By Chris Turner
Director of Communications, TBC
MEMPHIS — Eric Watkins can stand at the entrance to the Warren Apartments and see the worst Memphis has to offer. That vacant lot over there, that’s where an occasional dead body gets dropped. Those gangbangers sitting on the porch smoking dope, they’re probably packing more firepower than your average National Guard unit. Prostitutes are working the streets along with the drug dealers. Things are bad here, really bad.
And it’s precisely why Watkins needs to be here. “These are people who face significant challenges,” Watkins said. “They are trapped in generational poverty, are highly marginalized, and are without hope. I think that is the thing that is most evident. They do not see themselves as having any worth or value and they need to hear that they have worth to God because He created them. They need to hear that Jesus died for them.”
Watkins has been working in this apartment complex — among other inner-city locations — since 2012. The opportunity is made possible by a number of cooperating ministries that include Faith Baptist Church in Bartlett, Mid-South Baptist Association, Global Ministries Foundation, and the Tennessee Baptist Convention through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions.
Miracles are happening, beginning with Watkins, director of Engage Memphis Urban Ministry and a member of Faith Baptist.
“Man, I was on my way,” he said of life in the business sector. “I have a finance degree from Moorehouse College in Atlanta, came back to Memphis, and was successfully growing businesses. But God showed me He wanted me to stop building up businesses and start building up people.”
Watkins journey took him to Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his degree in Christian education and began making ministry in ‘roads to Memphis’ inner city.
The Clementine area of Memphis where the Warren Apartments complex is located is one of the most crime-riddled neighborhoods in one of America’s most dangerous cities, according to a recent FBI ranking. Watkins sees it as a strategic location to seeing a spiritual transformation across the city, but it won’t be easy.
“There is no drive-by evangelism here,” Watkins said. “Ministry here takes patience. It takes relationships. It’s taking the long view. People here want to see if you’re going to come back tomorrow like you said you would. Then they want to see if you’re going to come back the day after that, and the day after that.
“You’ve got to build trust with people who don’t trust anyone. That’s why we come back every day. You’ve got to be committed to giving your life to people.”
Watkins moves slowly, going in, prayer walking, and building relationships with gang leaders. He wants them to know what is going on and why he’s there. Ironically, he doesn’t call them gang leaders; he has another name for them.
“I tell them they are community leaders,” he said. “I let them know they just haven’t fully realized God’s plan for their lives. They are T.H.U.G.s – ‘True Heroes Under God.’ They laugh, but I definitely see God working on them.”
Watkins has a systematic approach to building credibility among the residents in the housing complex. Like seemingly all Baptist preachers, he sticks to the alliteration.
“The first thing I do when I go in is I have to show the Word,” he said.
“People are watching everything you do so your actions have to match what you say. Then the next thing I do is serve the Word.”
“Serving the Word” is where the cooperative partnerships play such a vital role. Watkins coordinates a number of volunteers, volunteer teams and others who help with men’s, women’s and children’s Bible studies, and healthcare, educational and a number of other tangible needs. The purpose is to extend the love of Christ through ministering to the whole person.
“And that earns us a right to share the Word,” he said of the final “S.” “They are beginning to see us as part of their family where we can engage them in the tough conversations about their personal life. It is definitely a process, but God is good. We are seeing lives changed.”
Since launching the first Bible study in October of 2012, Watkins said they’ve seen 15 people saved, six baptized, and lives being transformed through discipleship. Watkins said they have seen women walk away from prostitution and gang leaders, “drop their flags and raise the banner of Jesus” he said. Spiritual leaders from within the community who can lead a church is the goal.
“God is giving us the opportunity to give the people here an option to the streets, gangs, and drugs,” Watkins said. “The Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions allows us to do ministry.
“Some may ask, ‘Why should the church come to this community?’ I say we need to come to this community because this is where Jesus would come. He’d come to the outcasts, to the least of these, and to the neglected. Being here gives us the opportunity to be the church. Not just do church, but to be the church, and share the hope of the gospel among people who currently have no hope.”
One day, Watkins is hoping to stand at that same apartment entrance and look at all God did to transform a lost community and think, “Things are good here, really good.”