By Walt Wilcoxson
North St. Louis, Missouri, is a place of contrasting realities: rich and poor, black and white, peaceful and violent, hopeful and hopeless. These distinctions are visible and well known. The term “Delmar Divide” neatly sums it up, as Delmar Boulevard divides this area’s poorer, larger African-American community to its north from the more affluent (and largely white) communities to the south.
Families and young people who are among the “have-nots” of North St. Louis encounter desperation and despair every day.
On this hot and humid morning just before lunchtime, Lucas Rouggly and I stood watching as a group of about 30 high schoolers from North St. Louis played kickball with a group visiting from the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans were there to serve with LOVEtheLOU, a group that seeks to beautify and unify the city of St. Louis. Lucas founded LOVEtheLOU less than 10 years ago.
The sounds of the game were everything you would expect from a group of young people playing together and getting to know one another. But then came the sudden, unfortunate, all-too-familiar sound of gunfire. The young people immediately sensed it was too close for comfort. The kickball game abruptly ended. Ball and bases were abandoned in the vacant lot that served as a makeshift field. The kids ran straight to the closest safe place, the Enright Community Garden located in a small lot between two apartment buildings. The garden is a project developed and maintained by LOVEtheLOU.
A Vision Born from Heartbreak
Lucas Rouggly and his wife, Alana, are natives of St. Louis. He is a passionate visionary, and she is the all-in wife who is needed if both the ministry and family are to be successful. Lucas and Alana originally saw St. Louis and the Midwest as being adequately served by Bible-believing churches, and so they sought to proclaim Christ in the Northwest. They became church planters in Portland, Oregon. God taught them and molded them in that experience, providing the vision and ability to start a ministry from the ground up. That vision became LOVEtheLOU.
During their years in Portland, the family continued to return to St. Louis to visit family and friends. With each trip, God was at work in Lucas’s heart. He and Alana began seeing St. Louis as they had never seen it before.
“I saw article after article listing St. Louis as one of the worst places to live,” Lucas says. “And at the same time, I saw articles about where the most churches per capita were. And they are right here . . . in St. Louis. That was the thing that broke my heart. It means the church has lost her voice in St. Louis.
“It doesn’t matter how many buildings we have if the church doesn’t represent Jesus to the city like it needs to. We don’t need more buildings—we need people to meet Jesus.”
So, Lucas and his family, over a period of time, watched as God solidified the call in their lives. They moved back to St. Louis and eventually into an 1800s-era house on the north side of Enright Avenue, right in the middle of the people God had called them to win to Christ. (Enright runs parallel to, and just north of, Delmar Boulevard.)
Tilling Hard Soil
As with most new missions, not everything came easy. Lucas, Alana, and others spent time getting to know neighbors and, literally, tilling the soil and planting seeds in what would become community gardens. Many neighbors weren’t sure the gardens were a good idea or that they would make a difference. That didn’t matter to Lucas and his team of family members and interns. The important thing was to continue moving forward. Doing something is what mattered.
It was important to show the community that they really cared and could be trusted. And the tilling and planting did indeed produce a crop—initially onions, tomatoes, peppers, and flowers. Now, years later, the slower-growing crops are starting to ripen, and that fruit is being harvested in the lives of young people in North St. Louis whom these missionaries were called to win to Christ.
But LOVEtheLOU’s approach to ministry is not typical. If you are looking for a Christian mission whose website proclaims the gospel, speaks about Jesus on every page, and satisfies the inner longing of people who are already believers in Jesus, you won’t find it at LOVEtheLOU.com. But you will find these things ingrained in the people at LOVEtheLOU.
“There are two ways that we proclaim the gospel,” Lucas says, “demonstration and declaration. My philosophy is that those two things have to go hand in hand. If you have demonstration without saying, ‘This is Jesus,’ then it is just social justice. But what St. Louis has experienced is almost the complete reversal of this. There is no demonstration and all declaration.
“What if we counteracted that with tons of demonstrative works? What if we don’t even say the name Jesus on our website and just say love? Now, I know exactly what that means. But when others read love, they don’t know what it means, and that’s OK, at first! We want to show the love of Jesus first, and then tell them about Jesus. So, as we move to the declaration of Jesus, it makes sense to them because of what they have experienced.”
Demonstrating Jesus’ Love
At LOVEtheLOU, Jesus’ love is communicated by making an impact on three needs of the North St. Louis community: STL LIFT provides mentoring to young people; STL LINK, when fully developed and in place, will provide business development and oversight; and STL LIVE will provide affordable housing.
STL LIFT is the primary focus for 2017. The ministry has developed three requirements of participants early in the program: (1) don’t die; (2) show up; and (3) get involved. And when the kids show up, no opportunity to mentor them is wasted. Activities include mowing grass, building and planting gardens, harvesting crops, making salsa, caring for chickens, and gathering eggs; all of these activities provide opportunities for learning, growing, and hearing about Jesus.
When churches or other groups come to LOVEtheLOU to help in the mission, the program participants frequently give tours, go to the local store to buy and fix lunches, and give testimonies about how both the program and the Lord have impacted their lives. They typically are self-conscious, nervous, and unsure of themselves, but their stories are impactful . . . especially when heard through the ears of people far removed from inner-city realities.
This past year, three young people finished the STL LIFT program. All three also graduated from high school and will be attending college . . . they are the first in their families to go to college. This year, 25 kids are in the program with 17 solidly on track to become who God created and desires them to be. Lucas believes the program is on track to have 100 deeply devoted disciples of Christ by 2020.
Demonstration before declaration. You can hear it and see it everywhere you look at LOVEtheLOU. Every staff member embraces this method. But perhaps most importantly, the young people in the neighborhood are now beginning to act like their mentors.
Demonstration before declaration. It’s an important principal no one should overlook. Not because it has been instrumental in making LOVEtheLOU an effective mission, but because Jesus himself advocated for it. Jesus said,
You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16, emphasis added).
Demonstration before declaration. Deeds that cause the resulting response of praise.
Read the sidebar: “The Urgency of Sledgehammering Strongholds.”
Learn more about LOVEtheLOU—and about visiting individually or as part of a group, or supporting the mission—at LOVEtheLOU.com.
Walt Wilcoxson serves as campus pastor at The Crossing, Lima, Illinois.