LOUISVILLE—In 1914, the City of Louisville passed a housing ordinance that essentially prohibited racial integration within the city’s neighborhoods.
That same year, black and white Baptists from Louisville churches disregarded the city’s order of segregation and came together to launch a neighborhood ministry for families in need—no matter their racial background.
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Louisville’s housing ordinance as unconstitutional, and nearly 100 years after that decision, the Baptist Fellowship Center continues to thrive.
“African-American Baptists and white Baptists came together when that kind of thing wasn’t happening much,” said Louisville pastor Lincoln Bingham, a former executive director for the center.
The Baptist Fellowship Center is gearing up to mark a century of serving Louisville residents in September 2014.
The center is a cooperative partnership of Central District Baptist Association, a group of 150 predominantly black churches in the Louisville area, and Long Run Baptist Association. The ministry also receives support from the Kentucky Baptist Convention through gifts to the Eliza Broadus Offering, and the North American Mission Board.
“From the beginning, it has been an intentional cooperative effort, because predominantly African-American churches and predominantly white churches are working together,” said Larry Martin, a former KBC missions leader.
The center is a “model of cooperative ministries for the nation,” he added.
The center’s visitors come seeking help for any number of needs, including funds to pay for household utilities, child care, school supplies, counseling services and prescription medication assistance.
While the Baptist Fellowship Center serves all of Louisville, most of whom enter its doors come from the Parkland neighborhood in west Louisville.
The center relocated to 1351 Catalpa Street, the former home of Parkland Baptist Church, in 1965 during a time of great transition for both the ministry and the neighborhood.
With many of its members moving out of the city to the suburbs, Parkland Baptist followed suit, making its new home in south Louisville.
Shiloh Baptist Church, a leading black congregation in Louisville, purchased the old Parkland Baptist sanctuary, while the Baptist Fellowship Center moved into the vacant educational building.
Today, more than 95 percent of the neighborhood’s households are African-American. Many of them are headed by single mothers living at or below the poverty line, according to Matthew Smyzer, the Baptist Fellowship Center’s executive director.
Even as the area’s demographics have shifted over the years, the center’s mission has not wavered, Smyzer said.
With a bare-bones staff of just two full-time and two part-time employees, Smyzer estimated the Baptist Fellowship Center reaches approximately 10,000 people a year.
Through its emergency assistance funds for things such as electricity, gas and water bills, the center contributes approximately $100,000 to area residents each year.
Three years ago, the center began a prescription drug assistance program. Smyzer said, in that time, more than $4 million has been distributed to help individuals afford life-saving medicines.
The center depends on the work of more than 300 volunteers annually. They serve in a variety of ways, including at a daily clothes closet, day care and food pantry.
To connect the center’s visitors to Jesus Christ, the center is also home to a church plant, Life Changers Creation Church.
“If you can get here to ask for a basket of groceries, then you can also get here to meet Christ,” Smyzer said.
Bingham, who previously led the KBC’s racial reconciliation ministry efforts, said after a century of missions and ministry under its belt, the Baptist Fellowship Center’s ultimate legacy lies in its “inter-racial cooperation from a Christian perspective.”
“You have these two cultures, these two groups of Christians, whose theology is basically the same, though their programmatic approach may differ,” Bingham said, “but they’ve worked together—and that’s a legacy right there.”
Learn more about the Baptist Fellowship Center at www.bfcenter.org.