Radical Evangelism: Man Returns to D.C. Inner-City to Save Souls After “Swearing” He’d Never Go Back

December 26, 2008

carlos-williams.jpgCarlos Williams swore he’d never return his children to Washington, the city where drug deals, fights and drunks outside his father’s apartment used to keep him and his brothers awake at night. 

But there they were, Carlos, his wife and their seven children — all under 13 — tumbling out of the family’s white van one Saturday in Trinidad, the small Northeast D.C. neighborhood plagued by more than 125 violent crimes in the past year.
As they began their rounds, the kids giggling and running up alleys, young men on sidewalks and older women on stoops tended to stare, as if to say, What are you doing here?
Saving souls, or at least trying.
The Williamses believe that God called them to Trinidad two years ago, and they have reorganized their lives around the neighborhood, even if it costs them the stability it took more than a decade to build. In September, they sold their home on a wooded, 1 1/2 -acre patch of Anne Arundel County and moved into a rented, one-bathroom rowhouse on Florida Avenue, where Zenobia Williams home-schools all seven children. Before moving, they drove 25 miles to get to Trinidad every Saturday, an unlikely looking missionary troupe, checking on people, praying with them on doorsteps, walking past a police checkpoint. Twice they brought a mobile baptismal tank in a school bus and prayed in tongues as Trinidad’s children plunged beneath the water.
But saving souls involves more than just desire, Carlos Williams is finding. Residents of Trinidad tell him, yes, they need Jesus, but first they have more pragmatic questions: Can Williams, a baby-faced 38-year-old telecom worker, help them find a job? Pay their utility bill? Other residents are indifferent to religion. Then there is the devil, whom Williams considers a direct rival.
He said he sees the Devil in “a spirit of oppression, a heaviness over that neighborhood. There is an adversary that opposes any spirit of God,” he said the day after a slow Sunday. “To me, it’s crystal clear that it’s not people we’re up against — it’s a spiritual deal.”
That’s the mind-set of a grass-roots, walk-the-beat kind of soul saver, a throwback. A guy who runs Bible study every Wednesday night in a McDonald’s. Who won’t get on the train home on Fridays until he prays with a desperate-looking stranger. Who thinks Washington has too much religion and too little Jesus.
“A church on every corner and all this carnage?” he said one Saturday outside the Trinidad Recreation Center. Inside, a memorial service was underway for a 13-year-old shot dead during the summer while visiting from Alabama.
As his kids scurried up a grassy slope to a playground, Williams laid out the stakes, the reason he is willing — eager, even — to uproot his family. He wants to test the identity around which he has constructed his adult life.
“This is not some, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to church on Sunday, and we’d love to have you leave the same way you came in,’ ” he said. “This is life and death.”
* * *
Williams got the call to start a church July 31, 2006. His nondenominational Pentecostal church, Antioch Apostolic in Arnold, has been launching churches since it was founded, and at that night’s service, it was the Williams family named to spread the Gospel to Washington. Carlos had worked with programs for youths, the homeless, prisoners; church leaders knew he was headed for some type of ministry, and they saw a huge need in the District.
Still, Williams didn’t expect to be tapped to create a new church. The pastor did not tell him in advance and instead announced from the pulpit that Williams and his family would be starting “missionary” work in Washington. But the word “missionary,” to him, was a sign. He’d long believed that God was calling him to a foreign mission field. Apparently his native city was it.
He began driving in the District, feeling for his spot. When he got to Florida Avenue NE, a southern border of Trinidad, something struck. Williams, who has the cheerful, wholesome aura of a camp counselor, said people seemed to carry “a heavy weight. I felt the need here.”
Initially, the family commuted. That winter, all nine Williamses bundled up and walked Trinidad’s streets. “People were like, ‘You’re taking your kids into Trinidad?’ We felt we were with the will of God, that He’s covered us,” Carlos Williams said.
Mostly, the big family was a curiosity in Trinidad, where signs say “A Garden Community” but parents say they don’t feel safe letting their children wander. Some blocks look idyllic, with neat brick rowhouses and well-tended gardens. Many others are empty, and people hustle from their car to their door. Although things have calmed in recent weeks, the neighborhood has faced spasms of violence, with so many slayings that police even blocked it off to all but residents for a time. Beginning in May, city officials will install about 30 video cameras on Trinidad’s streets to deter crime.
Willliams’s plan was that on Saturdays they’d roam and on Sundays hold worship services. But his first attempt to find space in Trinidad for his Northeast D.C. Apostolic Church was met coolly. Pastors of established churches, mostly Baptist, he said, were uncomfortable lending space to an unknown Pentecostal. Pentecostals tend to place a higher value on speaking in tongues and evangelizing and a lesser one on formally educated clerical leadership. He was shocked when a city prison chaplain turned down his offer to minister to prisoners.
