hurting," Martin says. Renters must abide by church rules: no cohabitation, alcohol or illegal drugs.

In some cases, an opening for an apartment is an actual lifesaver. Grace (who asked that her last name not be used) came to New Life Center in June 2000. She had been living in her car ready to commit suicide when the call came that she could live in the church’s shelter house. "These people overwhelmed me with love, even though they knew what I had done in the past," says the husky-voiced Grace. "I wanted the gentleness and serenity that these people had."

Although Grace, 47, was baptized as a symbol of her new life in Christ, she couldn’t leave her troubles behind completely. That past included five felony convictions to go with a 25-year record of theft and drug abuse. Grace had to appear in court to answer for writing bad checks earlier. "The judge told me I was a thief, liar and con artist and asked why he should give me mercy," Grace recalls. "I told the judge I was walking with the Lord." In what the judge admittedly called divine intervention, he sentenced Grace to a halfway house instead of prison.

At the halfway house, Grace’s changed behavior stemming from her newfound faith inspired her to attend church every Sunday and Wednesday. Church people moved furniture from the shelter house into a permanent apartment while she lived in the halfway house.

The key to the turnaround, Grace says, is being encircled by churchgoing neighbors. "I don’t surround myself with people who aren’t clean and sober," says Grace, who now works at Mercy Hospital as a cook. "It’s like I have a family now. These people saved my life."

The same goes for Kevin Kirgis, 48, who lives in a house at the church’s back door.

"Moving here was a turning point," says Kirgis. "My life is changed." Jesus is the final spiritual destination for Kirgis, who had been a New Age channeler, Satan worshiper, drug abuser and male prostitution service operator. Three years ago doctors gave him two years to live with the AIDS that has ravaged his immune system. Church members regularly check on Kirgis, who has a daily regimen of 20 medications. During a recent hospitalization for pneumonia, church members came to clean his home.

"Before, I was an angry, explosive person," Kirgis says. "But at church I’ve had healing and forgiveness for the anger. This church has shown me God’s love. Through the Holy Spirit, God brought me back to repentance."

The church also ministers to refugees who have fled their homeland after the murder or disappearance of relatives.

Mirzai Aliya, 37, cares for her six children, who range in age from 5 to 16. Her husband had been a high government security official in Afghanistan, but when the Taliban gained control, soldiers removed him from their home and the family never saw him again. Aliya and the children fled the Afghan capital of Kabul during the civil war. They lived in Pakistan for three years before being granted refugee status and coming to the United States in September.

Afghans in America: Mirzai Aliya and her six children are adapting to culture and customs in the United States.

Church people quickly befriended the family by providing food and a rent-free house for several months. Aliya has had difficulty finding a job because of the downturn in the economy and language barrier. But a look around the family’s living room shows they have quickly acclimated to the United States. There are Hot Wheels cars and a Winnie the Pooh doll on the shelves. A popular child’s video is playing on the television.

Augusta Francis spent more than three years in a Nigerian refugee camp after fleeing Sierra Leone. Her husband had joined rebel soldiers in an effort to earn money to keep his family from starving. But in factional fighting, he was shot and killed, the family’s village home was burned and Francis escaped with her daughter into a forest to hide.

United Nations peacekeepers rescued Francis and her daughter, and they lived in the refugee camp, where she gave birth to a second daughter.

In July, Francis, now 33, and her daughters, 9 and 3, immigrated to Des Moines. Church members have helped with transportation, clothes, phone calls and job hunting. She uses electricity sparingly because funds are tight.

Four "Lost Boys" from Sudan live in one of the New Life Center apartments. Church members have helped them learn how to drive and fill out job applications. All are working overnight shifts at Hy-Vee Food Store stocking shelves.

The Sudanese have been orphans since early childhood and spent most of their youth in Kenyan and Ethiopian refugee camps before being resettled. In the camps they faced starvation and disease. In fleeing civil war from their Dinka tribal village they faced gun-wielding soldiers, ravenous lions and predatory crocodiles.

In Iowa, life is much different. They are experiencing carpeting, electric lights, flush toilets and beds with mattresses for the first time. Still, they desire someday to return to their country after receiving Bible training.

James Majok, 21, has been an orphan since age 3. "I love my God," says Majok, who wants to be an evangelist. "Before I die I want to preach the gospel to those who don’t have the Word of God."

On Sunday, part of the morning service at New Life Center is like a family gathering. Congregants come to the front to share praise reports and prayer needs. Some people cry. Sometimes the congregation gathers to stretch out hands to an afflicted person.

On this day, Martin’s sermon about deception is just what many need to hear. She tells the attendees they don’t need to be held prisoner by their past mistakes.

Martin is 78, but that’s hard to believe with the 60-hour-a-week work schedule she keeps. She preaches, teaches teens, counsels and is the church administrator. Martin laments that the church doesn’t have a bigger staff, but notes that few feel called because of the low pay offered. While not wanting to rest on her laurels, Martin is realistic about her mortality.

"I don’t want to ever quit, but my mileage is getting higher," she says. "I carry too heavy a load." Martin has overcome adversity before. Her husband was killed in the South Pacific near the end of World War II. A widow at 22, she never remarried. Martin raised a daughter, 8 months old when her husband died, as a single parent when such an arrangement was an anomaly.

With God’s help, Martin has overcome her own troubles and offered tenderhearted ministry to others. Throughout her life, she has answered the call of investing in people who may not be a priority in the world’s eyes but are valuable in God’s sight.

— John W. Kennedy



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