Lovin' the Hood

by Linda Piepenbrink

She Throws a block party! (And so much more?)

At 9 a.m. 100 women pile out and assemble on Washington Boulevard, a quiet blocked-off street outside Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. There we?re greeted by Mt. Sinai?s pastor, William R. Lott Sr. who leads us in prayer and joins Helen and the volunteers in a rousing gospel song. Then everyone gets busy. Some women sort clean, donated clothing on tables, some set up the children?s area with games and prizes, and others set up a nurses? station for health checkups. Still others work in a hot basement to prepare a crowd-sized meal of barbecued chicken, hotdogs, beans, and soda.

A large group of women break into groups of three or four, led by counselors from Mt. Sinai?s evangelism team, and set off to knock on doors in the surrounding neighborhood. As they hand out fliers inviting people to the block party, some volunteers linger on porches, sharing the gospel and praying for the residents they meet.

An hour later, Washington Boulevard is filled with almost 700 guests who hear Pastor Lott preach the gospel through loudspeakers. A few local people give their testimonies, such as a young woman who shares how Jesus Christ set her free from drugs. A drill team and choir also perform.

Meanwhile, neighborhood children participate in sack races and bean toss games to win pencils, Bible activity pads, ?Go With God? key chains, and other prizes. And down the street, indigent men and grateful grandmothers pick out free clothing.

At 3 p.m., the women file back into the buses to head for the suburbs, but a quick head count reveals that one of the women is missing. Several minutes later, Cora Latson, a 77-year-old widow, shows up with a good excuse for being late; she was sharing the plan of salvation with a woman who prayed to receive Christ. In fact, 22 people committed their lives to the Lord Jesus that afternoon.

Helen is exuberant about the day?s success, but says the block party is just an instrument in God?s hand to help motivate women to serve wherever there is a need. ?My desire is to see women start praying, reading and obeying God?s Word, and using their talents, abilities, resources, or influence to help those in need in the inner city as well as in the suburbs,? she says.

?Some of us are so spiritually fat we?re burping,? she explains. ?We?ve read every book, been to every conference, bought every tape, and know all the popular speakers, but we need to understand that Jesus Christ said He?s coming quickly. If we tell the Lord we?re available in any way He wants to use us and that all we have belongs to Him, then we?ll begin to pay attention to the doors of opportunity God brings us.?

It took awhile for Helen to realize God wanted her to serve Him in the inner city. Born in Louisiana, she was deeply influenced by her preacher grandfather, who read her the Bible everyday while she sat in his lap. She moved to California with her parents, and received Christ as a 10-year-old. But she didn?t grow significantly until her husband, Richard, jointed the Air Force. As they traveled, she met Christians who discipled her and gave her helpful Christian materials. When Helen lived in Holland, Ada Airing, a Dutch neighbor, invited her over for tea and cookies and gave her her first Bible concordance. Another friend gave Helen a purse-sized Bible. ?I was real opinionated, but thanks to those women. I started to share Scripture verses instead of just voicing my own thoughts and ideas,? she says.

After Richard?s time in the service ended in 1981, they moved back to the States with their two elementary-age children, David and Djuana. Richard started a yardwork business, but it didn?t pan out, so he worked odd jobs and eventually got a government position at an Air Force base. But because of rising interest rates and housing costs, they had no choice but to move to Compton, an inner city in Los Angeles County made up of African Americans, Samoans, and Mexican Americans.

?I went to the inner city kicking and screaming,? Helen recalls. ?I told the Lord, I don?t want to move here because of the crime. I don?t want my children exposed to this type of life.

?I didn?t even put up curtains,? she says. ?I tacked sheets to the windows because I was sure God would move us soon.?

Eventually a friend came to visit from the Netherlands and said, ?Miz Helen, you might as well take these sheets down and put up some curtains, because you?re not going until God moves you.?

Although Helen still hoped to leave soon, she took the advice and decided to make the best of the situation. She sat on the porch of their tiny house and invited neighbors to pull up a chair and visit. Imitating her friend Ada Airing, she offered tea in pretty teacups and talked about the Lord Jesus. She became more active in her church, located three doors away.

