EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill.�“The worst thing we can do is ignore this place,” said Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville professor Andrew Theising. The quote comes from a discussion with St. Louis Public Radio about the East St. Louis riots that took place in July 1917. Lives and buildings were destroyed during the horrific events, and even now, 101 years later, the city is still trying to recover.
This is the home�and mission field�of Kempton and Caryn Turner.
A native of East St. Louis, Ill., Turner grew up on the streets where he now serves as a church planting missionary and pastor of City of Joy Fellowship. The church was launched on September 18, 2016, with one mission: restoring hope to the city through Jesus Christ. It currently rents space at the local Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center.
“Because I was raised here, I’ve got a real heart for the people,” said Turner. “It’s a small city. It’s a dangerous, poor place, 85 percent fatherlessness. The houses, the buildings and the roads show the desperate place that East St. Louis is in. The people know struggle.”
A drive around the city reveals abandoned buildings. The public library, the McDonald’s Turner visited as a child, family-owned restaurants�all closed now. Though the decline in population started here years ago with the riot, recent years have seen the numbers dwindle from around 60,000 to 26,000.
“Jobs and police officers have left this city,” said Turner. “Downtown is kind of like a ghost town, but it’s ripe for the gospel. The Lord hasn’t forgotten this city.”
Faith on the rise
It is 6 a.m. and a group of men from City of Joy Fellowship are up before the sun, worshiping with an acoustic guitar. “As the psalmist looked around at the tragic condition of the people in his city, it appeared as though God was unaware, inactive or asleep,” Turner said. “So, he prays, ‘Arise, O Lord.’ Likewise, we cry out in one way or another every Wednesday morning.”
The prayers ring out over a people facing poverty, gang violence, environmental contamination and continued decline. Turner, Caryn and their five children believe that change is possible. They are working side by side with other believers to show their neighbors that love is real and hope is alive.
“The biggest challenges we face are hardness of heart and lack of zealous evangelistic consistency,” said Kempton. In 1989, on the way home from Clark Jr. High School, he was held up at gunpoint by a gang leader with a reputation for pulling the trigger.