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Louisiana city finds new hope from a 'Good Samaritan'

St. Mary's Praise Dancers perform at Providence Church, netting needed $5,000 for trip to Baton Rouge, La.
St. Mary's Praise Dancers perform at Providence Church, netting needed $5,000 for trip to Baton Rouge, La.
Steve Rees

Like Israel’s king David who slew the Philistine giant Goliath with a sling and a stone, spiritual and civic forces in Lake Providence, La are counting on words as weapons in the city’s battle with foes who’ve hurled verbal abuse for too long and too many times.

Professional artists create mural with 'destiny words' and scenes from around Lake Providence, La.
Resurrection Fellowship

The words love, hope, believe, respect and others are uniquely uniting black and white citizens of the northeast Louisiana city against outsiders who’ve labeled their community the poorest and most unequal place in the United States with a national news magazine article and a cable television network documentary.

Lake Providence and its allies are fighting back with a medium of their own: A larger-than-life crossword puzzle and professionally painted scenes and symbols of life in the picturesque southern city surrounding a six-mile oxbow lake in East Carroll Parish.

Not only are the words rallying cries for blacks and whites who are upper-, middle- and lower-income wage earners, but there are signs that the destiny of Lake Providence is brighter than the bad press its citizens have battled since 1994 when Time magazine infamously called the city America‘s poorest.

One of Lake Providence’s allies is a Colorado businessman and church deacon whose army of missions-minded youth took a preemptive strike against the power of negative words in July 2013 when it completed the first phase of a giant mural consisting of 13 words in large block letters.

Four months later, a CNN report called East Carroll Parish America’s most unequal county, disappointing some Lake Providence citizens who say that the documentary ignored the city’s black and white middle-class families working in governments, schools and healthcare. Fifty-five percent of Lake Providence’s total population lived in poverty, according to 2010 census figures.

The words vision, change, worth, respect, courage, forgive, unity, serve and impact form a giant word mural on a 90- by 20-foot wall of a building owned by a pastor of a black congregation, New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. The large letters and words are inescapable to anybody walking or driving through downtown Lake Providence.

In between the words, professional artists began painting scenes from around the city, integrating them with the name Lake Providence in April 2014

“Our projection is for the mural to take about one year to complete, and we are on track for that goal,” says Eric Holmlund whose team from Resurrection Fellowship in Loveland, Colo. began repairing cracks and priming the wall with black and white acrylic paint in July 2013.

With some 3,000 members, the Spirit-filled church in Colorado is committed to making history in Lake Providence by partnering with the city’s churches, governments, schools and citizens to improve the sometimes beleaguered community.

The church’s pastor, Jonathan Wiggins, told a 2013 men’s conference in Colorado that God was calling them to make history and redeem cities “by removing curses from families, churches, businesses and schools” by adopting those cities, establishing meaningful relationships with the citizens, making financial commitments and praying for them on a regular basis.

Like fulfilled prophecy, recent favorable events in Lake Providence mirror some of the mural’s 13 destiny words. The power of life and death are in the tongue according to the Bible, and blessings and curses are oftentimes spoken words. Lake Providence knows both the sting of harsh words and those that are life-giving.

At a recent unity and prayer banquet organized by Lake Providence church leaders, descendents of slaves and plantation owners embraced and spoke side-by-side. Will Ford III, an intercessor and evangelist whose ancestors were slaves in Lake Providence, reunited with Matt Lockett in March 2014 at a gathering of Christians committed to promoting unity in Lake Providence.

Lockett’s ancestors were plantation owners who forbid prayer by slaves. Instead of blatant disobedience to their owners, Ford‘s ancestors muffled their voices by praying into a kettle now owned by the Dallas-based evangelist who’s brought the sacred cast-iron piece to other national prayer and reconciliation events like The Call led by Lou Engle. Ford and Lockett serve on the staffs of Christ for the Nations and Bound 4 Life, respectively.

“It was an amazing display of unity, reconciliation and forgiveness,” says Jo Edmondson, a Lake Providence resident and member of the unity banquet organizing committee, which invited pastors and their members from the city’s 40 black and 20 white churches.

That same spirit of love broke down dividing walls when a youth praise and dance team from St. Mary’s Missionary Baptist Church, one of Lake Providence’s black congregations, performed across city at the predominantly white Providence Church. Before taking up an offering for the St. Mary’s Praise Dancers, Providence Pastor Don Boyett told the all-girl troupe and its leader that his church was giving $1,000 for their trip to Baton Rouge in June. After the offering, the St. Mary’s Praise Dancers had all but $50 of their needed $5,000, thanks to Providence Church and Resurrection Fellowship. The deficit was erased the same night by an anonymous giver.

“We’re stilling praising God,” says Andrea Davis-Lloyd who, prior to the offering, had netted only $500 from hot dog sales. “All we hoped for was to bless Providence Church with our praise dancers, and we received an unexpected blessing.

“I love Lake Providence but it’s not always a happy place,” she says “We have to get in the habit of being happy for each other. It may not be my time for blessing, but I can be happy for you,” says Davis-Lloyd who owns My Dream Eatery with husband Edward. Together, the Johnsons provide turkey and trimmings at Thanksgiving - this year with help from Resurrection Fellowship - and generously give to underprivileged families at Christmas.

