SAN ANTONIO — When John Massie first began work here 20 years ago, inner-city ministry — with few exceptions – was in its infancy among Churches of Christ.
In the 1980s, upper-middle-class people were taking their congregations from large downtown districts to the suburbs to escape the drugs, violence and economic decay.
Massie, a dedicated involvement minister and successful businessman who once spent time in prison, saw the streets differently.
With a passion for lost souls, he dreamed of a downtown church that would respond compassionately to the needs of the city’s less fortunate.
From its beginnings as a home Bible study in John and Earlene Massie’s house to a thriving inner-city church, the 100-member Alamo City church stands today as a symbol of hope and light in the midst of this city of 1.4 million.
“Many of these folks have no religious background and … require more of an investment of time and teaching,” Massie, 65, said. “It’s a challenge to teach them that we don’t rob and steal. We work.”
DETOURS AND PROGRESS
The congregation’s home is a donated medical clinic in a low-income neighborhood in southeastern San Antonio.
Buying a building was never part of Massie’s plan, but ownership became a reality for the church when circumstances forced its members from their previous downtown location a few years ago.
On a recent Sunday morning, the nearby aroma of freshly made tortillas greeted church members — half of them Hispanic, the other half black and white — as they assembled in an L-shaped room with folding chairs and florescent lights.
The mood is upbeat. Two months ago, the church achieved a major milestone. For the first time in its history, three men were appointed as elders-- Massie, John Coker and Keith Murray, who was converted at Alamo City seven years ago.
“Appointing elders was so exciting for us — to see maturing happening here,” said Pam Cornell, a mortgage company consultant who has been a member since 1988.
“It makes us a fully organized church,” Massie said. “And it has given our members a sense of security, of being full-grown.”
Appointing elders has shifted the leadership and allowed Mark Forster, 43, to devote his time to evangelizing and discipling people. Converted by Massie 14 years ago, the two men share preaching responsibilities.
Forster estimates that in the past 20 years Massie has befriended, taught and baptized more than 300 people.
“John has an exuberant personality,” Forster said. “He’s loving, warm and has boundless energy. He loves helping people.”
PRISON WAS 'A WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE!'
Massie is up front about his unconventional background. Born in Blackwell, Okla., he was president of a Phoenix mortgage investment firm when he was baptized in 1975 at age 32.
Believing there was more to life than financial success, he decided he wanted to preach. He quit his job, moved his family to Lubbock, Texas, and enrolled at Sunset International Bible Institute.
After classes began, however, Massie was arrested and charged with deceptive business practices. Such investigations were common in connection with the land fraud scandals of the 1970s, he said.
Sentenced to two years on a mail fraud conviction due to contributory negligence, he was incarcerated in a federal prison in Fort Worth for 17 months, with time off for good behavior.
“It was a wonderful experience!” Massie says of prison, while maintaining he didn’t know the contracts he sold were fraudulent.
He began an evangelistic prison ministry, baptizing numerous inmates. When he left, a group of 30 to 40 men regularly attended services.
“I think my experiences both in prison and in business have enabled me to relate to nearly anyone I meet,” he said.
His wife agrees. “I thought it was going to be the most horrible thing. But it was such a blessing,” said Earlene Massie. “The way people we didn’t even know reached out to help us was amazing.”
Released in 1978, Massie completed the Sunset program and later graduated from Abilene Christian College.
In 1981, elders at the MacArthur Park church in San Antonio hired him as involvement minister. The decision was somewhat controversial, but he quickly proved himself.
Active in outreach and bus ministry, John and Earlene Massie played a part in roughly 350 conversions, with 90 percent remaining faithful. During that seven-year period, church membership swelled to 1,260.
Still, Massie feared he wasn’t fulfilling the plans he had made to reach out to the inner city and use his preaching skills.
With the elders’ permission, the Massies embarked on a new ministry in San Antonio in 1988 along with four young couples he had baptized while at MacArthur Park.
He secured $2,000 in monthly support from a local family, and Massie decided to sell used cars to provide the rest of the family’s needed income — a part-time job he still holds.
UNITED BY LOVE AND OPENNESS
While the church represents a cross-section of society, some have special needs. People in alcohol and drug recovery programs as well as ex-offenders need encouragement. Some have serious health or financial problems and need assistance. Others have mental problems.
Even so, visitors and members are drawn to this inner-city church because of the openness and love they find here, said Cornell, who was first drawn to a Bible study in the Massies' home 20 years ago.
“We have basic Bible teaching, people who are genuinely interested in each other, a willingness to be open about life, and a safe place to disclose your sins and secrets,” she said. “You can be who you are here.”
Leaders say many of their conversions come from Thursday evening Bible studies taught by Massie and Forster. The topics offer something for any student, from “Getting to Know Jesus” to “Historical Christian Evidences.”
'IT WAS VERY HARD'
The efforts to create an inner-city church in San Antonio did not come without sacrifice and challenges.
The Massies, neither of whom speak Spanish, experienced some initial culture shock when they moved from their comfortable suburban home into an inner-city neighborhood.
Earlene Massie immersed herself in ministry and lost touch with many friends. Daily life became almost impossibly difficult as she maneuvered through new streets and unfamiliar grocery stores. She became depressed.
“It was very hard on her,” Massie said. “At MacArthur Park, she was loved and respected, and she went to someplace where she was unknown and not appreciated.”
The Alamo City church experiences some of the same challenges as other congregations — losing talented, generous members to relocation.
“It’s hard to keep good people,” Forster said.
More than 100 converts are now worshipping in larger area churches. They are bigger, have newer buildings and offer more ministry opportunities, Forster said.
Church members and leaders are committed to not only surviving but thriving here, however. Preaching the gospel to the poor is a priority. So is looking for new approaches to inner-city ministry.
The church is taking the lead citywide in resurrecting a defunct Bible chair building and program at San Antonio College, raising $21,000 themselves toward the effort. Other city churches also are contributing funds.
Their goal is to renovate the 40-year-old building, which has been vacant since 2005.
Curt Linge, a retired, Air Force chaplain and an elder at the Northsdide church in San Antonio, has been selected as the Bible Chair director.
“The most exciting thing about bringing the Bible chair on-line is the opportunity for evangelism on the 25,000-student body campus of San Antonio College,” Massie said.
In addition, Massie said the enthusiasm surrounding the project among area churches may indicate the possibility of drawing San Antonio congregations together into a “unified outreach ministry that will bind us together in love and service.”