“She said, ‘What can you offer these people? Can you provide suits for these guys?’ ” Williams said she told him. “I said, ‘Ma’am, more people are going to hell than ever, and you’re telling me these guys need a suit?’ “
But there were those who welcomed the Williamses, such as Valerie Norville, a retired D.C. teacher who was so scared of the violence in her neighborhood that she hadn’t walked on the central Trinidad Street for two years. Then the family knocked on her door, and she began dropping her grandchildren at their Sunday school on H Street. She said that even though she knows little about the Williamses’ theology, there isn’t much in the neighborhood for children to do. And, she likes their warmth and focus on God, not social work.
Churches “have gotten away from their real purpose. . . . They reach out to people, but they can’t hold them.”
Harold Lovelace, a deacon at the 87-year-old Bethesda Baptist in Trinidad-Ivy City, relates to Williams.
“Most [church members] don’t get involved in the neighborhood. They come for services and then leave in their beautiful cars back to Mitchellville or wherever,” he said. “That’s the way black churches are made up these days.”
The Williamses decided that their ministry would fail if they remained outsiders and decided to sell their home in Anne Arundel — a shock even to their pastors — just as the real estate market collapsed. But Carlos was soaring: “I really feel this is the will of God for my life.”
* * *
One Saturday in July, the Williamses were making their typical rounds: Trinidad Street to Queen Street to Montello Avenue. The neighborhood was silent, save for the sounds of Carlos and Zenobia constantly reminding their brood to stay close. Seeing two young men on a corner, Carlos smiled and handed them fliers for the H Street services, which have ranged from 15 to almost 60 people, although many are local children or people from the Williamses’ home church in Arnold.
Williams had been growing frustrated: The family had held a large outreach party at the recreation center a few weeks earlier, with free hot dogs, grape soda and music, and 150 people signed a list saying they wanted to be contacted. The next day, at services, not one of them showed
Soon the family arrived at a small apartment building across from a telephone pole covered with flowers and stuffed animals: a memorial at the spot where three people were fatally shot a few weeks earlier. A group of children who attend the Williamses’ Sunday school live there, and Carlos and Zenobia knew some of the people sitting on the steps out front. Carlos launched into an intense conversation with a man named Earl, who held a beer in a bag and wore a sad look.
“I pray to Jesus: Show me a sign,” he slurred a bit as Carlos prayed with him. He was down; he told Carlos before that he’d come to church but hadn’t.
“Jesus needs me and you. He’s looking for who’s available. It’s not the vase, it’s what you put in it,” Williams said with some insistence.
Zenobia moved up the block, as the children had become restless. Carlos stayed with Earl, who was listening and nodding his head intently. “Don’t lose my number, man,” Earl said. “I need to talk to you more.”
He vowed to come to services the next day. He didn’t.
* * *
The Williamses got a gorgeous, warm October Saturday for a big event they’d been planning for weeks — a second block party. Again there would be gospel music, free hot dogs and the baptism bus. This time, they hoped they were better known in Trinidad and would be a bigger draw.
By 2 p.m., 15 of Trinidad’s children were jammed around the metal tub inside the school bus, staring as Williams prepared to lower a wide-eyed boy into the water.
“There’s no way you can make it to heaven without being baptized in His name,” Williams said. “Think about your Mom, Dad, anyone at school — is there anyone you have something against? Anyone you want to forgive you?” The boy shook his head, closed his eyes, held his nose and went briefly under the water.
As the boy came up, droplets falling from his face, the adults put their hands out to him. “Lord, you added another to your kingdom! Lord, don’t let him forget this experience!” Williams almost begged, his head down and both hands on the sopping boy.
The scene replayed itself throughout the afternoon. All the takers were children, though; Williams and others called out the bus window to adults passing by: “Anyone want to get baptized?” People just smiled and kept walking; we’ve already got a church, several said.
More than 100 people had filled out contact cards, but the next day only about nine adults came to the H Street services, which are held in a small, second-floor office. Most, again, were from Williams’s home church. Sixteen children came, including the Williamses’ seven.
As usual for services, Williams was dressed sharply — in a pinstripe brown suit — and Zenobia, an interpreter for the deaf, was at the front of the room, signing. Williams’s sermon was partly about Scripture and partly an exercise in therapy, as he told his congregation about the previous day and his struggles to do God’s bidding in Trinidad.
“I don’t want to say I’m discouraged, but I guess I’d gone in with a certain level of expectation, that we’d have an outpouring of adults — men, women, children — and people would be led into that bright light,” he told them. Soon he was consoling himself with the idea that children’s souls are just as important, particularly in a scary time when the young face drive-by shootings and guns in schools.
“I decided I’m just looking for someone who is hungry for the word of God,” he said. “I’m looking for someone. I need to identify with something.”
And the next week, he was back out there looking.
Source: Washington Post

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