Further cracks in dividing walls manifest in March 2014 at a Lenten lunch where about 100 blacks and whites sat together at round tables, and were encouraged by a facilitator to discuss their mentors within the group. A Catholic priest, a black Baptist pastor and a charismatic white pastor shared the podium.

A spirit of giving and service is increasingly evident to civic leaders as well as church leaders and citizens in Lake Providence.

“I think it’s great that a church in Colorado is interested in helping our youth and this community,” says Kae Tea Gould, a 46-year resident of Lake Providence and math tutor at Briarfield Academy, a private school mostly for whites. She was thrilled that black students at the city’s public schools received backpacks full of school supplies in August 2013 with help from Resurrection Fellowship and a Baptist missions group working in Lake Providence. And she was warmed by news that the Colorado church had given Providence Church $60,000 in 2013 to buy land for future expansion.

Civic leaders are equally warmed not only by Resurrection Fellowship’s commitment to Lake Providence, but by the willingness of some Lake Providence citizens to open their hearts and give the Colorado church a chance.

“You have an awesome pastor who has a heart of gold,” Mayor Bobby Amacker told 50 Resurrection Fellowship members who prayed for him, the parish’s first black sheriff and a police chief in a packed city council chamber during the church’s week-long tour of Lake Providence in March 2014. “He’s my friend,” Amacker says.

The mayor, like some Lake Providence church leaders, sees some positive turnarounds indirectly related to Resurrection Fellowship’s commitment to the city. After seeing the CNN report focused on Lake Providence‘s income disparity, a Louisiana businesswoman relocated Avercom Customer Contact Center to the city’s community center, where Resurrection Fellowship invested $7,000 in new infrastructure in 2013. With prospects for 300 new jobs and an anticipated $6.24 million payroll within two years, Lake Providence citizens looking for work have renewed hopes.

Another Lake Providence business, Myriant Technologies, plans to increase its workforce from 50 to 200 after it was recognized by an industry trade group as one of 100 most innovative projects in the world. The success stories of Myriant and Avercom are good news for the city, says the mayor.

Amacker, a farmer, is hopeful for new job opportunities and offers of assistance in market analysis, start-up costs and grant-writing from business-minded entrepreneurs from Resurrection Fellowship. Together they intend to explore a wide-range of new industry for Lake Providence.

Serving Lake Providence is a goal of Wiggins, senior pastor of Resurrection Fellowship. The church remodeled a portion of city hall in late 2013 with a work crew from the Colorado congregation, and it also purchased $7,000 worth of chairs for a community center it had hoped to purchase and maintain for civic, church and community-related events, including missions outreaches to Lake Providence. This year the church will also fund and complete improvements to a baseball complex it’s calling Lake Providence‘s “field of dreams.”

“My fervent prayer at this time is that people will come to see that we have no hidden agendas,” says Wiggins. “It all stems from the biblical lesson of the Good Samaritan.

“As ambassadors of Jesus Christ, it is necessary that we do all that we can to lift up the fallen and hurting people we find in our pathways. This is what we intend for Lake Providence,” says Wiggins who, at age 16, began ministry as s worship leader at Providence Church, where he met and married Amy, daughter of Pastor Don Boyett.

Patricia Johnson likes Wiggins’ vision of behaving like the Good Samaritan. On and off for 45 years, Johnson has served Lake Providence’s citizens in their good times and in bad as an employee of Louisiana Penitentiary System and as a sociology teacher at Griffin Middle School.

Helping people who are homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol and unwed mothers are near to Johnson’s heart. She’s known for buying food, school uniforms and medicine, as well as helping pay utility bills for her cash-strapped neighbors. Johnson’s reach is broadened by an inspirational column she writes for the city’s weekly newspaper, called Patsy’s Corner, where her words reach black and white readers with positive messages and Bible verses.

“I love the people here. I love the atmosphere,” says Johnson who, despite losing her home this year to a fire, remains optimistic. “You know I’ve always believed that no matter how bad something is, God’s there and he’s working something good from it, “ says Johnson, who calls Sweet Canaan Missionary Baptist Church her spiritual home. Her pastor, Raymond Gill, spoke at the March interfaith Lenten lunch attended by blacks and white.

When Johnson heard that St. Mary’s Praise Dancers were performing at Providence Church, nothing could hold her back - not even the color of her skin in a city where that sometimes divides people of faith.

Local historian Larry Brock also loves Lake Providence’s people and atmosphere, along with it’s rich history and proximity to the Vicksburg Civil War Memorial in Mississippi. He notes that, with the name Lake Providence, it’s fitting that only two structures stand above tree-line gleaming in the city’s setting sun. A water tower and grain elevator - symbolizing God’s provision of bread and water and protection from fire and lack - jut over the largely agricultural East Carroll Parish. And indeed - at one point in its rich history - Lake Providence was the second richest cotton-producing parish in Louisiana.

“That’s what I see when I drive in - the promise of Lake Providence and God’s provision for every citizen who lives here,” says Brock who attends Providence Church with wife Ann.

“The town remains fractured but there are people working in both the black and white community to weave it together. It’s a slow process, often only one relationship at a time,” he says.

When the spirit of darkness creeps into Lake Providence because people are locked in the hatred that springs from racism and slavery, Brock says there are always rays of hope like the sunset on the city’s water tower and grain elevator.

“Resurrection Fellowship has lived up to its pledges, bringing fresh ideas, hope and a positive attitude to Lake Providence. The church is a ray of hope, of sunshine to Lake Providence,” Brock says.

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