Pictured: A grieving soul at Miami's inner-city Greater Mercy Baptist Church finds consolation from pastor Willie Williams. Photo by Ken Touchton/Florida Baptist Convention.
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Life is mostly bitter in one of Miami's poorest and most neglected neighborhoods -- Overtown, located northwest of downtown.
Needs are great; hope is fleeting.
As the invitation song begins in the storefront church, the man from the back row walks down the aisle to pray prostrate at the altar, looking for redemption, looking for hope. Soon he is joined by others coveting prayers -- and hope -- of their own.
For eight years, Williams and his wife Creola have dedicated their lives to minister in the predominantly African American community known for drugs, violence and prostitution.
Once a proud neighborhood with a rich musical heritage, urban flight by former residents and the construction of 10 lanes of Highway I-95 at the juncture of State Road 386 through its center have left the community isolated, coping with poverty and fear. Nearly a third of the community lives in public or government-subsidized housing.
Williams planted Greater Mercy Church to combat these evils and demonstrate the compassion of God as he deploys faith "on the battlefield."
"Coming here we found a great need to serve this community," Williams said. "We have the smallest church with the biggest heart. We reach out to people who are walking in the wilderness and we make sure we go out and evangelize them. No other church around here does."
Miami is one of 50 Send North America cities, a North American Mission Board strategy for moving churches and individuals into major metropolitan areas to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ and start new churches.
Williams and his family moved back to the neighborhood in 2005 for him to take over his aunt's barbershop, "Just Right Barbers" on Third Street. The family rented the apartment above the row of stores and soon cleared out years of accumulated refuse in the adjacent storefront for the church.
For years he asked God to remove the tavern adjacent to his barbershop storefront. "A lot of people lost their identity there. I prayed, 'God if you will bless me with that place, I will turn it into something the community will be proud of.'" God answered his prayer and now the storefront houses a hair salon managed by his wife.
"I didn't understand why God would send me to such a dark area with people walking around with guns in their hand and bulletproof vests. It was very, very dark," Williams said of his arrival.
"I came here to show people they can make it without guns, they can make it without drugs and without doing the things Satan receives honor from."
The congregation with nearly 50 in attendance each week goes out into the community to Laundromats and street corners to share water, the Gospel and prayers.
SOURCE: Barbara Denman, Florida Baptist Convention