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Ginger Ross

Busy doing the Lord’s work

Marshall Keeble's tent revivals launched Houston’s oldest black church, still thriving after 80 years.

HOUSTON — The Fifth Ward Church of Christ lets its light shine — in a big way.
East of downtown, the city’s oldest black church sits just off heavily traveled Interstate 10 in view of high-rises and Minute Maid Park, home of baseball’s Astros.
With five elders and 30 deacons, the congregation of 800 to 1,000 on any given Sunday believes in staying busy.
“If I’m busy, I don’t have a whole lot of time for foolishness,” said pulpit minister Gary Smith, a Houston native who played football at Southern Methodist University alongside former NFL star Eric Dickerson. 

Smith, whose family has attended Fifth Ward for 40 years, joined the church staff as youth minister 20 years ago.

Working with Thomas Foster, Fifth Ward’s former longtime preacher, Smith developed a favorite saying: “I don’t want anything to take my joy away from working for the Lord.”
Fifth Ward members express that joy through 40 active ministries, from evangelism, missions and children’s Bible hour to home repair, legal advice and healthy cooking. One member, David Butler, started a YouTube ministry via a weekly video posted on the church website.
To accommodate future growth, the church is renovating its main building. In the meantime, members assemble under basketball goals in the family life center.
“Fifth Ward is a vibrant work that attracts members from all over Houston,” said Frank Devine, an elder at the Memorial Church of Christ, a predominantly white church that conducts twice- annual joint Sunday night services with Fifth Ward. “The elders and the pulpit minister work side by side to stay doctrinally strong while encouraging an excited and motivated congregation. … They have cultivated a definite feeling of family at Fifth Ward that is obvious to those who visit.”
As the congregation sang “Softly and Tenderly” on a recent Sunday, 10 men and women came up front. An elder greeted them and, one by one, put the microphone to their lips. Some sought prayers for loved ones in the hospital. Others confessed sins and asked for forgiveness. “I just want y’all to pray that I’ll put God first,” one young man said.
Behind the wheel of a church van, Smith showed a visitor the neighborhoods — aging, poor, beaten down by crime — that surround the church.
At a low-income apartment complex near the church, calm and quiet prevailed on a Saturday morning. But at night, this would not be the best place to venture, the minister said.
“One of the things that being in a community like this does provide,” Smith said, “is a lot of opportunity for ministry.”
Once all black, neighborhoods near the church reflect an increasingly Hispanic makeup. Members of a nearby Spanish-speaking Church of Christ began meeting at Fifth Ward in 2008 after they lost their building. Gerbi Arguera serves as Fifth Ward’s part-time Hispanic minister.
“We’re really trying to incorporate our Spanish-speaking church into our regular service,” Smith said. “We meet together every fifth Sunday … and do a bilingual service.”
While it has only a handful of white members, Fifth Ward’s part-time youth minister — Dennis Murphy — is white.
“Dennis is an extra-special guy,” said Smith, voicing his desire for Fifth Ward to be the kind of church that God desires — racially and otherwise.
The Fifth Ward church traces its roots to a series of 1930s tent revivals by the late Marshall Keeble, the influential African-American minister who baptized thousands.
Nearly 80 years later, the church still sees the value of holding regular Gospel meetings and inviting neighbors to attend, Smith said.
But the minister said he came to the realization about five years ago that changing times require new approaches to evangelism.
That led to the idea of a Saturday open house at the church. Bible skits and displays featuring the church’s ministries were highlighted. Free school supplies and clothing were given away. The first year, more than 2,000 people came.
“Then we invited them to come back Sunday, the next day, to worship, and we had more visitors on that day than we’d ever had before,” Smith said.
From those 200 visitors, he said, two entire families were baptized. Five more families were baptized after the next open house.
The idea stuck — and grew.
Two to three times a year, members don special T-shirts and canvass a three-mile radius around the church.
They invite the community to special events such as a church-sponsored health-and-wellness fair with free prostate exams, diabetes screening and blood pressure checks.
The first year, the health fair drew 1,000 people. That has grown to about 3,500, said deacon Leroy Mobley, a personal trainer who coordinates the health and wellness ministry.
“We have people getting baptized,” said Mobley, who also leads a Saturday morning exercise class for members in the family life center. “And we’ve saved about eight brothers with prostate cancer that didn’t know they had it — just from this church.”
Mobley also remains active with Fifth Ward’s benevolence and homeless ministry, which provides a hot meal on Wednesday and sack lunches throughout the week.
Mobley, 51, aspires to serve as an elder.
“I always try to live that example,” he said. “I’ve had enough bad examples in my life as an African-American, so if I see other men that can do it, I can do it.”’
Among the church’s more well-known members are Astros center fielder Michael Bourn, the team’s 2009 Most Valuable Player, and DeMeco Ryans, a star middle linebacker for the Texans, Houston’s NFL team.
Last year, Ryans and two other Texans — Andre Johnson and Dunta Robinson — partnered with H-E-B stores to donate 1,000 Thanksgiving dinners at the church.
“It’s even more special to be able to come back to this church, this community,” said Ryans, who frequently attends Sunday evening services when the NFL team has an early game. “To see faces that I know, familiar faces, and see the smiles … it’s a real special feeling.”
Like roughly three-fourths of members, Sheila Crosby commutes to worship at Fifth Ward. The divorced mother of two drives about 25 miles each way from the suburb of Katy. A member since 1993, she describes the church as a close-knit family. That, she said, makes the drive worth it.
“I’m in Zone 11,” Crosby said, referring to geographic shepherding zones. “So what the sisters do in Zone 11, we get together every third Saturday for a prayer breakfast.”
Recently, a burglar broke into Crosby’s apartment and stole her laptop, television, jewelry and other belongings.
Distraught, she called Smith and the elders.
“They gave me a check,” she said. “That’s the type of love and support.”

  • Feedback
    I really appreciate the fact that “text size” can be increased for easier reading. This article depicts Fifth Ward performing many wonderful works. May God continue to bless your good deeds. When I visited Fifth Ward many years ago, Bro. Thomas Foster was your minister. His preaching was meaty, uplifting,spiritually sound,reminding me of my all-time favorite minister, Bro. Nokomis Yeldell, Sr.
    Cassie McCondichie
    Ross Road Church of Christ
    Memphis, TN
    May, 22 2010

    Fifth has long been a wonderful example of God’s Kingdom compassion and work!
    Russ Kirby
    ACU Graduate School of Theology
    Abilene, TX
    May, 18 2010

Filed under: Churches That Work

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