Congregation transforms neighborhood by buying property, operating
(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.
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
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, Were
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 didnt 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
dont 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 churchs 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 churchs 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 couldnt 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, Graces 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 dont surround myself with people who arent
clean and sober," says Grace, who now works at Mercy Hospital as a cook.
"Its 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 churchs
"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
"Before, I was an angry, explosive person," Kirgis says. "But at church
Ive had healing and forgiveness for the anger. This church has
shown me Gods love. Through the Holy Spirit, God brought me back
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 familys 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 childs 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 familys 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
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
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 dont 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, Martins sermon about deception is just what many
need to hear. She tells the attendees they dont need to be held
prisoner by their past mistakes.
Martin is 78, but thats 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 doesnt
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 dont 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 Gods 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 worlds
eyes but are valuable in Gods sight.
John W. Kennedy