Story by Abigail Risner
Photos by Matt Hellman
When Pastor David Booker and his wife, Kim, moved into the neighborhood of their newly located church at 13th and Mary street, they knew they didn’t fit in. As a white, middle-class family living in a low-income neighborhood in downtown Waco, they weren’t exactly typical neighbors.
“Our house was broken into three times in the first year we lived there,” Booker said. As the racial minority, the Bookers knew they had to earn the trust and respect of their neighbors by building relationships with them. After several months of interacting with the community, the tides began to turn.
“The fourth time our house got broken into, our neighbor personally chased the guy down on foot. That’s when we knew things were starting to change,” he said.
In a country where Sunday morning is said to be the most segregated time of the week, Acts Christian Fellowship has made it its purpose to build a church that reflects heavenly worship, meaning every race, tribe, social class and background is represented in the congregation. After starting the church in 2006 in China Spring, they felt they would have a greater impact in downtown Waco. They moved to their current location at 13th and Mary in 2007, and that’s when their story really starts.
One of Booker’s convictions was that he wanted to live within five minutes walking distance from the church. He wanted the church’s leadership to live in the neighborhood to build relationships with the people, so that from this neighborhood their congregation would grow.
Melissa Sloan, Acts’ children’s pastor and wife of church elder Stephen Sloan, recalls her first experience at the church.
“After visiting lots of churches in Waco, the first thing we noticed at Acts was the racial diversity.” Sloan said. “I told the pastor’s wife, Kim Booker, ‘I’ve never seen such a diverse church.’”
Kim explained to her that when the Lord called David [Booker] to plant this church, He told him it would resemble heaven.
Revelation 7:9 records the people in heaven as “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.” In response to this word from the Lord, Acts has been intentional about reaching out to people of all races and socioeconomic classes.
“We knew that growing a diverse congregation would be hard for a group of white people to do,” Booker said. “So we intentionally prayed for a minority to join our staff.” The Lord answered their prayer with Omari Head, a black student at Truett Theological Seminary. Head had a heart for ministering to students, and Acts needed a college pastor. He shared Booker’s conviction for serving the community around the church, and he soon moved into the neighborhood as well.
“By living near the church we were saying, ‘We are here to stay, and we want to get to know you,’” Head said.
Even with their new location and growing staff, Acts knew people wouldn’t just show up on Sunday mornings. Individuals first needed to be accepted and trusted within the community. To do this, they started with those least inhibited by racial barriers, children, and created a ministry called Kidz Jam. Twice a week, the church staff would got to Kate Ross Public Housing to play with the children, provide them with an after-school snack and offer a Bible lesson. They hoped that through this ministry, they would bless the children and be able to connect with their parents.
Samantha Reyna, a 27-year old Hispanic single mom, was one of these parents.
“I first got connected to Acts through Kidz Jam, the after school program that goes to Kate Ross,” Reyna said. “I wanted to make myself familiar with the people watching my kids, so I started talking with Kim [Booker] and the other women who came.”
After an invitation from Kim and prompting by her daughters, Reyna finally visited Acts’ Sunday morning service.
“Back then, the majority of the congregation was white. Not many people from the neighborhood were coming,” Reyna said. “I sat by myself in the back corner, but people would always come up to me, and I felt accepted there.”
That was four years ago. Today, the congregation has grown from around 30 to almost 300, becoming more and more diverse as it grows. Samantha and her daughters have been attending ever since that first Sunday. She even serves in the children’s ministry as a Sunday school teacher.
“I’ve talked to other people [from the neighborhood] that have visited, and they feel the same way. Acts doesn’t feel fake,” Reyna said. “It’s not like the people have pity on us. They just accept us and love us. Yes, it is a poor neighborhood and some of us aren’t educated, but they don’t judge us or look down on us.”
Diversity doesn’t end with race. The Acts community represents educated, uneducated, rich, poor, young and old.
“We are a church for the rejected, because that’s who Jesus spent his time with,” Melissa Sloan said. “He went to the people that didn’t fit in and weren’t received anywhere else. We want to be a home to those people.”
Acts desires to mimic the characteristics of the early church in the book of Acts. The disciple Luke writes, “they pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.”
Church Elder Stephen Sloan, who also serves as the director of the Baylor Institute for Oral History, describes how these characteristics look in the church today.
“Some people think we pray so we don’t have to do anything else. We need to pray, but God has also given us the means to help people with real tangible needs.”
So they started a monthly special offering that goes entirely to a member of the congregation that’s in need.
“We’ve done it for two years now, and every week it’s different. Sometimes it’s a couple hundred dollars, sometimes it’s thousands,” Sloan said.
In September 2011, Samantha Reyna had a need, and Acts met it.
“I was taking the kids to San Antonio, and my car broke down in Austin,” Reyna recounts. “Melissa Sloan loaned me her car for the next couple of weeks, but I had just gotten a new job, so I would need a dependable car soon.”
Stephen Sloan decided this would be the perfect challenge for the monthly special offering. So the following Sunday morning, when Samantha would be serving in the children’s ministry, he announced to the church, “Get your checkbooks out. We’re buying Samantha a car.”
Thanks to a few large gifts and generosity of members, Acts collected their largest monthly special offering to date: more than $10,000. The very next week, Samantha and the Acts congregation were led outside during worship, and she was presented with a new car.
“I was so excited because I found an ‘I heart my church’ bumper sticker,” Stephen Sloan said. “It came in the mail just in time to get it on the back of the car.”
This is just one example of how the people of Acts Christian Fellowship have created a support system for Reyna and countless members of the neighborhood surrounding the church.
“I don’t have to worry about anything.” Samantha said. “I know if I need something, I can depend on Acts more than my own family, because Acts is my family.”
Acts hopes to bring more members of the community into its diverse family by encouraging students and families to spend time in the area surrounding the church. The college ministry usually goes on a mission trip for spring break, but this year they decided to stay and spend time getting to know the neighborhood and ministering to the Waco community.
The church is investing in this neighborhood, creating opportunities for deeper relationships and continued growth. The goal is to create a church that looks like heaven, joining people of all backgrounds to worship one God.
Find more info at: http://www.actswaco.com