By Shannon Baker, BCM/D National Correspondent
WILMINGTON, Del.—Six years ago, Delaware Baptists began to build relationships with city officials in Wilmington, Del., and what is emerging is an exciting city-reaching initiative similar to Embrace Baltimore.
“Even though Wilmington is not a large city in comparison to Philadelphia and Baltimore, it is a city that struggles with the same issues of drugs, increased violence, the breakdown of the homes, single parenting and a high incidence of infant mortality rate,” shared Jim McBride, former director of missions for the Delaware Association (DBA).
“Because of all of this and the fact that here’s a city that really needs hope and needs encouragement, we felt like we needed to start praying and seeking ways that we could begin to minister in the city.”
Wayne Miles, an African American pastor at Latter Day Church, who has the only Southern Baptist church in the city, introduced McBride to the Honorable James D. Baker, Wilmington’s mayor.
We just asked him a simple question, “How can we help you make this city a better place to live?”
Mayor Baker listed his first item: they needed a sponsor for the Wilmington Games, a variety of Olympic-style sporting tournaments for young people in the city of Wilmington.
McBride consulted with David Lee, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, as well as ministry leaders at the Delaware Association. Ultimately, they agreed to sponsor $10,000 from the two entities.
That allowed the DBA churches to begin to work with the Parks and Recreation. During the Wilmington Games, held in the various city parks and local venues, Delaware church teams gave out free water bottles, free Bibles and salvation bracelets, set up a ministry booth, and set up craft areas. Some volunteers helped keep sports scores, running the time machines, or to help set-up the venues for the events.
“Because of the good job that Delaware Baptist volunteers did, we began to build a relationship of respect and trust with the city leadership and Parks and Recreation,” McBride continued. “We’ve been doing that now for these past six years.”
Over time, the mayor’s office and other key leaders in the city began to view Delaware Baptists as a “key player” and other opportunities opened up. And with Embrace Baltimore underway, McBride and Lee started planning Embrace Wilmington to continue the outreach in the area.
During the summers, DBA started raising their level of ministry as mission teams from other states came to work in the city parks for a myriad of beautification projects. This allowed the budget-stretched city to enhance the parks without labor costs.
While the city provided lunch and materials—and even police protection, as necessary—the teams systematically began to change the landscape of the city’s common areas.
Even maintenance workers couldn’t believe that young people from other states would spend their own money to come and work in their city, McBride expressed.
“It was an opportunity for them to see Christians who were not just talking the talk, but walking the walk,” he said.
At last year’s annual meeting of the DBA, Mayor Baker shared that only two religious groups had taken seriously the challenge really to do the work and to love the people of Wilmington: a nondenominational Christian church outside the city and the Delaware Association.
“That really changed the level of excitement and interest in the members of our Association,” McBride rejoiced. “I haven’t heard or seen many places in the United States where Southern Baptists … have been given such an open door to work with the government agency in a city. And if that’s not God, then I don’t know what else is.”
The mission teams have also helped Latter Day Church and churches in the surrounding area with backyard Bible clubs, light construction projects and other outreach efforts.
This past summer, a team from Kentucky assisted the city in painting fences, cleaning parks, mulching and other general maintenance.
“We’re not painting fences; we’re feeding kids,” shared Rob Taylor, a youth intern from First Church, Richmond, Ky., who explained that the team chose to believe that the money saved by their free effort would be used to help the kids in the area.
This particular team had 17 teenagers and five adults—“and zero behavior issues,” shared Taylor, who feared that working in the city may be hard for the rural Central Kentucky team. “But when we boiled it down, we learned that the human condition is the same, whether you are in a rural community or in the inner city. Sin is sin, and grace is for all.”
They also assisted in an all-day block party, strategically located in Rodney Square, a downtown area surrounded by several transit stops. The team ministered to homeless people as well as employees from several Fortune 500 companies.
One man, an employee from Bank of America, upon seeing all the activity, gave a donation to Mal Utleye, now DBA’s interim director of missions and former pastor of Hockessin Church in nearby Hockessin, Del.
“My company will match the donation, and I like what I see happening here,” the businessman said.
With the help of Utleye, and Mitch Dowell, the new executive director of Embrace Wilmington, the DBA seeks to continue the impact in the area.
Although the Embrace Wilmington initiative will not officially begin until January 2010, local churches are already praying and preparing to “embrace their city with the love of Christ.
To learn more, or to become a potential partner for Embrace Wilmington, contact Dowell at (410) 707-7614, or visit Dowell Mondays through Wednesdays, in his new office at Bethany Church at 410 Denver Road in Wilmington.