In time she befriended and discipled 10 women who became lifelong prayer partners. Helen shared the resources she?d come across from her travels. They learned to pray together from reading What Happens When Women Pray by Evelyn Christenson, held simple Friendship Bible coffees, and led neighbors to Christ by sharing the ?Four Spiritual Laws? and other witnessing materials from Campus Crusade for Christ.

One neighbor, Barbara, kept to herself, until Helen waved to her from her porch one day. ?Hi, my name is Miz Helen. Come on over.? They started talking, and visiting each other in their homes. Helen eventually led her to the Lord and encouraged her to read through the Bible. Soon Barbara?s live-in boyfriend also received Christ, and they married.

Helen also reached out to the kids in her neighborhood by starting a ?birthday cake calendar.? Teenage boys would sign their name on the date of their birthday, and Helen, who?d taken a cake decorating class, would make them the cake of their choice on their birthday. There was only one condition: each of them had to memorize Scripture verses, such as Ecclesiastes 12:1??Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth??and listen to Helen share the gospel before taking the cake home. As a result, several young men, including some ?gang bangers,? came to know the Lord, and poor families began celebrating their kids? birthdays again.

About that time, when her daughter was 10, Helen and Richard had a ?surprise blessing,? a son named Michael. Money was tight, so her prayer partners pitched in to buy ingredients for the birthday cakes. Eventually Helen even made cakes for some of the adults. ?I was amazed at how many men had never had a birthday cake,? she says.

Helen also held backyard Bible clubs for children and invited teenagers to help serve punch and dramatize Bible stories. ?That way teenagers heard the gospel, too.?

When Helen began to notice that the major ministries never came to the inner city to help them grow spiritually, she and several of her prayer partners sat around the kitchen table one night, crying out to God. ?Lord, don?t you care about us in the inner city??

Not long after that, she attended a Christian conference in Laguna Beach, where she met Bible teacher Kay Arthur, who invited her and her friend Joyce Jackson to get further training at Precept Ministries in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as guests. And Kay Arthur, in turn, has come to Los Angeles County twice to teach people in the inner city how to study the Bible.

Despite efforts to transform the neighborhood, many children and young men in Compton were lured into making money from selling drugs. One day in 1983, Helen?s husband was stabbed while trying to get a drug pusher to get off their porch, and their daughter, Djuana, witnessed it. The wound wasn?t too serious, but seeing the assault impacted Djuana?s life; she determined to attend medical school so that she could help people in the inner city. When Helen?s son, David, began ?gang banging? and selling drugs, Helen reminded the Lord, Isn?t this why I told you I didn?t want to move here?

But through the experience, Helen began to identify more fully with the people around her. ?I could understand the heartbreak of a mother watching her child go astray. I learned to stop judging and started listening to people. I developed compassion in my heart, because I saw that Jesus died for them, just as He did for me.?

Helen had envisioned a more sophisticated ministry somewhere else, but now saw that it was God?s will for her to minister to the inner city. ?I finally told the Lord, Okay, God, don?t move me a day sooner or keep me a day longer than Your perfect will. But while I?m here, I want You to use me according to Your glory and Your honor.

?When I realized I was there by divine appointment, my attitude changed,? she says. ?Being in the inner city taught me to love people unconditionally. And because I?ve been there, I know how to pray for children who run away or get into trouble?and their hurting mothers.?

When Helen saw a Newsweek article on the drug trade, she distributed copies to her 10 prayer partners and began praying for the drug lords nearly every day. ?Their drugs were impacting our neighborhood,? she says. ?I read not long ago that almost all of those men?s drug trade was destroyed or disrupted. Some of the men died or went to prison.?

Helen also founded Called to Leadership Training Conferences, which grew out of her prayer partnerships, and works with AD2000/Christian Women United to inspire and train Christians to pursue kingdom work. ?It?s time to wake up in America. Death is sure, life is very short, and we need to redeem the time and use what we have for Christ?s glory, so that others might want to know Him,? she says. ?The Bible tells us to share the gospel, to feed those who are hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the widow and the orphans?those who don?t have fathers?and to remember those who are in jail,? she adds. ?Now if we just do that, we?ll be busy til Jesus comes!?

Reprinted by permission, Virtue.