The new Renew Church Baton Rouge is determined to live out its mission of being a true "multiethnic and multigenerational" church.
"We're just intentional about that, and we're not going to settle for anything less," said the church's pastor, Chris "Checkerz" Williams. "We don't do what's comfortable for us. We do what the Lord tells us to do, which is reach everyone with the gospel."
And Williams does mean everyone.
"These are the things we don't shy away from at Renew Church. We make it very clear that every single person is created in (the image) of God," Williams said. "Every person needs to be treated with dignity, respect and with love and compassion regardless of their race, ethnicity, their socio-economic status, religious background or political affiliations."
Williams, 44, started Renew Church in August after serving six years as the pastor of Celebration Church in LaPlace. The church has held informal Bible studies, meetings and training at Parkview Baptist Church. Renew Church's first worship service — a special one-hour Christmas Eve preview service — is set for 11:30 a.m. Dec. 24 at Parkview's original sanctuary, 11795 Jefferson Highway.
Renew wants to be a church that is reflective of the ever-growing diverse populations around it, as most churches should be, Williams said.
Williams' intentions are shaped by his passion to spread the gospel to all and by his own personal experience in a black church.
Williams, who is white, was a Bible college student in North Carolina when the church invited him to do Christian rap and share the gospel at a community outreach at a park. He attended the church the following Sunday.
"When I walked in, it was obvious I was a guest," Williams said.
He later met Nicole, who is black, at the church and they were married six months later.
For eight years, Williams was the only white person in four different black churches. Pastors continually sought his advice on how to create a multiethnic culture, and he suggested they preach a "universal" gospel message.
"I told every one of those pastors that you have to start preaching as if you're preaching to a multiethnic congregation," he said.
Even that may not be enough, Williams said.
"I think we still have a problem in America where a lot of white people … still struggle with having a person of color in authority over them," he said.
Williams said if people can work, shop, participate in sports and recreation and share many other aspects of their lives together, then more people should be able to worship together.
"The reality is we live in a culture that's a melting pot," he said. "You go to the grocery store, you see Hispanic people, Asian people, Middle Eastern people as well as African-Americans and Caucasians. So my philosophy of ministry centers around John's vision in Revelation that (John) saw people of every nation, tribe and people around the throne worshiping God. We're going to be doing that for eternity."
But Williams said the idea that 11 a.m. to noon on Sunday is the "most segregated hour in the United States" still rings true.
"While we're doing life in every other arena together, the church is still segregated in the most part," he said.
It's incumbent upon the church to share the life-changing gospel of Christ to tear down the walls of division in the nation, he said.
"The church has to be the one to spearhead reconciliation," he said. "I believe that biblically speaking, the gospel is the gospel of reconciliation, and that is the way to deal with the racial tension in our culture, and the way we deal with division in our culture is not through the government programs. There's not a program that's going to fix it. It's the gospel that changes hearts and brings about unity."
Having several generations also is an important component to Williams' vision for Renew Church.
"A lot of people when they plant churches, they focus on the millennials or the young professionals or the just-married couples and small families," Williams said. "The problem is, if you focus only on young people, then you don't have much wisdom in the church. Biblically speaking, the older men are supposed to teach the younger men, and the older women are supposed to teach the younger women, and that could only happen in a multigenerational church."
Church of any kind wasn't a part of Williams' early life. His mom was 17 when she had him, and his father left the family soon after. As a young child, he witnessed his mother go through abusive relationships, and he was molested by a family member from ages 7-10.
"I got in a real dark place even as a young person," he said.
His early teens were just as challenging.
"Eventually, I became an alcoholic, experimented with drugs and all that. I started getting arrested for fighting and stealing and all kinds of stuff," he said. "I was an angry individual."
He managed to graduate from high school, but his mom soon kicked him out of the house after more arrests. He moved to Arizona and then to North Carolina in 1992. He found a job at a construction site where he was introduced to the Lord.
"A guy who was my boss, a hippie-looking guy, he started talking to me about Jesus. I didn't want to hear it initially. Ultimately, I surrendered my life to the Lord. And I never looked back."
He was saved at 19. As part of his conversion experience, Williams eventually turned his back on secular rap music and events that had been a major part of his life. His nickname "Checkerz" came from his stage name as a well-known rapper.
"I started being a street preacher, and I started doing anything and everything I could to take every opportunity to reach people for the gospel," he said.
He answered his call to ministry and started Bible college in North Carolina at age 21.
"When my wife and I started out, I was a broke college student delivering pizzas," he said. "We were on food stamps back in the '90s, but as we continued to serve the Lord, being bivocational and working during the week and on the weekends, God just blessed us with promotions on our jobs."
Williams spent more than 15 years working and also doing street evangelism in the Carolinas. He was in retail management and banking and his wife was working at a faith-based sporting program in South Carolina.
"God was really taking care of us, and then probably in the middle of the best place we had been financially, God told us to walk away from all of that and come to New Orleans," he said.
The couple and their three children moved to New Orleans in 2009 so he could attend New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He worked part-time while attending school; she eventually found work in the banking industry.
"It was a big step of faith. We literally walked away from six-figure incomes to come to New Orleans," he said. "We really survived on faith. The way we explain it is we ate lots of beans and rice and rice and beans."
In 2011, Williams accepted the call to lead Celebration Church. The church tripled in membership during his six years, going from 100 members to about 400. More than 240 people were baptized and nearly 20 small groups launched.
"The Lord did great things there," Williams said.
Then, he said, God called again telling him to start Renew, which began as a vision about 11 years ago.
He said South Baton Rouge to Prairieville is one of the top three fastest growing areas in the state. He added that of the 830,000 people in the Greater Baton Rouge area, 642,000 of them do not attend an evangelical church.
"That's why we're planting," he said. "We can put 100 more churches in Baton Rouge and still not reach all these people."
The powerful little preacher is the author of a powerful new little book.
Ricardo Handy Sr., pastor of Mount Zion Inner City Baptist Church, encourages readers to focus and concentrate on their God-given purpose in his new book, "R.E.F.O.C.U.S: 7 Steps to R.E.F.O.C.U.S."
"It's important for survival of all your dreams and future success that you regain your focus quickly," Handy writes in the opening chapter of the 94-page book. "Even though, you were distracted from your purpose, I want you to know that your purpose has not changed. What you once dreamed and envisioned to come to pass can still happen. … There have been so many obstacles and attacks in your life, that it has been almost impossible for you to stay focused."
The theme verse of the book is Psalm 119:112 from the Message Bible: "I will concentrate on doing what you say — I always have and always will."
REFOCUS is an acronym for refocus and revisit; eliminate excuses and be empowered to accomplish; faith and forgiveness; order and obedience; commit to the process; understand warfare; and short but strong.
Refocusing takes faith, Handy said.
"You got to believe," Handy writes. "There are times you won't be able to trace God, but you have to trust God. The power of faith is remarkable. With faith, sight is unnecessary. By faith, sight can be regained. Through faith, we can see the unseen. If we can believe, all things are possible to those who believe."
Handy urges readers to be faithful to the process.
"Your most powerful moments are the moments when you are focused," Handy writes. "Your most focused moments were the moments when you were faithful."
Faith Matters runs every over Saturday in The Advocate. Contact Terry Robinson at (225) 388-0238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org